Getting connected on the Doc Bus

Open Cinema's founder, filmmaker Mandy Leith, launched Get on the Doc Bus! a cross-country road trip for the future of documentary film.

Mandy Leith, founder and program director for Open Cinema, poses atop The Doc Bus, a camper van she drove on a cross-country documentary pilgrimage.

When Mandy Leith got on the Doc Bus last week, the Open Cinema founder and filmmaker didn’t just reunite with the 1991 Westfalia camper van she drove on a cross-country networking adventure in the name of documentary film. She came face to face with a physical embodiment of her community-building aspirations – the mechanic who fixed her transmission pro bono in Halifax and returned the van to her in Vancouver.

“The Westfalia community is an amazing pay-it-forward community that provides an interesting model for the kind of network we could be developing in the documentary industry,” said Leith, who finished the trip down a vehicle and up a sense of hope adn inspiration for the future of community engagement through documentary.

Last May Leith set out on Get on the Doc Bus!, a 120-day cross-country adventure, where she met with 165 documentary filmmakers, festival and industry organizations to identify an underrepresented sector in the screen trade, the non-Hollywood exhibition sector, or community cinema where filmmakers and audiences meet. Her research mission: to explore the future of documentary and discover the level need for Cross Canada Community Cinema Network. With the future of documentary uncertain, and a decade of investigation on the topic within Victoria, the time was ripe for Leith to hop aboard the bus and start connecting with her cohorts.

For the past 10 years, Open Cinema has been screening documentaries in café-style venues, followed by an open forum discussion with a panel of invited guests. Within the past year the series has evolved into a hybrid event using live video streaming, Twitter and Facebook to scale-up the engagement. Selected films are publicly available using iTunes or another online streaming platform, and the following Tweetchat is tracked. The Twitter reach for their last Open Cinema discussion was 123,000 users, up from an initial reach of 20,000 – numbers on a par with docs on TV.

“It seemed like the right time to head across the country to connect with other filmmakers, with film festivals, with like-minded community screening initiatives and with industry organizations to find out who’s doing what in the live and virtual hybrid screening space and to find out if what we’ve been doing is of any use to the evolving hybrid audience experience,” Leith said. “There’s no connection between festivals or community screening organizations. That does not exist anywhere in the country.”

For Leith, that meant taking a hybrid approach.

“That’s why I got on the bus instead of making a lot of phone calls or sending emails: it feels really important in our online world,” Leith said. “Most people told me that after our conversation they were feeling really inspired about what’s actually a pretty dismal economic scenario. It inspired people to feel that there is something we can build that will help the industry and support the work that we’re doing.”

The response to what Leith describes as “documentary outreach project on steroids” has been overwhelmingly positive and inspiring, and includes support from the major industry players. Leith is now in discussion with the Canada Media Fund, the Documentary Association of Canada and the National Film Board of Canada to see if the model Open Cinema built experimentally can be used to provide revenue for the filmmakers through streaming in conjunction with live events.

“It’s really about focusing on the live events but using these tools to develop both a culture of documentary-watching and helping to develop revenue models, much in the way that iTunes helped develop the music scene’s online revenue model 10 or 15 years ago.”

“This Doc Bus journey really helped everyone realize that this is a shadow economy in the film industry that is becoming more and more vital as broadcast strands for documentaries dwindle and festivals and community screenings become one of the very main ways of getting documentaries out there.”

The filmmaker, while still recovering from all the driving, meetings, doc bus maintenance, and camping, will share insight into the experience and cinema as a tool for community building during Open Cinema’s Season 11 premiere Oct. 30 at 7pm (doors at 5:30), at Victoria Event Centre, 1415 Broad.

Connected, Webby Award founder Tiffany Schlain’s documentary about what it means to be connected in the 21st century will screen, followed by a discussion with Leith, and fellow community-builders Jason Guille, director of the Victoria Public Market at the Hudson, and climate action analyst Heather Bauer. Join the conversation via #opencinema Tweetchat and learn more about Open Cinema or Get on the Doc Bus! at opencinema.ca.

“It’s been a bit of a risk for us to promote the streaming option because we do depend on people coming to the door and paying a donation to us,” Leith said. “We took the risk in the name of the bigger picture where we are innovating. … As it turns out Open Cinema is a couple of steps ahead of the game. Everybody’s thinking about it, but nobody’s doing it to the extent that we have.”

 

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