A growing push for data-driven documentary filmmaking

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Wendy Levy, the director of arts consultancy group New Arts AXIS, called for documentary filmmakers to embrace big data tools as a permanent part of their storytelling process during the keynote address at the Media That Matters Conference, held Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C.

“It’s time to think about data and public media more holistically,” Levy said, calling for “radical new models of collaboration” between filmmaking and the world of data. “A campaign without a data strategy is like the sound of a tree falling in that proverbial empty forest.”

Levy is also a senior consultant with the Sundance Institute and the co-founder of Sparkwise, a MacArthur Foundation-funded free data service for nonprofits. She is working to incorporate data strategy into new films like When I Walk, an autobiographical account of filmmaker Jason DaSilva’s battle with multiple sclerosis and a 2013 Sundance Film Festival entry. The film, which is partially funded through CPB’s Independent Television Service, has not had a theatrical release yet, but is to incorporate an interactive map tracking handicap accessibility in New York City as part of its release campaign.

Integrating data into storytelling takes time and more resources, Levy said, and she encouraged artists to engage prospective funders in discussions of how to accomplish this. She rejects the common perception that increased funder involvement can result in undue influence on the project.

In advocating for more interactive data on every level of a documentary’s release pattern, Levy described collaborative data and  interactivity as enhancements that should naturally appeal to filmmakers. She provided four tips for making data-driven storytelling more meaningful: Be visually appealing, let stories become more meaningful as they are shared, make room for audience voices and create open data in “the wild” with tools like interactive maps that provide useful real-world information.

Yet even among some of the most active and resourceful documentary production companies, embracing engagement through data can be challenging.

In 2011 Johanna Blakely, the managing director of the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, a research institute studying entertainment and society, received an invitation from Participant Media to survey the societal impact of its documentary Food, Inc., which aired on PBS’s POV after a U.S. theatrical release in 2010. Participant Media is one of the largest documentary production companies in the country, and backed its exploration of U.S. agribusiness practices with a large marketing budget and activism campaign.

Because Participant Media waited until a year after the film’s release to pursue an impact study, Blakely said, producers undercut their ability to gather credible data on responses to Food Inc. during its initial theatrical rollout. Additionally, the company hesitated to employ fundamental survey techniques like providing respondents with open-ended questions.

To properly measure real-world social impact of documentaries beyond raising public awareness of its subject matter, it may be necessary for filmmakers to “bake in” big data and audience outreach components during the film’s production, said Sheila Leddy, Fledgling Fund executive director, who participated in a panel discussion with Blakely.

“When people share their [data-inspired] stories with the world, that data is a conversation starter,” Levy said.

The Media That Matters Conference is a production of the Center for Social Media in the American University School of Communication. The school also publishes Current.

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