As audiences come to expect interaction along with media consumption, “old” media is showing documentarians the potential for video as a tent pole in cross-media storytelling.

The New York Times' 'A Year at War' featured writing anchored by documentary video

The New York Times
“A Year at War” project featured writing
anchored by online documentary video.

Since its invention, film has been a permanent medium. And like a book with its threaded binding, a documentary film’s spooled polyester strip represents a series of moments set in figurative stone. We find ourselves in dark rooms absorbing its definitive message, a product of months, or years, of inquiry.

But a stand-alone film, these days, works against the nature of modern media, with its vortex of information, reaction and reassessment. New media actually invites the involvement of audience, rather than simply its attention. And this interaction has come to define the media landscape.

Could documentaries form the permanent center in a changing tableau?

An audiovisual work that evolves as its topic evolves could be the future of the form. Part of the drive to work across platforms, into a digital environment, relates to something as simple as return visits to a site, which one might translate to mean “increased engagement” in a social issue, or “increased revenue.” The dirty secret of online journalism is that those comment sections below stories, those cesspools of discourse, create return visits and, by virtue of that, ad impressions. Gawker has built its empire not on the content but on the comments, an example of morphing media that extends a story’s life by days.

A documentary that can be the foundation of an ongoing discussion gives it a life beyond a single view.

Nancy Porter and Harriet Riesen's 'Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women' crossed platforms with a documentary and book.

Nancy Porter and Harriet Riesen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women crossed platforms with a documentary and book.

We’ve seen this starting along cross-traditional-media lines. Take, for example, Nancy Porter and Harriet Riesen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. It straddled two traditional media forms — film and books — and re-told the story of the great American author of Little Women. The documentary ran on PBS’s American Masters program and the book was published by Henry Holt & Co., an example of a project that took advantage of the strengths of moving pictures and of print, and in the process worked to promote one another. Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington’s doc Restrepo was also part of a dual effort, leading to Junger’s book War.

But beyond that, with online video players and ever-more-sophisticated websites, projects can be organic, and can use the long-term commitment to a film as the so-called “tent pole” of a bigger effort.

James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch’s Food Matters, a film about overcoming illness through diet, has seemed to me a larger movement, in which the film is the anchor. The film’s website is as much about healthy choices as about the documentary, with an array of articles and products toward that end.

The Cross-Media Potential for Issue-Based Documentaries

The possibilities for a site to grow around the documentary is what I’m talking about, not just what Amanda Hirsch previously called on this blog “video plopped on a website.” The idea of bringing a viewer back to a site because of regularly posted multimedia content is different than simply creating a standing multimedia presentation.

Issue-based films could have a bigger impact (and bigger audience), potentially, with a cross-media approach. The Cove has a blog that continues to illuminate its cause, but still has the lilt of PR instead of passionate pursuit of its issue. (Note to filmmakers: Don’t make “Donate” one of the biggest links on your page. Make people want to give by the work you show them).

I liked the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland, about the environmental impacts of natural gas drilling. While Gasland’s site has features that promote some involvement with the ongoing cause, it’s a site promoting the documentary, rather than being a larger collaborative site in which the documentary is part of the whole.

I’m not promoting the idea of a film website with bells and whistles. I’m talking about a collaborative information center that brings a subject to light — The more audience members seek information, the more they get.

News Organizations Telling Documentary-Centered Stories

California Watch's On Shaky Ground

California Watch’s On Shaky Ground
mixes stories, video and background material.

Documentary producers, such as Colquhoun and ten Bosch, have begun to embrace the idea of connecting on different levels with all the tools the digital environment provides, but the most notable recent cross-platform projects have come from the domain of journalism.

Newspaper websites have mostly led the charge in using multiple media platforms to tell a story. Take California Watch’s On Shaky Ground, which mixes stories, video and background material to create a big picture. Here, though, for obvious reasons, text dominates.

The New York Times‘ online project A Year At War took that concept further. Through its “Features,” “Shorts” and “Moments” sections, it created a nonlinear tableau of first-rate work that had all the gravitas and artfulness of a fine documentary. The “Moments” piece Morning Shave lasts only 15 seconds, but it picks up the force of fine photojournalism. The site’s related writing supports it nicely.

And look at Now What, Argentina?, a project created by students at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina. It merges video, audio, text and photography to tell a broader story, though it doesn’t have a single focal film.

Questions for Docmakers to Consider

I wonder if too many documentary filmmakers are locked in to the decades-old mindset of the festival–distributor–theatrical route, when the possibilities of cross-platform projects can lead to collaboration and, by nature of that, extension. Could your documentary be the anchor for an assortment of essays on the topic you explore? Could new video or audio continue to augment what you’ve done in the film? Could original reporting or a newsfeed keep people abreast of news on the topic? Could you take cues from video games to keep your topic fresh? Could visitors contribute data or multimedia to the project?

More and more, as the Holy Grail of the Theatrical Screening fades and the web becomes the go-to place for one’s work, will documentary filmmakers see the possibilities of a bigger picture? As convergence has defined the media in the past decade, so too will filmmakers need to find ways to redefine themselves and embrace that convergence.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.