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ESPN Films, FiveThirtyEight to Launch 2 Short Documentary Series (Exclusive)

ESPN Films and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight stats-based journalism blog this fall will roll out a pair of documentary-short series keying off the analytical approach cultivated by FiveThirtyEight, as the sports cabler looks to expand digital-first properties.

In the “Signals” docuseries, filmmakers will use data analytics to explore stories across political, economic, science, lifestyle and sports domains. Related features and visualizations will accompany the films at FiveThirtyEight.com. The first “Signals” installment is “The Man vs. The Machine,” which will premiere Tuesday at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival and is skedded to launch on FiveThirtyEight Oct. 22.

The 17-minute “Man vs. Machine” is directed by Frank Marshall (“Alive,” “Eight Below”). Short looks at the historic chess match between world champion Gary Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue computer, a story Silver discussed in his best-selling book “The Signal and the Noise.” ESPN said new films in the “Signals” series will debut approximately every six weeks.

The second series, “The Collectors,” tells the stories of professional statisticians — like the official scorer at a baseball game, a U.S. Census taker or meteorologist. FiveThirtyEight staff will aggregate and analyze data relating to the topics of the shorts for companion web posts. First of the 10 “Collectors” films will debut Dec. 10, with subsequent episodes every three to four weeks. All of the films in docuseries will be produced by Steven Cantor, founder of Stick Figure Studios (acquired last year by Ora TV, the digital network owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim).

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“These are exactly the kinds of projects I envisioned from the outset when I decided to bring FiveThirtyEight to ESPN,” Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, said in a statement. “Working with ESPN Films will help to expand our journalism in ways that prove a sound knowledge of data and statistics can make stories more compelling as well as more accurate.”

ESPN bought FiveThirtyEight from the New York Times Co. last year, and Silver and his team relaunched the website this year. In March, the sports cabler created a unit, Exit 31, grouping FiveThirtyEight, ESPN Films and sports and pop-culture website Grantland under one umbrella. Silver famously correctly predicted the Electoral College votes during the 2008 U.S. presidential election for 49 of 50 states, along with all 35 U.S. Senate races.

Specific topics and directors for “Signals” and “The Collectors” are yet to be announced. FiveThirtyEight writers will appear as subject-matter experts in the films where appropriate.

ESPN is using the Toronto Film Festival as a venue to launch the series because “we aspire to work with some of the best directors in the business,” said Connor Schell, VP and executive producer, ESPN Films and original content.

The docuseries will be free on FiveThirtyEight.com; ESPN hasn’t announced sponsors for the programs yet. The films could be distributed on TV, WatchESPN or other outlets, Schell said.

“We are platform-agnostic … but obviously we have a primary distribution channel through FiveThirtyEight,” he said. “These films are made specifically in evergreen ways, to be consumed in any way, and that distribution strategy may evolve over time.”

The FiveThirtyEight docuseries follow the model of “30 for 30 Shorts,” a collaboration between ESPN Films and Bill Simmons’ Grantland.com based on the flagship “30 for 30” series that airs on TV. This year, “30 for 30 Shorts” won a Creative Arts Emmy in the short-format nonfiction program category.

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