Interactive Documentary Film: The Web as Platform and Playpen

I was recently invited to take part in a lab at the AFI Silverdocs Film Festival. The lab paired six specialists with six filmmaking teams to develop fundraising pitches for their interactive projects.

Among the films represented were Steve James’ The Interrupters; Marco Williams’ The Undocumented; Lee Hirsch’s The Bully Project; and Give Up Tomorrow, an incredible film about the death penalty in the Philippines.

It was a privilege to hear from these filmmakers about their plans to develop the interactive parts of their documentaries. Amir Bar-Lev’s pitch for The Tillman Story Interactive Edition was particularly awesome (he actually took home the $5,000 dollar prize for best pitch, though the six projects graciously agreed to share the winnings).

Here’s an excerpt for the talk I gave at the Lab, in which I argue that the web is as essential a technology to today’s filmmakers as the camera, the microphone, and the editing rig. There are unique creative opportunities presented by HTML, open video, and engagement with a mass audience—if filmmakers will adapt systems thinking and apply a little creative juice.

Enabled by the new technologies of the web, the next generation of documentaries will be assembled in a web browser, not merely projected onto a screen. Wendy Levy of BAVC, another Lab participant, crisply described the smart way to imagine these kinds of web-native documentaries: as “authored environments that people can explore and populate.” You won’t get that kind of engagement through traditional channels like DVD or Netflix—only in a web browser.

In this excerpt, I also talk a bit about why the web is the very best distribution strategy for an interactive project—more reach, more creative control, more flexibility. The web gives you all the richness and benefits of apps, without the bogus app store restrictions, revenue sharing, and licensing weirdness that you’ll encounter in other media.

I caught a lot of flak for something I said in this talk—that “the web can do anything an app can, except monetization.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I stand by it. Though the web is ultimately the best distribution strategy for most interactive projects, it’s exceedingly hard for creators to do point-of-sale transactions on the web. It’s much, much easier to monetize on platforms like the iPhone, where millions of credit card numbers are stored and one-click purchasing is a breeze. This is a problem to be solved. I’m hopeful that some of Mozilla’s work on Open Web Apps and payment can begin to address this challenge.

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