Documentaries are back

By Jesus Chavez

With so many entertainment options, audiences are looking for compelling factual content with an emotional connection. Read how to make your documentaries stand out with these tips from our director of digital media and entertainment.

I recently attended the annual Realscreen Summit with Claribel Torres, AP’s director of digital media and entertainment, and spoke with executives and producers looking to make an impact with audiences who have more entertainment options available to them than ever before.

Claribel and I spoke about the trends we noticed from the conference and what they could mean for the industry in the year ahead.

Claribel, based on your conversations with other attendees and the panels you watched, what were some trends that you noticed?

Claribel Torres

The No. 1 thing I noticed was that documentaries are back. I’ve attended Realscreen for 13 years, and I’ve seen it go through many phases. During that time, I have never heard the word “documentary” said as many times as I did this year.

Of course, reality series are still here, but to some viewers they aren’t as relevant as they were a few years ago. I’m not saying reality as a genre is going away, but audiences are now much more savvy.

They’re looking for premium content and networks are responding. One network in particular – Discovery – is revamping its approach to include content less likely to be ratings stunts (remember the man-eating anaconda that wasn’t?).

It seems as if, because of the success of shows on new platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, that producers are open to hearing any kind of idea. No longer are distributors looking for content just to fill time – they want everything to be amazing because the next big hit could come from anywhere. Did you get that impression as well?

I think that’s a big part of it. And I think with documentaries, there’s a certain authenticity that’s missing from other types of programming – you can’t go back and reshoot history. When audiences see and hear original content from a major history event from their lives, they stop and think about where they were when it happened. There’s an emotional connection there.

And I think with documentaries, there’s a certain authenticity that’s missing from other types of programming – you can’t go back and reshoot history.

Something else I heard was an emphasis on having a “unique access point” — networks wanted to know how producers could execute their ideas better than anyone else. How can producers do that?

Well at The Associated Press, we work with producers to bring their projects to life. We have reporters based around the world who not only produce multimedia stories, but also know their local cultures inside and out. For example, for the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, we worked with Tom Jennings Productions on a documentary for the National Geographic Channel.

In addition to providing video, images, text and never-heard-before audio clips from our archives, we also secured access to the AP reporter who was at the Kennedy Space Center for liftoff in 1986. He was able to provide personal audio soundbites from the scene, as well as notes and story ideas to staff at the production company. We looked at all of these assets and determined with them which ones would best tell the story they wanted to build for Nat Geo.

So, how can a documentary stand out from the competition?

I think the perspective you take on covering a story can be a difference-maker. The National Geographic special zeroed in on the life of Christa McAuliffe, who was scheduled to be the first teacher launched into space. The way the documentary was presented — using prerecorded footage and interviews without narration — also made it stand out from other features about the tragedy.

I think the perspective you take on covering a story can be a difference-maker.

At AP, we also have easily licensable clips that can complement or help form your storylines — for example, I recently received a phone call from a producer who needed a particular clip of certain buildings in Salt Lake City, Utah.

While we didn’t have an exact match of what he wanted in our archives, we were able to use our Content Services team to send a local crew to film the footage. The producer wanted a shot of the city at a certain angle at a particular time of day – we were able to do it within two hours, saving the production company from sending a remote crew in for a full day.

Documentaries are in, but what other trends did you see at the conference?

There was a lot of buzz around virtual reality, which could easily be its own discussion for another day. The mechanics of filming in virtual reality are still being worked out, and we’re still experimenting with it at AP.

The panelists themselves said we’re not even in Chapter 1 of the medium, which makes it more impressive when I put on the headset and look up, down and around and feel like I’m in the story. But based on the interest we’ve seen, I think it’s fair to say virtual reality is here to stay.

Jesus Chavez

Jesus is a licensing executive for production and digital media at The Associated Press.

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