Although interactive documentaries are slowly gaining more recognition, their reach is often limited to academic circles, interactive documentary makers, or small communities already engaged with the field.
Michael Blackledge is looking to change that with his new project WiREDMŌV; a platform that is intended to educate the public about interactive documentary and assist interactive documentary makers with distribution.
Sandra Gaudenzi spoke to him about his inspirations, the difficulties facing the project and his hopes for the future:
1. What is the story behind WiREDMŌV: when did you have the idea, why, and who is behind it?
The concept for WiREDMŌV [pronounced: “wired-movie”] stemmed from a graduate school project and a doctoral thesis proposal. After finishing grad school at Parsons/The New School, where I studied emergent interactive media, I returned to my native Southern California earlier this year. Shortly thereafter, I created intraactif, a web development agency specialising in websites and social media marketing for filmmakers.
During casual conversations with clients and friends in the film industry, I discovered that most had never heard of an interactive documentary! I was really surprised by this and thought a lot about how i-docs could become more accessible.
So, starting with the idea of raising public awareness, I leveraged a social media ecosystem I had created during a grad project titled, “Post-Documentary,” and began curating interactive projects and news.
The process of searching for i-docs was time consuming, and although MIT’s docubase, IDFADocLab, CollabDocs and other resources were essential, it was still a chore to find relevant information without multiple searches; it was especially difficult to find information about titles that were currently in production, or the people producing them.
Given the challenges I experienced, as someone who studied interactive media, it became evident that the lack of public awareness was largely due to limited access to information. So, for the next 6 months I began researching and sketching ideas that could potentially bridge the gap between i-docs and a larger global audience.
2. In your manifesto you speak about creating a space for i-docs awareness and discovery but also a distribution platform where new economic models can be invented… What sort of models do you have in mind? how could this work?
A metaphor here would be to imagine the Lumière brothers making movies in France during a time when there was no movie business. Someone or something had to define and create that ecosystem of production, distribution and consumption that is now the motion-picture industry.
“I see a lot of i-docs being produced, yet there isn’t a full end-to-end ecosystem of distribution and consumption to support an independent industry.”Similar to the early era of cinema, I see a lot of i-docs being produced, yet there isn’t a full end-to-end ecosystem of distribution and consumption to support an independent industry. I’d like for WM to be a distribution and consumption component of the i-docs ecosystem.
At the moment, my priorities for WM are to kindle public interest in i-docs, and to begin a dialogue within the Interactive-Maker community around the idea of distributing and monetizing content. After this initial phase, we’ll begin partnering with early adopters and offering tools and resources like hosting and promotional marketing as part of a comprehensive distribution package.
While I’m not able to disclose the full extent or details of our business model, I can tell you that nothing like WM currently exists, nor would it fit into any other industry’s business model.
3. To build an i-docs archive is time consuming, and hard work, have you considered teaming up with other sites that have similar ambitions – such as docubase.mit.edu?
A direct answer to your question: Absolutely.
As I mentioned earlier, and as Sarah Wolozin at MIT and others know, it takes a tremendous amount of time to catalogue interactive titles. Beyond the initial cataloging, we’re also writing summaries, and then rating and reviewing each title using a five-point scoring process we call VINSE, an acronym for visual design, interactivity, narrative, sound, and engagement. And, beyond those activities, there’s the technical and operational aspects of hosting, distributing and monetizing interactive content.
4. Is your assumption that i-docs would be more successful if there was a unique platform where people could go to experience/explore them? How do you plan to get the attention of such potential audience?
Until interactive-documentary cinema has an end-to-end ecosystem of production, distribution and consumption, interactive content will remain dispersed and therefore, more difficult for an industry to rally and develop.
Going back to the Lumière reference, although the brothers invented cinema, the art of editing moving images to tell stories, without a distribution channel (e.g. early “Nickelodeon” theaters), the motion-picture industry might have taken much longer to find its audience, mature and evolve.
In terms of garnering public attention, I believe this is something that WM can certainly augment along with the support of the larger i-docs community. For example, when visiting WiREDMŌV, you’ll notice at least 4 titles featured in the main landing page, and several others featured titles below. We’ve also started promoting links to titles in our catalogue to our Facebook and Twitter feeds.
With mechanisms like these, the use of community ratings, reviews, discussion, and social media marketing, I think we have a unique opportunity to reach a global audience of potential i-docs enthusiasts.
5. When we started i-docs.org we used a similar categorisation of i- docs genres, but we found it increasingly difficult to maintain such categorisation because genres seems to blur boundaries (a docu-game can be participatory and photography based etc…). How do you deal with this problem?
“Unless we set some clear genre definitions, the industry won’t have any benchmarks to gauge its own innovation.”In terms of genre categorisation and definition, I suspect the i-docs community will– as a nascent industry–need to begin standardising terminology and nomenclature, so we can all speak and communicate the same language.
Moreover, unless genres are standardised, it will be more challenging to market and distribute interactive titles. By no means am I suggesting that interactive-makers stop experimenting and pushing the envelope, but rather to become a viable and profitable industry, consumers must be able to understand the product and language; a language by definition is standardised and consistent.
Arriving here from a career in the videogames industry, I recognise this genre fluidity as a marketing and packaging dilemma in that people don’t tend to buy what they can’t understand.
So, if an interactive title is experimental and beyond genre definition, that’s okay, however, if all interactive title’s are experimental, perhaps we’re not ready to take the next step and work within the framework and unity that an industry provides. In fact, I’ll be so bold to say that unless we set some clear genre definitions, the industry won’t have any benchmarks to gauge its own innovation.
For instance, Dziga Vertov, Orson Wells and Quentin Tarantino broke the rules of conventional filmmaking, and we celebrate their work because we understand that fact.
Documentaries are my favorite genre, but I’m convinced that i-docs will go far beyond the documentary category and into fiction and new genres. Although the body of existing work is largely composed of documentary or immersive journalism, my preference is to us the term, “Interactive Cinema.”
This is the main reason for the name WiREDMŌV, and not WiRED-DOCUMENTARY. I see a strong connection to the past in looking through the lens of cinema history; during that time, the majority of productions could be categorized as documentary as well.
WM is in open beta, meaning the site is live and operational, but doesn’t currently have its full complement of functionality. I felt it was important to get the site out into the world as a proof of concept, and then define the development roadmap in a more agile manner, based on direct feedback from the i-docs community and site visitors.
Note that this approach is entirely counter to everything I’ve learned during my time in the videogame industry, but with good reason. Given WM is being built for an industry that doesn’t yet exist, or at least not how with think of a typical industry, my thinking was that unless the site was prototyped, built and tossed into the world, we’d never move beyond the planning stage.
As far as assistance from the i-docs community, first off, thanks for asking this question. As we continue to develop WM and its functionality as a “ratings database” and distribution platform, information and feedback from content producers is essential.
In order to build something that bridges the distribution gap, we need to better understand how WM can help, so we’ve created a survey for interactive-makers that asks some important questions. The more i-Makers who complete this brief survey, the better equipped we’ll be to solve challenges related to i-docs marketing and distribution. The survey can be found here.
I’m incredibly excited about WiREDMŌV because it isn’t just about building a successful monetization platform or popular website, but being able to help bridge the gap between interactive documentaries and a new audience.