What’s the Deal with Short Docs?
Posted on: 28/04/2016
Storytelling, no matter what form, is the way we as humans communicate, relate and try to understand each other. And real-life factual storytelling has always been at the heart of how we attempt to come to terms with our changing world.
With every new platform of communication we’ve developed – radio, cinema, television, online, mobile – storytelling is the flesh and blood of each medium. So it’s no surprise that storytelling, both factual and fiction, has moved online, and new platforms and opportunities for online stories are rapidly emerging.
Audiences prefer their online stories to be short, and this has given a healthy and dynamic boost to the art of telling stories in under 20 minutes. Short form factual storytelling is both a powerful and viable form in its own right, as well as a possible pathway to longer form on other platforms such as television or cinema.
Early career filmmakers are using short form to find their audience, test their styles and techniques and build a profile. It’s where filmmakers, both emerging and experienced, can break from formulas and structures, play with form, invent new genres, and offer surprising and shocking new points of view.
Some experienced filmmakers are also using the form as a proof of concept for an idea – if it attracts interest, conversation and a large audience buzz online, it may encourage broadcasters or distributors to back the idea in long form.
What’s the Deal with Short Docs was a lively panel discussion dedicated to short form documentary at AIDC 2016, and included speakers from four leading players in the short docs space: Lindsay Crouse from New York Times Op-Docs; Katy Roberts from Vice Media; Jennifer Byrne from Dazed Media; and Charlie Phillips, head of documentaries at the Guardian News & Media.
The session explored the form – what programmers and curators are looking for in strong storytelling – as well as the commissioning, financing and distribution opportunities on offer.
The session introduced some ‘f-words’ to define and describe the appeal of short form – ‘freedom’ of form, ‘faster’ to produce and reach their audience, ‘flexibility’ in style and point of view, ‘freshness’ and ‘fluidity’ in form and content, and ‘fun’ to both make and watch.
One of the major revelations of the session was the size of audiences drawn to short docs. Whether it’s arts and culture, powerful human-interest stories or urgent global issues, audience demand for short docs is growing.
All the panelists spoke of millions of subscribers and audience ranges for individual short docs from 200,000 to 8 million. These online portals can boast larger audiences in some cases for documentaries than the major free to air and cable channels - and their numbers are growing.
The New York Times Op-Docs was established in 2011. They don’t release specific audience numbers but have millions of subscribers and their docs get massive numbers of views, often in the millions. Op-Docs look for original stories with a strong POV, visually dynamic and arresting in style. They work with both experienced and emerging filmmakers, and don’t dictate style but prefer to give creative latitude to filmmakers. They want new voices and fresh takes on global stories and topics. They offer a stipend, which varies with each project, and they can partner with philanthropists in some cases to boost the amount offered. The biggest attraction for filmmakers is their high profile brand which brings with it a very large, and engaged audience.
Vice Media is global youth media company, mainly aimed at 18 – 35 year olds. They produce their own content in-house rather than commissioning, and have a particular youth-focused, conversational style. They are looking for microcosm stories with immersive and engaging styles. Because making and selling content is their game and they have their own in-house generation of ideas, their approach is more about collaboration rather than commissioning.
Dazed Media is a UK-based independent publishing and media company that is seeking and paying for independent short docs. They are looking for compelling stories from personal POV that are preferably genre-defying, push boundaries and endeavor to tell stories in a different way. They need to engage the emotions in order to captivate and hold audiences in what they acknowledge is a crowded online space. They also have in-house studios, and will both commission and partner with filmmakers to make content.
The Guardian have been commissioning short docs since 2014. They prefer stories that are 5-20 minutes in length, and are looking to expand and challenge the expectations of their large global audiences. The stories they select must say something new about the world, be fresh, surprising and engaging. They are interested in form-breaking styles and discussion of new ideas. Their docs are generally fast-paced, energetic, with an original vision and focus on diversity. They commission from independent filmmakers, both emerging and experienced.
The panelists all indicated that they welcome ideas and approaches via email, and all require a treatment with a visual trailer or teaser. They pay somewhere in the range of $3,000 - $25,000 for short docs, the variable depending on many factors such as how fresh and unique the idea is, the length of the piece, experience of filmmakers, audience reach and ambition. They varied in relation to the retention of ownership/copyright and rights they require.
They all preferred filmmakers to come to them early in their development with a written treatment and/or teaser, referencing style and mood, approach to story or topic, and access to characters. Some will partner the filmmaker with reputable brands, foundations or philanthropy partners.
In conclusion, all the panelists agreed that short is not threatening long form, but rather growing the space and audience for factual content and they can and do co-exist.
For filmmakers, short form is a great way to develop audiences, test ideas and get traction on stories and concepts. They can be powerful and valid works in their own right, and build audience or become proof-of-concept for long-form. There are numerous examples of how short form docs have led to features or long-form series.
Short form is taking factual storytelling out to large new audiences and out of the rarified worlds where documentaries have sometimes languished in the past. As it moves into the mainstream, the form enables more people across the globe to engage with real stories about our ever-changing, troubled and fascinating world.
- Dr. Cathy Henkel, WA Screen Academy, Edith Cowan University
Lindsay Crouse (New York Times Op-Docs Coordinating Producer)
Katy Roberts (VICE Media)
Jennifer Byrne (Head of Video at Dazed Media, UK)
Charlie Phillips (Guardian News & Media, UK)
Dr Cathy Henkel (Director, WA Screen Academy)comments powered by Disqus