Wait and see? East Bay documentary maker Pete Nicks is at work on a film about healthcare.

Pete Nicks Impatient in 'Waiting Room'

Michael Fox August 18, 2009

There’s a whole lot of pontificating about health care going on right now, but the wrong people have access to the camera and the microphone. We’re not hearing enough from patients, especially those without insurance. East Bay documentary producer Pete Nicks has a plan that falls somewhere between journalism and activism, and involves placing interactive storytelling booths in hospital waiting rooms. "The initial phase will involve curated content: Us filming the patients ourselves," Nicks explains. "We go into the waiting room, we engage with people and have them tell their story to us. Eventually we will have storytelling booths in waiting rooms that will enable people to tell their own stories, which will then feed into a river of user-generated content coming from waiting rooms around the country."

The first booth will go into Highland Hospital in Oakland, which is also where Nicks has been filming. His goal is that it will launch a self-sustaining storytelling project that can be replicated in waiting rooms throughout the country, particularly in rural communities and reservations that aren’t fully plugged into the Internet.

Nicks sees the communication going the other way as well. "The first layer of benefit, and there’s research to support this, is just to engage people in the waiting room," he says. “‘How are you doing today? Are you eating well? Are you taking your diabetes medicine?’ If you extend that to media, if you give people information about various things, whether its HIV or diabetes, it improves their health outcome. We’re interested in the human connectivity of what these new social media tools represent."

Nicks recognizes that there’s some hay to be made with his kiosk/storytelling project given the klieg lights focused on health care right now. He takes a longer-term view than tomorrow’s headlines, however, because he’s also developing a feature-length documentary about Highland, The Waiting Room.

"In some ways it’s coincidental that the whole health-care debate is heating up at this moment," Nicks says. "It’s benefiting us, certainly, but we have to create something that’s going to have relevance a year from now, two years from now, because if you look at the model of filmmaking, the process from production to distribution can take up to one and a half, two years."

Nicks, whose background is in long-form television docs, is essentially working on two fronts simultaneously. He cites his participation in the BAVC Producer’s Institute for New Media Technologies as a turning point in shifting his thinking to incorporate the Internet and short pieces. A number of video stories from patients at Highland are already posted on the blog located at They demonstrate how well matched the short form is with the discrete, individual story, while dovetailing the increasing popularity of online viewing.

Nicks also views the short pieces as one of many "bread crumbs" that will eventually lead people to the documentary. "Most of the interest right now is centered around social media projects—content that moves through Twitter, and Facebook—and because health care is such a big story right now, there’s a lot of energy around what we’re doing with the blog," he explains. "We want to use that to support the film. What we’ve done is all the development. The money we’ve raised has been to do the typical preproduction—research, scouting, trying to find characters. You can do that and create little content pods at the same time."

The number of filmmakers using the Internet to fundraise or market or leverage their full-length films is substantial. But it’s still early days in terms of creating similar content for different platforms, driving viewers from one platform to the other and, most interestingly, maximizing each format’s strengths.

The longform doc, he notes, "will have a different power to it because it’s going to be a film. It’ll never go away. But the social media stuff seems like an exciting new dimension to filmmaking or storytelling. What the blog has enabled us to do is communicate the importance of story in the broad sense, and the robustness of the characters, which I think helps funders understand the potential of the film. It’s not like there are two different things happening—it’s all one organic whole. It requires more patience for making the film, because you have to build the foundation by putting time and money into the social media aspects of the project. But it adds a very important and meaningful dimension to the project, and one that wasn’t available to filmmakers until recently."

Notes from the Underground
San Francisco Cinematheque announces its fall season to members Tues., Aug. 25 at 7 p.m. at Electric Works, 130 8th St. RSVP to Sam Green and Carrie Lozano’s short, Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall, airs Tues, Aug. 25 at 11 p.m. on KQED as part of P.O.V. Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco’s Ella Es El Matador (She Is the Matador) opens the Women Make Movies retrospective at the Roxie Aug. 28 before airing Sept. 1 on P.O.V. Film Independent’s Spirit Awards ceremony, held the day before the Academy Awards presentation, will abandon its afternoon seaside slot next year in favor of an evening bash. The move may be prompted by the desire to reach a larger TV audience….. Xandra Castleton and David Munro announced the much-awaited DVD release of their indie comedy and Sundance Channel Undiscovered Gems Audience Award-winner Full Grown Men via Liberation Entertainment, Inc., on Aug. 25. Fans can queue up already at Amazon and Netflix.

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