Jackson Hole ’17: Tackling diversity in wildlife filmmaking

JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING – There’s no hiding it: the natural history documentary filmmaking world is often perceived as a genre dedicated to older and elite white males. A Thursday (Sept. 28) ...
September 29, 2017

JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING – There’s no hiding it: the natural history documentary filmmaking world is often perceived as a genre dedicated to older and elite white males.

A Thursday (Sept. 28) panel titled “The D Word” at the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and Conservation Summit attempted to unpack the spectrum of possibility with those working to amplify diversity in the industry.

The panel, moderated by Julie Ann Crommett, VP of multicultural audience engagement at Walt Disney Studios, endeavored to bring to light the glaring blind spots impeding wildlife filmmakers from the full potential of the content in this space.

“From a filmmaker and network perspective, we have to ensure we’re speaking to our audience, and not only capturing our audience, but asking what we can do to widen our audience” said Karen Greenfield (pictured), VP of production & business operations at Nat Geo Wild.

To that end, The Savage Kingdom cabler has focused its attention on commissioning projects that have extensions beyond the linear experience in order to reach more people and ensure that the masses have an equal opportunity to experience the same series being shared on a traditional linear level.

Nat Geo Wild has seen its African American audience grow by double digits year over year through linear, thanks in part to natural history programming. It aims to pull in even more through digital and social.

“If we’re seeing our African American audience growing in natural history viewing, and we’re working on commissioning more natural history, shouldn’t we have people reflected on the other side of the camera creating that content? They have to see themselves. It’s all in perspective of storytelling. It has to stop being one-dimensional,” Greenfield stressed.

For American pubcaster PBS, the natural history genre has touched the Latino community, which have become the highest consumers in mobile usage, said Pamela Aguilar, senior director of programming & development at PBS. For content makers, creating series in a manner that’s accessible to Latino viewers provides an enormous opportunity to pull in a large demographic ready and willing to watch that content.

“I frankly think that natural history is a type of content consumable regardless of the language that you speak,” added Aguilar.

With digital content, there is an over indexing and longer watch time for Latinos on educational content, particularly on YouTube, noted Crommett. The longer watch times come as a result of learning, as part of cultural and language acquisition.

“You all sit in an interesting space where you have a natural audience that’s coming for informative content and staying for longer watch times, and it fits a viewing pattern or habit the community at large is showing,” Crommett told the room of content creators.

The democratization of technology, which has essentially placed a video camera in every pocket, has given filmmakers previously excluded from the natural history genre a louder voice, said freelance producer Effie Brown.

“Women and people of color were always there, they just weren’t checking for us,” she said. “I do feel things are changing, but they’re changing very slowly.

“But now it is more in the hands of the people, and I’m seeing more content producers who are women and people of color.”

While the natural history genre may look impenetrable, the BBC’s Natural History Unit has been working over a seven-year period of becoming more inclusive to aspiring wildlife filmmakers.

BBC Studios has established a collaboration with the University of the West of England to co-develop a masters in wildlife filmmaking, with the Natural History Unit providing mentors and one-to-ones with students.

The really significant thing with the educational program, however, is that recruitment is done in a manner that wide socioeconomic backgrounds are represented, said Julian Hector, head of the Natural History Unit at BBC Studios.

“Affluent, super educated, well-connected people often get places, and yet there’s amazing talent and creativity outside of that group,” said Hector.

Having run the course over seven years, an estimated 200-plus university students from across the UK and the world at large have graduated from the program. Nearly 80% of those graduates, Hector underlined, have stayed within the industry.

While networks have made strides to diversify its audiences, content and talent, it’s won’t matter if your company’s marketing group isn’t made up of a diverse workforce.

“We can’t keep going to the same people to take the content to because they’re easy and they’re in our rolodex,” said Nat Geo Wild’s Greenfield. “We need to broaden our thinking – where can this piece of informational content reach the masses? You may have to come out of your comfort zone, and that happens when you have a diverse work force.”

As such, programmers must to work much harder in the recruitment process to attract a diverse cast of individuals. But as program makers in natural history, one of the challenges is that the skills needed to create wildlife documentary films are highly specialized.

“We really have to help people acquire those specialist skills and not just assume they’ll acquire them in the ether,” said Hector. “We have to implement a policy of finding people from these diverse backgrounds and increase the ferocity of getting into places like the Natural History Unit. We take on apprentices, we’re part of government schemes where people from diverse backgrounds work for us, and the percentage of retention is incredible that they get hired again and again.”

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