Film Independent Wed 3.4.2015

Reel, All Too Real: Notes From Documentary 2.0 at the Realscreen Summit in DC

Factual television is anything but factual these days. It’s a euphemism for reality TV, tall tales of truthiness spun by networks like A&E, Discovery, truTV and History. I attended Documentary 2.0 at the Realscreen Summit this January, a panel on the future of documentary put together by Michael Klein, EVP of Programming and Content Strategy at Condé Nast.

A few months before the Summit, at a meeting in January, Rich Ross, the new President of Discovery Channel, had said “enough”—no more fake stuff. Reality shall be, well, real. The sea change, if there really is one, is being driven by a growing sense that young audiences are turned off by the idea of scripted reality, or fabricated truth. Either it has to be scripted, or it has to be real. And thus, a slight fissure may emerge in the fabric of the ad-driven TV universe, exposing what may be an opportunity for documentary filmmaking.

The change is also being driven by the changing nature of the delivery platform. With the myriad of on-demand digital options available, there are a growing number of new possibilities for documentary content these days.

“The demands of advertising forced a more regular schedule,” explained Greg Moyer, founder and CEO of Blue Chalk Media, from his seat on the Reelscreen panel. As he sees it, advertisers want consistency and regular characters. In the past, every Tuesday night at 9:00 pm, viewers could count on seeing this character deal with that situation and the advertisers could sell you soap. But that is all changing with the way in which people can access content these days: any length, anywhere, anytime and on any device.

What that means to documentaries is that the old model—festival run followed by theatrical release—is breaking down. “We are so fortunate now as documentary filmmakers not to have to conform to a theatrical or TV model,” said Moyer. “We can tell a much broader collection of stories.”

In this emerging world of multi-platform, on-demand, data-driven content, for better or worse, brands become curators. “Amazon. Here is the company that sends me my toothpaste, and now we have Jonathan Demme doing a doc on Amazon,” said Klein. The brands are well-placed to deliver the content, he pointed out; “They know what you want.”

If “factual” was the buzzword from the last decade, transforming Generation X into zombie reality addicts, today’s buzzword is “storytelling,” driven by ad companies’ incessant desire to market to millennials. Everybody, it seems, is a storyteller, and everything is about storytelling. Your typical reality program is now someone’s story, and story implies authenticity. Producers and networks are telling real stories about real people—in a non-fake way this time around.

Independent TV producer Larry Giesbrecht is, by his own description, an old-school TV documentary guy. He doesn’t do reality. “I don’t do reality,” he told me. “Look at my age.”

“The critical difference between documentary and reality?” he pondered. “What I do isn’t contrived. We capture what actually happens. If you choose to, you can sell out completely to reality,” he warned. “With docs, it’s a question of issue docs vs. entertainment docs.” What’s the difference? “If I am telling you something about this wonderful location, well that’s different than if I tell you that the town’s fathers say that this is a wonderful location.

Cheryl Horner Sirulnick, founder of the Tribeca-based production company Gigantic!, does a mix of documentary and what she called “hardcore reality.” She did a one-hour documentary this year for MTV, Laverne Cox Presents the T-Word, about transgender activist Laverne Cox—but these one-offs are few and far between, she acknowledged. Most networks just want series.

“We have always gone to the networks,” she said when I asked her about the new possibilities of on-demand programming and the web. “It’s becoming outdated, but the web is still tiny, tiny, tiny budgets. People know things are changing, but we don’t know yet what we are doing.”

It’s all a major shift from when Sirulnick started 14 years ago. Back then, companies had huge in-house production units. Now it’s almost all outsourced, which is good news for independents. MTV’s True Life has been the backbone of her business and like many successful production companies, she got started at the company that subsequently gave her the work.

Finally, Sirulnick echoed the refrain I had been hearing all day—“It all comes back to storytelling.”

For many documentary filmmakers, it is all about spending time digging deep into a subject and uncovering an important story that informs the public interest. Investigative documentary often overlaps with journalism and investigative reporting. The last few years have seen a steady rise in the number of documentary news options, from established news organizations like The Guardian and The New York Times, to expanded documentary offerings on networks like CNN and Al-Jazeera, to a growing number of new online ventures, like VICE and Mashable.

The possibilities for serious documentary filmmaking seem to be multiplying by the day, and the key is thinking creatively. Back in New York, I sat down with Klein at Condé Nast’s new corporate offices at One World Trade Center. He is busy these days building The Scene, Condé Nast’s video hub, whose tagline is, “Not every video, just the ones worth talking about.” With 2.3 billion views in the past 20 months, people are not just talking, they are watching.

The Scene’s target audience? That golden goose of ad dollars, the 18–34 years olds. Millennials consume content differently from their predecessors. The old model, he says, was to put content out on a scheduled basis and gather around it. But millennials, who have grown up on digital content and the Internet, choose when and how they watch something, which creates an audience-first model. “There is no front door to content anymore,” Klein said.

Millennials are also changing the kind of content that is being programmed. “They want authentic. If it’s not authentic, they will reject it. They grew up on YouTube, and YouTube celebrity is huge and powerful.” They are hooked on consuming unbundled content on unplugged, digital platforms. “Engagement is critical—commenting, liking and sharing. Madonna released her latest video on Snapchat.”

And the opportunities for documentary filmmakers? They seem to be growing as fast as the channels. Klein believes that the notion that digital is really just an idea incubator for TV is cynical, and misses the opportunity. And outlets like the Sundance Channel—what he sees as niche channels—will suffer. “Marketing is a critical piece of it. You have to make the whole team devoted to audience engagement. Linear channels can only market to their audience—you are fishing in the same sea. We have audiences that move around.” And move they do, between brands, platforms and channels. “You have got to figure it out, or you will be left behind,” Klein told me, and his advice to filmmakers was simple: “Bring your stories here,” he said. “We will help you.”

Micah Garen / Guest Blogger