Jamie Dobie is POV’s community engagement and education coordinator. She reports from the DOC NYC “State of the Industry” panel that took place on Wednesday, November 3, where she found a lively discussion about social media and engaging communities.
Filmmaker Doug Block (The Kids Grow Up and 51 Birch Street) kicked off the conversation, declaring “There’s nothing grimmer than a panel on documentary film distribution.”
Well, I agree, Doug. I’ll be honest when I say that I wasn’t all that anxious to hear about “the state of the industry.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear any more about the doc business being a tough business, the volatility of the distribution market, the disturbing trend of documentaries as mouthpieces or the fact that, other than a few films by Michael Moore and one about a bunch of penguins, there are few docs that ever get seen in theaters and fewer that ever recover their cost of production. Filmmakers may get brand recognition from signing with a big distributor, but they’re still dead broke in the end. While I know these are important issues for everyone in the industry to think about (and these were all topics brought up over the course of the panel discussion), time and time again I tend to walk out of these conversations feeling powerless, with few answers or ideas about what we can do to change the grim state of things. What we can do about the fact that while there are more documentaries than ever (and better ones, too, as all the panelists acknowledged), doc filmmakers can rarely make a living doing what they do? But when I walked out of this panel, I felt different. I didn’t feel like I had answers, but I did feel hopeful that documentary filmmakers have at least a little control over where this industry is going.
Filmmaker and panelist Gary Hustwit (Helvetica and Objectified) has become the poster child for DIY-documentary filmmaking by embracing social media and community engagement as not just a helpful marketing tool, but as a means of survival in the industry. When asked by moderator Basil Tsoikos what advice he would give to aspiring filmmakers, Gary simply said, “Don’t sign anything… Independent film is not just a genre name.” He argued that the only sustainable approach to documentary filmmaking is self-distribution. While I don’t completely agree with this (and neither did Liz Garbus, who made Shouting Fire and The Farm, who retorted, “No, sign something if it’s good”), I do find Gary’s approach refreshing. He argues that the key to self-distribution is developing a following. Gary sees community engagement and crowd sourcing as an essential part of the doc filmmaking business, and his nearly-74,000 followers on Twitter certainly constitutes a “following,” if not a cult-following. Gary likens himself to a touring band, hanging out in the lobby of theaters after screenings with his Helvetica and Objectified merchandise — signed posters, coffee mugs, tote bags and t-shirts. He has a youthful, sprightly way about him and, as he sat up there with the rest of the panelists, he seemed the most unruffled by the grim talk of the tough market.
Now, it is certainly easier to self-distribute when you make films that have built-in audiences like Gary does and when you can create a brand to stamp on a tote bag. Gary admits that his films come with a following — when you make a Wilco music documentary or a film about a typeface, it’s not difficult to imagine your target audience. It might be a bit tougher to imagine your audience if you’re filmmaker and panelist Amir Bar-Lev in the process of making My Kid Could Paint That. And perhaps this is where Bar-Lev was coming from when he looked over at Gary and said that he had yet to see whether anything was gained from using Twitter in this industry. (After Gary said his piece, Amir asked him out for a beer).
I say that there’s an audience for every film — all films have community engagement potential and, while I do agree with Malcolm Gladwell that the revolution will probably not be tweeted, I would like to know how many of Gary’s Twitter followers contributed money to his Kickstarter campaigns — I would imagine quite a few. While a film’s audience may not always be as obvious as Helvetica‘s, I think all filmmakers can learn something from Gary’s approach to engaging communities. The key is to engage from the start. From the moment you have an idea, you build a following. Gary finds his audience, and he takes them on the long journey with him to make his movie. He involves them. He appreciates them. And they appreciate him in return. A following naturally builds, and when the film is finished there is a solid base of people who already support you and are ready to evangelize for you. The work is not only yours.
There is, however, a fine line between knowing your audience and pandering to them — to making a film because you know there’s an audience and making a film because you really want to make it. Yes, documentary film should entertain, but if it’s a social issue documentary you decide to make, it’s also meant to challenge. And so I sometimes wonder — what’s the point of crowd sourcing? As Foreign Policy in Focus reporter Shaun Randol wrote in a piece about Latin American screenings of Oliver Stone’s South of the Border, “That’s like showing a Michael Moore film in Central Park in New York City. The audience already knows and approves of the message…”
What do YOU think readers? Is crowd sourcing the future of the industry?