At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan had a eureka moment while listening to documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki sound off on the power of bite sized videos.
In the wake of the 2009 financial collapse, Jarecki produced a funny and angry protest short entitled “Move Your Money,” in which he urged viewers to push their money from the banking goliaths that got bailed out by the federal government to smaller community financial institutions. He made it in a few days, but found that its brisk run time allowed the film to go viral. It was seen by millions more people than had watched pictures such as “Freakonomics” or “Why We Fight” that he’d labored for years to bring to screens.
“I was inspired,” said Sapan. “It got me thinking that there are platforms and machines and screens that are better homes for short form content.”
Sapan was struck by the idea of taking something like the New York Times’ Week in Review section, a more contemplative take on the days’ events, and re-configuring it for a digital generation that likes its information streamed and shareable.
“I was interested in creating my own editorial page, but instead of writers, filling it with documentarians that can filter and comment on what is going on in the world,” he said. “It felt like something that could be enriching and important and have real impact.”
The result is “Take 5,” a five-minute short form series that will be produced by SundanceNow Doc Club, AMC’s streaming video-on-demand service. The series is set to launch in early 2016 and each collection will attempt to grapple with a newsy topic, with the hopes of starting a debate and airing alternate viewpoints. The plan is to take on such issues as the working poor, gentrification, prison and bail reform, voting rights, race and gun violence.
The first series will explore “Justice in America,” a hot-button topic that has inspired heated back-and-forth in the current presidential election. Doc Club has commissioned work from author and critic Nelson George, the team of Sheena Joyce & Don Argott (“Rock School”), Razan Ghalayini (“Tanked”), Rachel Lears (“The Hand That Feeds”) and Sheldon Candis (“LUV”).
All the films will be available and shareable for free, to both Doc Club members and the general public.
AMC has championed nonfiction filmmaking in a variety of different ways. Through its IFC and Sundance Selects labels it has fielded documentaries such as Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and Ethan Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction.” And the company was a driving force behind Doc NYC through IFC Center, the Greenwich Village art house movie theater it launched in 2005. Doc NYC is now in its sixth year and the festival has grown in popularity as it has chugged along. It drew a crowd of 6,000 people when it first started and that number grew to 25,000 by the most recent edition.
The festival and AMC Networks’ documentary endeavors have benefited from a rise in the popularity of non-fiction filmmaking. Netflix has made a point of curating documentaries and has backed original projects such as the Nina Simone film “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” while other streaming services such as Doc Club have made these pictures more accessible. Documentaries once were almost rigorously uncommercial — at one point the backers of Erroll Morris’ 1988 murder investigation “The Thin Blue Line” tried to expunge the “d word” from promotional materials lest they turn off audiences.
“Documentary was a toxic word,” said Thom Powers, Doc NYC artistic director. “You almost didn’t want to utter it. But with the rise of digital platforms, these films have become more available and as people watched a few they found them to be engaging and started going back for more.”
Some documentary filmmakers believe that the medium has benefited by lifting storytelling techniques from narrative film. The focus is more on story than conveying reams of information, they argue.
“The older films were too didactic,” said Kim Longinotto, the director of “Sisters in Law” who is being honored at this year’s Doc NYC. “They told you what to think. But more and more documentaries are allowing you to enter into someone’s world and feel their emotional buzz and watch people changing. You’re not just looking at statistics. You’re going on a journey with the characters.”
It’s still a niche business, however. Media companies seem more interested in backing “The Avengers” than “The Jinx,” after all. But Sapan says he’s not as interested in turning a tidy profit on Doc Club or the short film series as he is in creating something of value.
“We have often found across all of our businesses that we can have more commercial gain if we don’t think about everything through a near term commercial lense,” said Sapan. “