Filmmakers Bring Stories to New Platforms

Erica Marcus March 22, 2011

The Media that Matters Conference, jointly presented by American University’s Center for Social Media and Arts Engine in Washington, DC, is an annual schmooze fest for media makers that offers an update on Best Practices in media, insight on upcoming trends and inspiration from peers at work. The conference this year delivered on all fronts, but especially the latter: Independents were thrilled by new citizen engagement projects exploring the legacy of lynching, power poetry, Gulf Coast grassroots activism and good old-fashioned storytelling.

I myself was new to the red hot buzz word “transmedia” before I attended. I am a nonprofit media professional and writer who has worked in narrative feature film and independent documentary film production. I'm also a queer identified independent filmmaker—so when I heard that the conference was going to be exploring transmedia, I was a bit surprised that “transmedia” was not referring to gender-bending work but to how new genres were being delivered over a variety of platforms.

Recognizing the relevance of Fair Use issues for media makers, there was a pre-conference workshop on new developments. (Precedents in Fair Use or “the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances" have been evolving at a fierce pace since the Center for Social Media, Peter Jaszi, Michael Donaldson, Anthony Falzone and Lawrence Lessig as well as a host of others across the country reinvigorated the legal and cultural debate a few years ago.) Attendees learned about the latest news including the new Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s exemptions that allow nonprofit filmmakers to break encryption on a DVD. Folks also learned about the tools necessary to make a fair use decision without a lawyer, the fair use clinics that are out there to help you and a few even got to test out their fair use talents.

(If you are not familiar with the cutting-edge work that has been done on Fair Use by the Center for Social Media, you have missed out. If you want to catch up, you might go to the source:  You can also check out Hannah Eaves’ excellent SF360 article, What is Fair is not Foul.)

As the Washington, DC, sun went down, Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films opened the official conference. Quinn, who is best known as the Executive Producer of Hoop Dreams, The New Americans and the recent The Interrupters (which premiered at Sundance in 2011), challenged producers to think about the responsibilities makers have when initiating relationships with the subjects of their films.  He reminded us that in early January, Joe Berlinger lost his legal battle with Chevron over the corporation’s demand that he turn over 600 hours of outtakes from his award-winning documentary, Crude

The film tells the story of Ecuadoran residents' class action suit against Chevron over alleged environmental damage and water contamination. Chevron wanted the footage to prove misconduct on the part of the plaintiff's legal team and judicial authorities in Ecuador.  Berlinger had to hire an attorney and he fought a costly battle.

The court ruling against Berlinger was a real wake-up call for filmmakers. Recently, Alex Gibney told the New York Times that he was concerned about an erosion of trust with interview subjects. “I want to create that safe space where people feel like they can talk to me because they trust me to use their remarks in a way that’s properly contextualized.”

Quinn ended his remarks by asking us what we would do if a government or corporation asked us to turn over our source tapes.

The real nitty-gritty of what it meant to create a transmedia project became clear during the workshops where producers told us about their journeys. Roland Legiardi-Laura (Power Poetry Transmedia Project and To Be Heard Film Project) and Bay Area based Jacqueline Olive (Always in Season) were among the first speakers. Olive, discussing her comprehensive effort to explore the lynchings of almost 4,000 African Americans, was not the only Bay Area independent presenting; audiences were also wowed by Leah Mahan’s Bridge the Gulf Project and Glynn Washington’s NPR program Snap Judgment.

As exciting as the presentations were, they were also sobering and real. Producers and funders alike acknowledged that a well thought-out engagement plan with a cross-platform component were now a necessary part of any successful funding application. Yet no one claimed that transmedia was going to transform the sustainability of the independent media industry. No one said, “Build it and the money will come.” Although the usual suspects  are steadfast in their in-kind or financial support for new media (including the BAVC Producers Institute, ITVS, Sundance, Chicken and Egg Pictures, Fledgling Fund, Britdocs’ Good Pitch), few foundations have yet stepped to the plate to provide full support for projects.

There was some good news on this front. Many in the audience said that increasingly foundations are on the lookout for partnerships between media-makers and NGOs that were working together to engage constituents. For instance, Bay Area filmmaker Leah Mahan’s Bridge the Gulf Project received funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which was impressed by the authentic partnerships she had forged with Gulf Coast community activists. Jackie Olive pointed out that although foundations might not have dedicated new media initiatives, they might support your film project because they are excited by the issues you are addressing and innovative transmedia plans.

Alyce Myatt, who was recently appointed to head the National Endowment for the Arts Media Arts Program said she hoped the NEA was going to announce a new opportunity for media makers to submit proposals for transmedia projects. Funding could range between $10,000 to $200,000.  Danielle Shapiro from the National Endowment for the Humanities alerted makers to opportunities in the NEH’s Division of Public Programs, which offers grants for digial projects and NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities.

Of course, when it comes to government funding, nothing is certain. The House of Representatives recently passed H.R.1, which includes a 13 percent cut to the NEH budget and a $43 million reduction for the NEA. This represents the deepest cut to the NEA in 16 years.  Lets hope it does not make it through the Senate.  For NEA updates you can go to, and if you want to help protect arts and humanities funding, check out these sites: and and

Everyone pointed to the pioneering work of Bay Area Video Coalition and Wendy Levy’s team at the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies.  Many former fellows from the Producers Institute testified to how crucial the Institute was in incubating the multimedia components of their projects. At this ten-day residency, independent producers get to collaborate with teams of strategists, technologists, and NGO partners. Roland Legiardi-Laura provided folks with a picture of his experience as a BAVC Fellow.

“You work from 8:00 am to 8:00 at night and you have a crazy-making deadline to show your project to funders, NGOs and other filmmakers. If you do not have a kick-ass presentation, you just may die a miserable death. But I loved every minute of it.” 

Roland along with his co-director Eddie Martinez and social media tech whiz George Weiner has been in the trenches creating this multimedia project for almost three years. It all started in a South Bronx high school classroom where Amy Sultan, Joe Ubiles and Roland started a spoken word poetry class in 2002. The three teachers never imagined they were going to help create a transmedia project or a film.


The ‘To Be Heard’ project started in a South Bronx high school classroom.

“It is all about the kids and it has been from the beginning.”  A lot of filmmakers make this claim but Roland and his colleagues are the real deal. You know it when you hear their teaching mantra: “If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.” A few years into the writing program, Academy Award-winning director, Deborah Shaffer urged Roland, also a filmmaker, to create a film about the program. Five years later, Shaffer, along with Roland, Amy and Eddie Martinez were finishing To Be Heard about three South Bronx teens in the program and the love that develops between them as they evolve as artists and grow into adults.The trailer for the film was bottled fire and it made me want to catch this verite doc but when I heard about the transmedia project I was really jazzed. The Power Writers all had elegant leather-bound journals for their class, but as pretty as those books were the youth were most comfortable when they were composing their poems on their cell phone keyboards

This is where the Power Poetry Transmedia Project was born...many American kids text 50 times a day. Talk about revolutionary new media. Power Poetry will be a cell phone community of conscious, politically aware spoken word poets. Imagine a slam contest on your portable! Well it just might come true.
Jackie Olive also presented her multimedia project Always in Season, which tackles a chilling piece of American history: the lynching of African Americans for almost 100 years, up until 1964. She hopes this project will help to heal the legacy of racial violence in this country.

“Lynchings were well-planned events, attended by thousands.  African Americans were so often targeted that it was akin to the sport of hunting, and blacks were always in season. We are specifically looking at how this history impacts the present by focusing on family members of the victims and spectators and their grassroots efforts to reconcile the destructiveness of lynching and seek restorative justice.”

It all began when Jackie returned to her hometown in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and went to see an exhibit of lynching postcards and photographs called Without Sanctuary.

“When I was growing up I had a fragmented knowledge about lynching. As a young black woman, I knew about the history but the victims were faceless; few people talked about it. When I saw those images on display it was not only shocking but a revelation. The men, women and children hanging from trees were familiar; they could have been my relatives, my friends, my loved ones and my neighbors. I wanted to know who they were, and who were those spectators.  Just as importantly, how those brutal murders impacted those who continued on.”

Early on in the project, Jackie envisioned not only producing a documentary but creating a hub where audiences and educators could learn more about this history. She realized that genuine partnerships with educators and key stakeholders was critical to this vision so she sought out the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which owns the Without Sanctuary exhibit and tours it throughout the country, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Hampton University and a range of digital media advisors as partners.

“When I first heard about Second Life, I felt like it might be a good fit for my project because it was such an immersive environment.” She applied to the Bay Area Video Coalition’s Producers Institute, where she started building a Second Life locale based on the events of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, where 10,000 people gathered to watch the killing of three men.

“The great thing about this story is that one of the men, James Cameron, actually survived because someone in the crowd intervened. He was 16 years old and he ended up living until he was 92. He founded the Black Holocaust Museum and he was first NAACP president in Indiana. People who enter Second Life’s Always in Season Island will see and hear the voices of the people in the Marion courthouse square who were part of the lynch mob, and with role-playing features, they will have the opportunity to determine whether the lynching happens. It is very traumatic but I do not think this is a bad thing; this is a way for people to feel how horrific this history is in a facilitated virtual setting and then use those lessons of how to take a stand against hate out in the real world.”

In addition to the virtual role-playing, people will be able to dive into the Without Sanctuary exhibit and dig deep into the history of lynching.  The island will include additional archival footage, a suggested curriculum, and reflection areas for visitors to process and share their experiences simultaneously with others in Second Life and the real world using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

This Conference was a unique opportunity to experience much more than the innovative content of transmedia projects. Presenters including a panel of radio producers provided us with the anatomy of the making of these endeavors, including the development of authentic partnerships and the importance of planning your engagement strategies from the get-go. It is a whole new world out there and attendees gained some fresh new tools.  There are a lot of workshops for makers on building multimedia and sometimes one can get jaded with the "conference industry" that has evolved but Media that Matters delivered this year.  Register early for next year.

Erica Marcus, is an independent filmmaker and grant writer who has worked in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan in narrative film and television, with numerous German filmmakers and American filmmakers. She has also have produced and directed her own documentaries, My Home, My Prison (with Susana Blaustein Munoz, which premiered at Sundance) and the ITVS-licensed film Alive in Limbo (with Hrabba Gunnarsdottir and Tina Naccache).  She is currently developing a new project on China's historic and growing relationship with Africa.


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