Site now high-profile outlet for filmmakers

What began as an inexpensive way for the Economist to add video to the magazine’s text-heavy website has become a high-profile outlet for filmmakers to expose their documentaries to audiences.

In April, editors at the Economist and producers at “PBS NewsHour” started airing six- to eight-minute segments from films on subjects ranging from Chinese workers to maternal care in Nigeria, sent to the Economist Film Project.

A dozen projects have been chosen to air so far, with three to be showcased each month through 2011.

The first chosen include Dawn Sinclair Shapiro’s “The Edge of Joy,” about Nigeria’s battle against maternal mortality; “Wagah,” Supriyo Sen’s look at the nightly closing of India and Pakistan’s lone border crossing; Lixin Fan’s “Last Train Home,” covering the annual mass migration of China’s urban workers back to their villages; Landon Van Soest’s “Good Fortune,” on a Kenyan community hurt by foreign aid; Adam Wakeling’s “Up in Smoke,” about solutions to farming in the rain forests; and “Skateistan,” on the growing popularity of skateboarding in Afghanistan.

Russian revolution doc “My Perestroika,” from student Academy Award winner Robin Hessman (“Portrait of a Boy With Dog”), is featured tonight.

More than 930 submissions have been received to date, with 1,000 expected by the end of the summer. Without much promotion, the project’s site has attracted 160,000 unique visitors. It’s not surprising why. The Economist boasts a readership of around 1.5 million worldwide, while “NewsHour” has an audience of 1.1 million TV viewers each night. The program is seen or heard by more than 5 million on TV or on the radio weekly. Online, it attracts 1.4 million more unique monthly viewers, who stream video. More than 1.9 million watch the show’s video segments on YouTube each month.Online, the Economist has also turned to the film segments to help grow its iPad and iPhone app usage.

While in most cases the full films aren’t screened — one exception is “My Perestroika,” which will air in full June 28 on PBS’ “POV” — even a mention of the docs through the Economist or PBS could significantly increase viewership of the pics. Filmmakers retain the right to distrib the pics anywhere else. So far, “NewsHour” is the primary way the films are distributed, but the Economist is considering eventually packaging the pics on DVD or promoting them through other platforms.

By pairing up with PBS, the Economist was also looking to increase its readership by putting the magazine’s title in front of a new audience.

“We have, more or less, a similar demographic,” said Gideon Lichfield, who serves as the Economist Film Project’s editorial director. “We came up with the idea of documentary films because the Economist is all about explaining the world but we mostly do that in text form. We wanted to promote people who explain the world through films. There are great documentary films that don’t get the attention they should.”

The Economist had done some video segments before, sending out correspondents to produce news documentary type clips. “We’ve made a lot of video to put on our website, but people don’t come to us to look for it,” Lichfield said. “We’ll always have the print version, but the methods and modes of storytelling and analysis are evolving at a very fast pace and people will expect a name or a brand that has a reputation for doing great analysis to get that information in all sorts of formats.”

Lichfield has been surprised at the number of submissions.

“I naively thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal for filmmakers,” he said. “But we’re getting a terrific response from people who want to put their films out there, even people who already have wide distribution.”

As expected, there have been a large number of films covering the war in Afghanistan, climate change and financial crisis.

In choosing which docus to promote, Lichfield had to be reminded of the reason why many of the films are made in the first place.

“Documentary films tend to be films that make a certain point,” he said. “We’re looking for films that take a stand but give context and credence to other points of view. A number of documentary films don’t do that. They are too one sided. If you are going to campaign on an issue, a film can be a great way to do that.”

” ‘My Perestroika’ is political history as seen from the kitchen table,” Lichfield said. “It’s a wonderfully personal portrait of how one of the most momentous events in my lifetime, the collapse of the Soviet Union, changed the lives of ordinary people — and it’s particularly relevant now, 20 years afterwards.”

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