Live Streaming Services: A New Avenue for Documentary Filmmakers

When I first began to write this article, it was the beginning of the year, which now feels like an eternity ago. I am a filmmaker who dabbles in writing articles that relate to my work, and I started to actually try and produce something that could help me with this film, which is a hybrid of a road movie and a documentary on philosophical issues. The film was shot over three years in the US, Japan, and Europe, and involves a wide range of characters including art students, homeless people, and academics. I really want to make a film that can move people, or at the very least get them to think about their own life or the world in a different way. So a documentary on “issues” really is the best genre for this film, but it is hard to find funding for a documentary, and often they are just not seen. Live streaming is a real possibility, and it occurred to me that it might be a good avenue for documentary filmmakers, so I hope this article can be the first step toward proving that.

Benefits of Live Streaming Services for Documentary Filmmakers

Real-time engagement with viewers – When a filmmaker knows who’s watching his/her film, there’s potential for feedback. The degree of real-time viewer engagement varies depending on the live stream platform being used. For example, YouTube live stream has a chat bar for viewers to discuss the video content in real-time. provides similar streaming features; however, their platform is game-oriented and still evolving in terms of film presence. Despite this, the conversation that takes place between viewers can provide valuable feedback for the filmmaker and spark intelligent discussion of the documentary’s content. This is an opportunity to see how the audience is reacting to the film and its message. The filmmaker can gain an understanding of what captivates the audience and what may be confusing or controversial. Given the accessibility to diverse viewers with live streaming, this can be valuable feedback from an equally diverse demographic.

Widening audience reach – Documentary filmmakers aim to educate and inspire change in their viewers using an engaging and thought-provoking story. Most often, they focus on niche subjects, which limits their overall audience reach. Live streaming services can bring these films to wider audiences, increasing overall social impact. Social media and event marketing features can notify followers of the live stream and presence of the documentary at film festivals. Furthermore, scheduled premieres and countdown features can build anticipation and attract viewers that may have never otherwise encountered the documentary. A major benefit is the easy access to global viewers. Anyone with an internet connection can view a live-streamed video. This means more international viewers and more cross-cultural exchange of information. For a filmmaker looking to instigate change, this is a vital tool.

Widening Audience Reach

This is contrasted to public broadcasters. Recent Stanford and MIT studies have shown that YouTube is a more popular search engine for information than Yahoo. The Google-owned site is quickly becoming an alternative to television. Live streaming documentarians already have an upper hand, as all stream viewers are already seeking an ‘information fix’ and are self-selecting a documentary genre. A recent case study by Dust Films revealed that uploading their documentary to Google Video yielded significantly more viewers than a public television airing.

“As stated by Binhammer and Gasher (2007), documentarians have traditionally relied on public broadcasters to exhibit their work. This is consistent with the recent study where over 90% of the documentary filmmakers were still dependent on traditional television funding to remain in operation and to further advance their practice (Wayne & Raskoff, 2004). However, with airtime budgets continuing to shrink, broadcast slots for documentaries have become increasingly rare (Grierson Foundation, 2006). But as stated by an ITVS international representative, there is a demand for documentaries, just not enough slots to fill. Broadcasting has always been difficult. According to Take One Online, with a conservative estimate in North America, 50% of documentary films made are never seen by a public audience. For many, the risk of viewer statistics does not justify television airings and their films stay shelved or are only shown in small communities. According to Russell (2007), live streaming offers an inexpensive, high-quality solution for this dilemma. By having global access to potential viewers, streamers can build a niche audience and create a documentary community around their work. This point was reiterated by a recent panel of experienced documentarians, who stated that a film has not fully reached its audience until it has been discussed with like-minded viewers. Live streaming can facilitate this by reaching out to a select demographic and opening a forum for real-time discussion. Live streamers can also take advantage of the online setting and periodically stream specialized documentaries that would never make it into television time slots (Russell, 2007).”

Real-Time Engagement with Viewers

Given the increasing ubiquity of social networking tools and photo/video sharing on the web, future generations will expect higher connectivity and interactivity from media. Live streaming is well suited to provide this and it can begin to carve a new avenue for documentary film in a mediascape increasingly dominated by commercial entertainment.

In a case study examining the use of live streaming in documentary film at ITVS, filmmaker Marco Williams posited: “Why can’t we have a screened film which isn’t the end result, but a mile marker where at the Q&A we get feedback on the film?” Beginning in January 2009 with his participation in WITNESS’s Human Rights Youth Media Summit, Marco has been experimenting with using live streaming as a tool to promote discussion and obtain feedback on his film. The potential for such endeavors using live streaming is broad and could allow for engagement with any number of niche, issue-based audiences.

Live streaming services offer a platform through which documentary filmmakers can interact with their audience on a personal level. In traditional media, unless a viewer happened to locate an email address or a mailing address to get in touch with the filmmaker, there was virtually no way to provide feedback. With live streaming video, viewers can provide input in the form of questions or comments, and the filmmaker can respond instantly. Oftentimes, a viewer’s suggestions or comments can lead to the creation of new and exciting content.

Cost-Effective Distribution

Distribution costs for a documentary may include the creation of physical media (DVD and Blu-ray), shipping costs to film festivals and various events, or uploading costs to online streaming services. Creation of physical media is becoming less popular for independent filmmakers due to the decreasing demand and the availability of affordable online services for viewers. It is an expensive endeavor, however, with costs of replication and print, packaging, and later shipping to customers or warehousing unsold copies. The Postman Only Rings Once; since the rise of the internet, shipping costs have been doubled with the need to post screeners and preview copies of documentaries to festival gates prior to acceptance. High-quality documentaries may be accepted to dozens of film festivals around the world in any given year. 1-2 preview DVDs per festival adds up to a large sum. The shipping costs will still exist today, yet online methods of distribution will mean screener copies can be sent digitally, and assumed public release of the documentary will mean no shipping. Festival acceptance is a method of engaging with the viewers of a documentary in real time as they will seek the filmmaker or submit feedback. This is an aspect detailed in 2.2 and some can call it an effective marketing technique with spirit but money spent on festival entry is still a part of distribution. A documentary could spend money attaining the best possible screening time at a festival to maximize audience and later sales to viewers, and this isn’t unlike paying for premium exposure on a specific date and time of an online release.

Live streaming services are essentially a broadcast of video to an audience over the internet in real time. This can be done using various platforms and a range of devices, although the most popular is live streaming via social media platforms using a smartphone. While it was noted in 2.1 that live streaming can attract new audiences to a documentary, it can also be used as a cost-effective method of distributing a documentary to an existing audience, improving viewership and engagement compared to DVD or typical online release.

Cost-effectiveness is a measure of how efficiently resources (money, time, and effort) are used to achieve a particular outcome. It is an important consideration for any measurement technique, especially those used in industrial process or quality control, when choosing a method or technique to determine elemental composition.

Challenges and Considerations in Live Streaming Documentaries

Live streaming is still a relatively new technology, and one that is changing quickly. As such, filmmakers will find a number of technical challenges in live streaming their work. The first of these is the need for a secure and fast internet connection. While many places now have high-speed internet, there are still more that do not. While it may be possible to use mobile network internet, this can be expensive, and for large amounts of data, the costs may be prohibitive. Another concern is the increased data usage for the viewer. A good quality stream can use several gigabytes per hour, and as such, a viewer with a low data cap could find themselves locked out. These viewers may also be averse to streaming the film due to the cost and find it preferable to wait until it is available for download. An increased usage of the internet also increases the chance of an outage or disconnection. While most streaming services will buffer the video, any prolonged outage is likely to lose viewers. Finally, there is the issue of platform support. Different streaming services use different technologies, and our currently available films work only on Adobe Flash Media Server. It will be some time before there is universal support for all devices.

Technical Requirements and Equipment

The advanced technology required for streaming makes it a less feasible option for independent documentary filmmakers. There are various formats for live streaming and different platforms, each with different options for encoding and serving streams. There are hundreds of encoding options for video, audio, and metadata when streaming, and each of these has different results on the viewer’s end, which makes choosing the right setting a time-consuming and complicated task. Then there is the uploading of the content to a server and distribution to a Content Delivery Network that often requires a more advanced understanding of IT. Finally, viewers will have different technical setups at their end, so regardless of the quality of the stream, some may find it unviewable due to their hardware or internet connection. Live streaming events in high quality that are available to a wide audience incur high costs, and some filmmakers may find equipment and staffing costs too high for the potential return. Live streaming technology is, however, advancing at a fast rate, and it may become a more accessible option in the near future.

Ensuring High-Quality Streaming

There are many sources of free software that can test bandwidth. If using a software streaming application to encode the video, you can typically configure the maximum bitrate and monitor the upload bandwidth usage. If the test reveals that there is not enough bandwidth to reliably stream the video, there are some strategies to consider. One could lower the video resolution or framerate to reduce the bitrate. This would make the stream more accessible to viewers on slower connections, who may otherwise experience buffering and frequent pauses in the video playback. It is still possible to provide the higher quality video in an on-demand format after the live stream. A second strategy is to consider a different time or place with alternative Internet connections for the live stream. If reliable higher bandwidth Internet access is not possible, it may be best to delay the live stream until it is possible.

An important consideration when preparing for a live stream is the available upload bandwidth. Without adequate upload bandwidth, reliable streaming at a reasonable quality will not be possible. The rule of thumb is to have around double the required bandwidth to stream a good quality video. For example, a stream with an average video bitrate of 500 kilobits per second (kbps) will require 1000 kbps upload bandwidth. This is because the bitrate fluctuates and may peak higher than the average bitrate. It should also be noted that other Internet usage during the stream (downloads, other streaming, online games) will consume some of the available bandwidth.

Above all, live streaming documentary content should be captivating. Ideally, the viewer should forget they are watching a stream and just become engaged in the content. Anything that detracts from the experience, such as buffering, poor visual or audio quality, can result in a loss of a viewer.

Copyright and Licensing Issues

Typically, the cost of licensing archive footage will depend on who owns the rights and how rare the material is. News and current affairs footage is often easier to license but also more expensive. Archive photo rights can be particularly cost-effective and a good source of imagery for documentaries. Archive material can be a very significant part of the overall project costs, and it is important to keep accurate records of what material is used, where, how, and in what form, to avoid breaching the terms of a licensing agreement. Written contracts are the best form of agreement, and facilitation of future contact with the rights holder is important for keeping in good terms and gaining favorable rates.

Copyright provisions and licensing contracts essentially depend on the international, legal, and technical framework for copyright law and copyright treaties. It’s too broad a strategy to cover here. The securing of music and drama rights in the UK will differ greatly from licensing archive footage from a news agency in Afghanistan or filming with a music soundtrack in the USA. There are many different systems and organizations in different countries for licensing copyrights of music, and some music may be available to license for certain countries and not others. On top of this, there are two different types of rights for sound recording and musical works. There are very complex and strict regulations and potential penalties for using music for public performance without the correct licenses in place. It would be advisable to consult a legal expert with experience in this area.

Monetization Strategies

In terms of more immediate revenue expectations, pay-per-view remains a solid option for more established communities. The new wave of live events interfaces well with the documentary format, and often documentaries are used as promotional tools for a larger issue. This can span anything from awareness campaigns to ecological or cultural preservation. Pay-per-view or even special event-driven donations to a cause during a film can directly correlate to the impact a video has on an issue and can provide sustaining ROI metrics, which are currently hard to attain in web video.

The ability to embed and share streaming video in a controlled fashion (whether through free/low-cost solutions or premium paywall systems) allows for more efficient branding and audience building around specific documentary projects or even an entire filmmaker’s body of work. For instance, several grantees have mentioned a strategy of releasing a short teaser clip of the project and similar past work in special interest communities in order to cultivate interest before a release. This kind of tactic was not possible in the days of pre-internet video, where hosting public screenings would often be more trouble than they were worth in potential revenue.

In light of available data from a survey conducted by Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund grantees, we will examine prevalent monetization strategies as well as the obstacles filmmakers face in attempting to meet revenue expectations in new media.

As with traditional documentaries, monetization remains a key issue for documentary filmmakers. The portability of streaming video, combined with the ability to embed and share content across the web, opens up new possibilities for increasing viewership and cultivating niche audiences. This, in turn, can yield more sustainable methods for increasing revenue. In fact, due to the lack of upfront cash in the current state of digital distribution, meeting budget expectations remains a significant issue in contrast to the consumption of resources.

Case Studies: Successful Documentaries Utilizing Live Streaming

‘Streaming the Wild’ was a major online media event held in June 2005 and hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Public Broadcasting Service to mark the launch of PBS’s new full-screen high-resolution player. The event featured live streaming of various media and webcast events each day over an eleven-day period. Daily highlights included live webcast presentations and interviews with leading conservationists and scientists, discussions on an interactive blog, and live chats in which viewers could join leading conservationists in the field. Webcast content was archived and available on demand for one year following the event. An evaluation of the event can be found here and final reports are published on the PBS Sustainable Development Site.

4.1. “Streaming the Wild: Exploring Wildlife Conservation”

This section provides case studies of documentary projects which have used live streaming to reach new audiences or to explore new forms of documentary which have emerged with interactive digital media. The case studies range widely – from an expansive eleven-day event focusing on wildlife and environmental conservation to a “snapshot” twelve-minute live stream of a cultural event. They reveal the benefits and constraints of this mode of distribution and its potential to affect the form and content of documentary.

“Streaming the Wild: Exploring Wildlife Conservation”

As a result, the Trust hopes to bring the jungle to the pupils in modular form, and over the next few months, Durrell staff will be taking 3 classes of pupils through a series of live streaming events that will cover a variety of topics, from the importance of preserving the natural world to gaining an understanding of how rainforest ecosystems compare to those in temperate countries. These events will be open to all, and the developing country modules will be particularly beneficial to schools in Jersey, which have close ties with communities in tropical countries.

As a regular feature, the Zoo and Aquarium comprised of 80 students aged 9-13 from the local Paris Primary School, who visited the park to take part in a day of interactive learning in real jungle surroundings. Unfortunately, these types of events are rare within the UK and have now ceased altogether due to safety concerns about taking groups of young people into the jungle.

Using the motto “attracting as many people as possible, particularly young people, and informing them about the problem and how they can help”, our next case study explores how the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust has utilized live streaming to engage and educate people about wildlife and conservation issues. One of the Trust’s programs has a long-term relationship with the people of Nepal, helping them to conserve the rhinos and their habitats, which in turn helps the people and other wildlife. This program involved working with a school in rural Nepal, and small groups of students and their teachers would spend 3 days at an education centre in Chitwan National Park. The education centre is a valuable resource to the people living on the edge of the park who have little access to schools, books, and other educational facilities. It has a positive impact on attitudes towards wildlife and the environment, and the Trust, with assistance from the Bake Family in the USA, aims to extend its benefits to more schools and communities.

“Live and Unfiltered: Documenting Social Movements”

The project was, in terms of logistics, relatively inexpensive and utilized existing digital technology. Yet, without live streaming and the online community social element, the impact would have been far lesser. My own correspondence with one of the programmers of this project was the catalyst for the very creation of this thesis. He held that the project was a great success and a model for future documentary events. If he can be proven right, then this may well signify a shift in the documentary genre.

Participants of the game were able to log onto the unique website and observe the events and treatment of the refugee players, and in some cases, even engage with them over IM. The active MySpace community viewed the series to its conclusion and were able to participate in discussions on the issues raised via the game. This project is a lesson in the potential of convergence in modern media – the blending of documentary fusion with modern gaming technology and the use of online communities and social networking to raise awareness and discussion on issues.

Arguably, the most high-profile use of live streaming for a documentary event came with the US company Participant Productions. The company utilized a live-action game, the premise of which was to simulate the difficulties faced by refugee immigrants. The game took place in a large warehouse and involved numerous players who assumed the roles of either refugees or guards. The game was filmed over 24 hours, resulting in a mountain of footage which was doled out over 12 episodes, each of which was hosted by

“Breaking Barriers: Live Streaming Cultural Events”

Live streaming offers documentary filmmakers a unique way to gain access to and record cultural events that would have otherwise been too difficult, if not impossible to capture. In the case of “New Roots in America,” a documentary filmed primarily for educational purposes that has since been showcased on PBS, Project Shout used streaming as a research tool to gather as much information on tape as possible about a cultural dance called La Bealtaine. The La Bealtaine celebration, for which only one family of Cambodian immigrants to the US knew the traditional dance, was the last chance for Project Shout to witness the practice of a dying art. This event might have been missed without the interviews the director had with the family and other Laotian immigrants to find out what the highlight of Laotian culture in America was. The director also taped Laotian immigrants getting an understanding of the commonality between their culture and the Irish, with whom Laotians are paired in a program that facilitates the sharing of traditions between two immigrant groups. Through these interactions, Project Shout was able to gain permission to follow one family from the program to the next Laotian event, which will be much larger and serve to symbolize a fulfillment of the program’s purpose in reestablishing a cultural identity for the Laotian immigrants. This extensive series of events has been very well documented on tape and forms the core of Project Shout’s film covering Laotian culture in America. Without live streaming and a comprehensive approach like that of Project Shout’s, it’s likely that this and many similar cultural events would have been missed by documentary filmmakers.

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