Funding, production & distribution: what happens when industry meets interactive documentary

There were a few panels at this year’s SunnySide of the Doc festival which focused on transmedia and interactive documentary developments in specific regions. I attended both the Nordic and German panels to get a sense of where Northern Europe – specifically industry – is, in terms developing, funding and distributing this type of content.

The Nordic panel involved 3 transmedia producers with SWIM, seasoned Norwegian producer Margarete Jangard, and Swedish TV-commissioner Are Nundal, who shared their experiences and thoughts about Nordic financing and the future of transmedia. Whilst the German panel drew insight from Mathilde Benignus and Frédéric Dubois who run the Netzdoku network and Thorsten Unger from Media Desk Berlin.

Whilst the panel members backgrounds were varied, many of their experiences working either within or alongside this field were very similar – all highlighting a broad disconnect with industry when discussing interactive non-fiction and transmedia productions, which I have explored further here.

Whilst researching this post, I also came across a presentation from Michel Reilhac, which reflects on lessons learned at the 2015 PTTP Pixel Lab, but held relevance within this discussion too.

Location, location, location

Despite the global nature of the web and the content that is released on it, the actual development of interactive projects doesn’t always follow this. Depending on where you’re based as an interactive filmmaker/journalist/producer, there are disparate avenues for funding, distribution and native audiences.

Ingvil Giske (Medieoperatorene AS) described how they are “lucky in Norway as we’ve been able to put transmedia and transmedia elements in our development budget”. However as Annika Gustafson, director of the Swedish organisation Boost HPG and moderator of the Nordic panel, pointed out: “Our institute funds transmedia within a production budget, but takes it from elsewhere in the budget” – although some organisations are starting to recognise this work, the necessary funding to produce it isn’t always there.

There is also something to be said about where work is currently being produced. Governments and researchers alike often describe areas as ‘creative’ or ‘cultural hubs’, seeing specific towns or cities as areas that lend them selves to developing digital industries for a number of – sometimes indeterminable – factors.

In his workshop, Dubois positioned Berlin as the counter Silicon Valley – “a the city of hackers, dissidence and regulations protecting data” – This culture in turn lends itself to the cultivation of interesting, interactive, web-based projects, that seek to question the status quo. The interactive docugame NetWars is a perfect example of this.

The studios in Germany producing interactive works encourage this practice and further legitimise the field as a viable area of digital/tech development; Plural, Korsakow, Honig Studios were highlighted as the key players. 

Shooting the internationally co-produced Fort McMoney in Canada

Shooting the internationally co-produced Fort McMoney in Canada

Co-production & distribution

Both panels went on to address the issues and opportunities available in terms of co-production and distribution – focusing on new trends emerging within the field interactive and transmedia work.

Dubois highlighted two specific case studies in Germany of large-scale interactive projects that have that have utilised international co-production – the docugame Fort McMoney and the extensive interactive web-series Do Not Track.

Fort McMoney worked with a mainstream newspaper in Germany, embedded on the paper’s website through an iFrame. This tactic served to increase the projects views, as well as leading users to it who may not have encountered it otherwise. It also meant the newspaper was also able to compliment the project through articles about the oil sands and Fort McMurray.

Do Not Track however went through the German public service broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk – alongside the other partners, National Film Board of Canada, Arte,  Upian – with the German partner providing more of a funding role, rather than production.

There is clear potential for interactive projects, makers and producers just need to think creatively about how to finance and distribute. Dubois followed this up by mentioning that German media platforms ARD, ZDF, Arte, Deutsche Welle  are all investing some resources into interactive projects, cautioning “it’s still early days, but it is starting.”

The international appeal for this work means there are co-production schemes available for people outside Germany too, with newspapers – Zeit online,, Speigal Online (the biggest media in Germany in terms of distribution), Heise – all starting to push interactive documentaries over the last two years.

Another route suggest by Margarete Jangard (WG film) – who worked on the successfully crowdfunded cross-platform documentary Bikes vs. Cars – was Kickstarter. She put forwards the pros and cons of financing your project this way: “If you’re starting a crowd-funding project, see it as extended marketing – you gather a crowd around your film very early. But it takes a lot of time – we have one person full-time and part -time covering this”. You can read more about crowdfunding interactive documentaries on our funding resources page.

From 'Story of Now' - one of the larger projects to hit BBC's Taster platform

From ‘Story of Now’ – one of the larger projects to hit BBC’s Taster platform

Pulling forward industry

There is still a level of resistance from industry in getting on board with interactive projects – their success can’t always be predicted or measured in the same way as traditional broadcast and they are often seen as a side project, rather than the main event.

Dubois point out that most TV channels still want a TV programme associated with an interactive documentary – which seemingly glosses over the fact that large amounts of programming is now consumed online, particularly amongst younger viewers. He continued “Although this is a current limitation, it is changing. Maybe not web-only, but web first productions are starting to be accepted”.

Are Nundal (Sveriges Television) also commented that Swedish broadcasters are looking for ways to reach younger audiences and interactive or transmedia content to be a way forward: We shouldn’t be ashamed in Sweden, we are trying to push the forefront, but we can always improve, we’re still focused on series and rarely do singular interactive projects”.

There is a sense that interactive projects still need to prove themselves as a viable option that is worth funding, something Reilhac points to in his presentation. When the over-inflated expectations from the media and commissioners put upon the initial flurry of interactive content wasn’t immediately followed with large audiences, the hype started to fade. This, combined with an audience who were used to passively consuming non-linear content and an industry reluctant to move forwards its thinking – we entered the trough of disillusionment, as detailed on the Gartner Hype Cycle graph below:

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 15.57.21

Where is interactive documentary on the Gartner Hype Cycle (Via Michel Reilhac’s presentation)

Reilhac however claims we are emerging from this trough and into a more sustainable future: “Advertisers keep migrating from TV to the web, forcing TV to progressively embrace interactive content. TV will therefore remain a key financing source for interactive content, even though it still sees it as a marketing tool to promote its traditional program grid and not as native content.”

A look to the UK and the BBC’s Taster platform has adopted a unique model which serves to address this issue – commissioning and producing small, low-budget interactive projects that are often linked with other outputs (either radio or TV), but can also stand alone.

Move beyond the buzz

Interactive or transmedia non-fiction works are no longer a “new thing” – large-scale, well-funded projects have been distributed internationally and are slowly receiving larger audiences and more mainstream attention.

There are two key things to come from this; Nundal raised the point that producers shouldn’t “think about putting ‘something interactive’ in a project, but start with something interactive in the beginning”. The tendency to view an interactive part of a project as an add-on, nice-to-have, or just part of a marketing strategy, often just leads to disappointing projects which don’t serve to excite audiences or move the field forwards.

This also leads onto a second issue, raised by Giske: “The audience are not interested in ‘transmedia’, they’re interested in the project”. Yes, there’s a small cohort of people internationally who following interactive documentaries, but audiences in general are not. They are not specifically looking for an interactive take on China’s coal industry for example, they are already interested in that topic already and this is just a new way of consuming content.

From the NFB's/Guardian's 7 Digital Deadly Sins i-doc

From the NFB’s/Guardian’s 7 Digital Deadly Sins i-doc

It’s for this reason (amongst others) that we should continue to promote diversity within the field; new ways to capture an audiences attention, new ways to tell a story and present information and new platforms to do it on. This is why it is vital for those holding the purse strings to invest in this work; Gustafson pointed to Canada (specifically the NFB) as an example where the funding was there for interactive work, the audience has followed and the genre has significantly progressed.

The future

The more these discussions like this are had, particularly within industry-facing forums, the clearer it becomes to me that traditional models are not really compatible with this work. Distribution and the lifetime of a project are not necessarily centred around a single event like a TV programme, but could be long-lasting and changeable depending on the audience. Funding needs to take this, amongst other things into account.

I think the biggest takeaway from this is flexibility – the industry needs to recognise and embrace the developing and constantly changing nature of this work, not limit it. With the advent of consumer VR on the horizon and the recent CMF report that stated the average US teenager (12–17 years old) watches 4 hours less of traditional TV per week compared to 10 years ago – it’s obvious that with more choice, the audience will divest their attention. New platforms (I can’t believe the web is still seen by some as a ‘new platform’…) and new formats must be taken seriously. There is currently a small, but constantly growing group of people pushing the field of interactive non-fiction; this group needs to be cultivated and accepted by industry, rather than side-lined.

As Reilhac finished his presentation:

“Whilst we interactive storytellers and producers, finish our fall into the trough of disillusions, we must endure. Soon we will start our climb up the slope of enlightenment, because we are unstoppable!”Michel Reilhac
Further resources

These resources came directly from the German panel so are obviously focused there, but could still be internationally relevant.

Festivals in Germany for interactive docs

Dok Leipzig/Doc Netlab – oldest and most innovative doc festival in the world which has roundtables to find co-producers and also a platform to meet professionals. Since last year, they’ve also run Hackathon workshops.

DOK.fest München – interactive strand which is more about mentoring within the field. Projects are also presented, but mainkly good for development and feedback for projects.

HKW’s Future storytelling  – The media competition Future Storytelling encourages film and media makers as well as designers and artists to develop new stories based on the theory of the Anthropocene using a variety of online media.

Transmediale – new forms of transmedia which are mainly linked to music, so depends on your projects’ theme.

Storydrive Frankfurt bookfair – biggest book fair in the world which is starting to embrace new forms.

Bayerisches Filmzentrum: Transmedia day

Organisations & networks

Netzdoku – meetups for interactive makers / producers / filmmakers / web designers in Berlin. They look at a theme and present 1-2 projects with the aim to develop knowledge in the still relatively small field. They also organise Dok Hacks.

Transmedia Bayern – organised interactive part of Dokfest

Transmedia Storytelling in Berlin

Tech to check 

There are also some tech developments happening in Germany which are worth paying attention to:

Pageflow is a solution for non-coders to build interactive stories which has been used by both industry and independent producers. Open source too.

Korsakow – free/low-cost tool for making interactive documentaries. More than 1000 i-docs built in it, although primarily used within education.

Zeiss – VR Goggles

Fraunhofer institute – doing experiments in VR.

BitTubes for interactive films.