Crowdfunding, Collaboration and the Blind Men and the Elephant

This week, five key media-making organizations in Victoria are joining forces for the first time to present Ian Mackenzie’s popular Crowdfunding 101 workshop, and Media Rising (yours truly) has helped to make that happen. As part of a new move towards increased collaboration across media sectors, MediaNet, CineVic, the Victoria Independent Film Professionals Association (ViFPA), Media that Matters and the Vancouver Island South Film & Media Commission are coming together to offer a workshop that is all about participatory thinking inspired by online engagement. Read more about the workshop in this Times Colonist article.

Tearing Down Old Structures

While the new 24/7 everywhere media environment is presenting a whole host of funding, production and distribution challenges, it’s also thankfully breaking down worn out silos and hierarchical ways of doing business. The distinction between amateur and professional media creators becomes blurred, and even irrelevant, when everyone is struggling to make a living in the field.

Cooperation in a fractured media landscape

This became very clear when ViFPA, Media that Matters, NFB and Media Rising offered a workshop called Making Films, Making a Living in March 2012.  We brought a wide range of local screen media professionals together with the hope of forging a new collaborative future out of the fractured media landscape. What emerged was a renewed spirit of cooperation and shared learning that transcends age, experience, job titles and sectors.

drawing of the Blind Men and the Elephant

The Blind Men and the Elephant

If you’re planning to make a living telling a story or message to an audience, the game is changing beyond recognition, no matter whether you work in film, video, TV, the Web, social media or even writing. The cult of the individual has encouraged us to try to figure out things out on our own, but the problem is too multifaceted for one person to solve. It’s like the story about the blind men and the elephant: individually they couldn’t make sense of their different experiences, but with the perspective of their collective understanding comes the possibility of greater knowledge and insight.

Collaboration is the name of the game

So, waddya say.. Let’s work together across our differences to find bold new answers to mind-bending media questions.


Always a storyteller, sometimes a…cameraperson!

My work involves wearing many digital media storytelling hats, which gives me a variety of ‘looks’, or at least, ways of looking. By turn, I’m strategizing with and coaching clients on their media and messaging goals; writing, producing, directing and editing content for every kind of screen; teaching; networking and brainstorming with peers; managing events & programming OPEN CINEMA screenings; and more. Variety is the spice of life!

A Digital Storytelling Toolbox

Having a broad skill base is a good thing if you’re a media savvy storyteller / digital alchemist / social media strategist / content marketer / documentary filmmaker like me, because it gives me a big ol’ digital storytelling toolbox to dip into. (I suspect I’m not alone in my search for an appropriate single term to describe my digital ninja skills these days. Can you relate?)

What is a Digital Alchemist, anyway?

Recently, I’ve been whittling away at a definition of what I do. Here’s what I’ve come up with: I help people to clarify, articulate and share their story or message with the world, using the appropriate media tools to reach their target audience: DVD, TV, cinema, podcast, webathon, YouTube, Facebook, blog, Twitter, LinkedIn…you get the idea. The common denominator is storytelling, and that’s what I know (and love) the best. A good story is like a life preserver: without it, your message is just more dead weight data that will virtually drown in the Internet ocean.

Always a storyteller, sometimes a…

Karen Davies, Steve Walker Duncan and Louise Rose in the Flavours studio kitchen

Karen Davies, Steve Walker Duncan and Louise Rose in the Flavours of the West Coast kitchen

So this week, I was working as a cameraperson on a studio shoot for an awesome local TV show, Flavours of the West Coast. Now in it’s 3rd successful season, this Cedarwood Productions gem features local farmers and foodies who are creating an astonishing array of local delicacies. The series also includes a fab studio kitchen segment with affable and talented host Chef Steve Walker Duncan, who is joined by a different local celebrity Rookie Chef each week. Check it out! This series is a lot of fun ~ with some great recipes, too!

Cooking up Soul Food

Chef Steve Walker Duncan with R & B legend Dutch Robinson in the Flavours kitchen

Chef Steve Walker Duncan cooks up soul food with R & B legend Dutch Robinson

During two long studio shoot days, we shot ten kitchen segments with ten amazing local talents, including Bob McDonald (Quirks and Quarks), jazz singer Louise Rose; Assistant News Director at CHEK Dana Hutchings; and an exciting newcomer to the West Coast music scene: Dutch Robinson. This R & B legend demonstrated his five octave vocal range (!!) and he’s played with The Ohio Players (Love Rollercoaster), Kid Creole and the Coconuts and most recently DRUM. Every one of these folks is passionate about their life and their work, and it was a pleasure to help share their stories.

I love my job!


Documentary, Reality and the Future

For a couple of years now, we’ve been grappling with the very real possibility of the demise of the Canadian documentary. The industry as we’ve known it over the last 20 years has been dealt a number of life-threatening blows, a lethal concoction made up of  equal parts economic turn-down, cancelled broadcast strands, government funding cuts, the emergence of low cost Reality TV, digital technology and the Internet. The number of Canadian docs being made has been steadily dropping over the last 5 years, by as much as 21% according to Getting Real 4, the Documentary Organization of Canada‘s most recent economic profile of the Canadian documentary production industry. Ironically, for audiences, the documentary has never been so popular. Download the detailed report here: Getting Real.

Getting Real About Documentary

This trend isn’t exactly news. Many doc filmmakers are struggling as the market shrinks and turning to crowdfunding sites such as IndieGogo and Kickstarter with varying success. Over the last couple years, I’ve responded by successfully rebranding as a media-savvy storyteller, educator and social media content strategist. But my heart isn’t able to let go so easily; I’m still set on finding a way forward for the beloved genre.  As part of my involvement with the Documentary Organization of Canada’s National Board of Directors, I’ve helped spawn an audience development campaign to raise awareness about the plight of this endangered storytelling species.

We Love Documentary logo

We Love Documentary launched at HotDocs 2011 and will form part of a longterm campaign in conjunction with DOC’s advocacy efforts. Plus I’m currently developing a fun interactive cross-country roadtrip project that will engage documentary audiences, filmmakers and changemakers across the country: get ready to Get on the DOC Bus!

So while I haven’t exactly been hiding out from the changing media landscape, my experience at last week’s VIFF Film Forum was a rude shock to the documentary ego.

The Beginning of the End Game

The first indication that we’re in an end-game scenario came when Storyville Vancouver was cancelled. We can only speculate why no international broadcast commissioners came to hear BC doc filmmakers make public pitches this year.

The next clue came when I checked out the VIFF Film Forum program: for the first time this year, ‘Documentary Day’ was renamed ‘Factual Day’. What used to be a day of talks dedicated to the genre, this year, was a disorienting mashup of what I might call FactuReality.

Cartoon about Reality TV: chickens watching a chicken roasting on a spit.

Reality TV: It's all about the sizzle

Sessions included documentary’s Pursuit of Objectivity (which the excellent panel agreed was not the point of documentary at all); producing a punchy sizzle reel to upsell your Reality series; CBC’s new online interactive experiences; and the transmedia project Collapsus experiments in cross-platform storytelling. All interesting and tangentially relevant, but I missed the usual networking with my fellow doc filmmaking colleagues, who were, for the most part, noticeably absent.

Good Luck With That

The real sting was delivered during the tail end of the day, at the Industry Networking Cocktail reception. After Minister Ida Chong officially opened the Forum, I found myself in conversation with Don Fast, Deputy Minister of BC Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. “What do you do?”, he asked me. I began by cheerfully replying “Well, I was a documentary filmmaker, when there was an industry…” But before I was able to tell him about my creative re-branding and ask his thoughts on the future, he changed the subject. I heard all about his daughter, the actress. At the end of our conversation, he shook my hand with a friendly smile, saying “Good luck with making  documentaries.”

I’m usually pretty optimistic, but I have to admit I left feeling rather discouraged. What do you think, dear reader? What does the future of documentary look like from where you sit?

In Memoriam: Mike Littrell, Cultural Mythologist (1948-2010)

A few weeks ago my friend and mentor Mike Littrell closed the book on this earthly story. True to his passion for narrative and mythology, this intriguing, brilliant man left more questions than answers and he left us wanting more.

Mike Littrell

Mike Littrell (Photo: Gene Miller)

Mike had many friends who each experienced a different facet of this handsome diamond-in-the-rough. But I’m pretty sure everyone would agree that he was a Master Storyteller. He drew on a profound knowledge of ancient mythology, deep history and popular culture, which gave him an insightful perspective of our collective narrative history. I  learned more about storytelling and mythology during the brief 18 months that I knew him than I had in the previous 30 years that I have been working as a documentary filmmaker, editor and narrative consultant.

Tell Me a Story and Make It About Me

The beautiful eulogy delivered by Mike’s sister Barb Morgan bore the poignant title “Tell me a story and make it about me!” and it spoke volumes about the man and his work.  “Don’t tell your story, ” he often advised. “Tell the audience’s story. The key is getting them to think, Oh yeah, me too!”

I first met Mike at an inspiring un-conference I regularly attend on Cortes Island.  “Media that Matters” annually brings together media professionals dedicated to positive social change.  We brainstorm, network and chill out on the beautiful beachfront property at Hollyhock. Mike’s brilliance shone a light into our May 2009 gathering. We were enthralled by his quiet charismatic presence.

Sutton’s Law

I’ll never forget the first story I heard Mike tell about Willie Sutton, the notorious 19th century bank robber. Sutton spent over half his life in prison and when asked by a reporter why he had robbed so many banks, he replied: That’s where the money is. “Don’t ignore the bleeding obvious,” cautioned Mike with a twinkle in his eye. “The simplest answer is usually the right one.” Sutton’s Law is widely used in medical training.

During the summer of 2009, Mike and I met regularly at his ‘office': the outdoor patio at the Day’s Inn on Belleville Street. I was developing a documentary project and he was generously offering his insight. Accompanied by coffee and sunshine, two of Mike’s favourite things,  we talked about Homer, Parcival, Abelard, Dionysius and the proverbial Dragon we must all face in our lives. “Who’s dragon is it?” he would ask, making a distinction between the pragmatic slaying of someone else’s dragon and the transcendent quality of devouring or assimilating our own epic life struggle. “Make sure you don’t kill your own dragon!”

When Mike was holding court, the rich layered meaning behind his words was too dense to absorb in one sitting. His bright blue eyes danced as he spoke, making it almost impossible to do anything but listen with rapt attention. But I always had a notebook open, pen poised to jot down key words as he spoke, in the hope of mining the narrative gold at a later time. I’m so grateful I did that: I’ve been pouring over these cryptic scribbles in the last few weeks, amazed at their poignant relevance, treasuring every reminder of his sparkling intellect. I can still hear the plaintive sound of the Coho passenger ferry sounding its horn in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. It invariably offered timely punctuation to our timeless conversations, ringing down the ages.

A Bird’s Eye View

An American living in Canada since the late 60’s, Mike’s own story was both universal and unique. His lifelong dream of being a pilot was never realized due to less than perfect eyesight, but clearly he could ‘see’ in other more profound ways. He arrived at his deep understanding of narrative through studying physics and chaos theory, offering him a quantum view of the world. In the 1970’s he the international director of Earth Day International and later he worked as an adviser to the Obama campaign during the Iowa caucus. During recent years, he developed a practical theory of narrative alignment (MPA-N theory) that we will likely be hearing more about in the months and years to come.

While Mike had a deep intuitive understanding of the emergent story being ushered in by the internet and social media, he himself was not a digital native. I’m still amazed that until his death, googling him drew a virtual blank. You can read more heartfelt memories of Mike here and here.

Mike’s favourite quote was from Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and after, some are stronger in the broken places.” Although he is no longer with us, his ideas and inspiration are more relevant than ever. Mike posed a riddle that I will enjoy puzzling over for a very long time to come.

You are deeply missed, Mike but far, far from forgotten.