Docfest is finished. It’s only the second time I’ve attended, so my basis for comparison is weak, but the filmmaking community seemed to particularly engaged this time around. Perhaps the looming economic threats and the torment that it will certainly bring has galvanised the filmmakers into action, fearing that the juiciest misery will be snapped up by a competitor if they don’t act fast. This year there was a big multimedia strand, and while I was pleased at the effort, I still think a lot of the TV establishment is thinking about the web the wrong way.
The session I was most interested to go to was “my tube, your face,” which dealt with using the internet to find audiences. Included on the panel was Dan’l Hewitt from Bebo.com, which was I think the first social networking site to also flirt with being a content provider. The only problem is that the main users of the bebo site seem to be adolescent girls; traditionally not a huge audience for heavyweight documentary, so some of what he was saying didn’t seem all that relevant. What I had really hoped would be up for discussion was the huge power of social networking to deliver an audience to a screening or an online or television broadcast by using the networks of potential audience members that already exist, but they seemed more about trying to replicate TV-style mass entertainment on the web, which seems to be the opposite of what the web is for- allowing small disparate audiences to find their niche en masse.
The best example I have seen of this power in action is the upcoming event at the Bloomsbury theatre, “9 lessons and carols for Godless people”, which sold out in less than a week and resulted in three extra dates being added at the Hammersmith Apollo, all through word of mouth- There wasn’t even a flyer or dedicated website for the event apart from a brief listing on the Bloomsbury theatre website, and purely through facebook groups and bogs, the massive audience who are fed up with being served shit from their gogglebox every night bought tickets in their thousands.
In “Here come the Philistines”, the arts documentary session, I tried to raise this as a question, but I’m not sure the panel got what I was trying to talk about and they gave back a few comments about 360degree commissioning (building a web community to coincide with a broadcast or cinema release), which seems to be a buzzword that will soon lose it’s lustre when people realise that filmmakers make films, not websites. Unless there is a campaign or a community already associated with their subject matter, in which case they will probably already have a web network, these sites which are commissioned alongside broadcasts seem to get abandoned pretty quickly, or neglected by the broadcasters and left in the hands of trainee journalists- see the Channel Four Disarming Britain blog, which very quickly became a collection of barely literate reactionary comments about locking people up FOR LIFE.
The meat of the arts session was very interesting, although the panel (chaired by Mark Lawson) got a bit stuck on what constituted arts programming, with a debate raging about whether or not the X factor should be counted. What was rather refreshing was that the members of the panel didn’t begin their remarks, like many filmmakers did at the festival, by apologising for dumbing down their output or pointing out that it was someone else’s idea to use intrusive narration. Jan Younghusband seemed genuinely proud of her work in bringing the arts to a wide audience, which made a very welcome contrast to what I heard later on from Louisa Bolch. She has a fantastic record in arts and sciences, but her remarks to some of the filmmakers pitching science-themed ideas to the Wellcome Trust panel seemed too pessimistic. She seemed concerned that films without a celebrity presenter or celebrity angle would fail, however interesting their content or storyline (she told someone pitching an idea about using fMRI in lie detection to test it on Michael Barrymore). I wish I could have shown her the massive online networks filled to bursting with people interested in science and ideas who have largely abandoned television because of this crap, and who would flock back if only they could be reassured that they wouldn’t end up with Griff Rhys Jones gurning out into their living room. My experience is that television has lost the trust of a lot of these people, and it will take time to win them back.