ReelChanges.org, a nonprofit venture that promises to herald an era of viewer-funded
documentaries, launched May 1. Since that time, the site has gained considerable
traction, partly driven by the  tenacity of its founder, Hal Plotkin (a
former journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle), and partly because
of the sheer power of the idea.

Last week Hal wrote a post about the positive reception to the site in the documentary filmmaker community and the site’s partnership with Spot.us, an even newer effort that aims for the audience to financially support community and investigative journalism. Spot.us founder David Cohn has written about the Knight Foundation-backed effort here on the IdeaLab.

Here’s a Q&A interview I conducted with Hal this week. 

Q:
ReelChanges.org is just getting off
the ground. Where did the idea come from?

A:
ReelChanges.org is working to create a new business model that can
financially support high-quality professional journalism. It’s the
first project of the Palo Alto-based Center for Media Change, Inc., the
501©3 non-profit I established last year with the help of some very
talented and able colleagues, friends and associates. The primary
mission of the Center for Media Change, Inc. is to enrich our culture
by helping to democratize, decentralize and improve the news and
information media, particularly its representative quality. ReelChanges.org is the Center for
Media Change’s first major accomplishment: the creation of a new online tool
that enables direct financial relationships between professional documentary
filmmakers and members of the public.

This
is something I’ve wanted to do, in one form or another, for a very long time. My
friend, computer programmer Andy Hertzfeld, and I first started talking about
using the Internet to enable public financing of different types of intellectual
property maybe 15 years ago. As you may know, Andy was a key developer of the
original Apple Macintosh graphic user interface. As a journalist, I covered
technology and business issues during the PC and networking revolutions for a
number of publications and news networks, including public radio and CNBC.com.
Like a lot of people, Andy and I have always wanted to see these new
technologies used in socially, economically and culturally beneficial ways. Even
now, there remain so many untapped opportunities to close those gaps, the gaps
between what is and what our new technologies make possible. This is one of
those ideas.

Q: How
so?

A:
ReelChanges.org reflects some of what I think many of us hoped could be achieved
once we had better technology. I don’t mean to sound too utopian, but I think
many of us born somewhere near the middle of the last century hoped that as more
sophisticated technology came online over the last few decades it would enable
more highly-evolved ways of living and of organizing our lives and our society,
including greater empowerment of communities of interest and an overall
decentralization of power. It hasn’t quite worked out that way in all cases. But
ReelChanges.org advances that overall vision.

More
specifically, ReelChanges.org constructively addresses the impact of the
Internet on professional journalism, beginning with documentaries. The basic
idea is much larger than just documentaries, though. It’s about creating a new
content-driven revenue stream to support professional journalism at a time when
the old revenue stream is drying up. And, even more important, it’s about
helping the public find and develop its more authentic voice. It’s about using
the Internet to harness the power that like-minded individuals create when they
act together, in this case to fund types and forms of media that may well differ
in important respects from the media that pleases more conventional gatekeepers,
such as network owners, advertisers and foundations.

Q: You
say you had this basic idea many years ago. What finally got it off the ground
this year?

A:
About three years ago, I hooked up with Berkeley-based documentary filmmaker
Yoav Potash. Yoav offered to take on an outreach role with other documentary
filmmakers and to recruit some of them to help us build and test a new web-based
application, with Andy helping to oversee it — that would allow us to pioneer
online public financing of documentary projects. Once we figured out exactly what we
wanted to do, it took us a little over a year to obtain official 501©3 status
from the IRS.

Q: You
often talk about “audience-funded media.” What do you mean by that?

A: I’m
not sure if I invented that term. In fact, it may not even be accurate to call
AFM a “new” category. After all, the public has been commissioning acts of
journalism and paying for them in advance for hundreds of years, at least since
the days of the first commercially published dictionaries. ReelChanges.org
merely brings this time-honored business model into the current online networked
era. In fact, to this day I remain surprised that no one really focused on doing
this here in the United States before us. Not that it’s an easy thing to do, it
certainly isn’t. But because it is so obviously necessary. I mean, how else are
we going to change and improve the content of our media unless we can figure out
how to pay for, how to finance, media that has the increased social and cultural
utility we need?

Hal Plotkin
Hal Plotkin

Fortunately, the basic ReelChanges.org concept is already working in at
least one other country, South Korea. That’s another reason we think it can work
here, too. Just last month, South Korea’s popular OhMyNews.com service raised
$130,000 from 34,000 people in 10 days to pay for a live webcast of protests
about a controversial trade deal. The corporate-owned media in South Korea
wasn’t giving the public the news and information they wanted, so the Korean
public got on the Internet and paid for it themselves. That’s the basic model.
To give the public a workaround so they can obtain high-quality professional
media without ceding all the decision-making power about the content of media to
big corporations that can have narrow or even undisclosed interests in the
stories being covered. Or not being covered.

At present, as an industry journalism is suffering its worst slump
in history. Newspapers are rapidly downsizing or closing entirely. Broadcast
bureaus and even entire divisions are being shut or decimated. We hope that over
time the ReelChanges.org business model, applied initially to documentaries, might
also help breathe fresh life and new resources into the larger profession
journalism itself as senior decision-makers within the media industry come to
understand the basic idea ReelChanges.org demonstrates: that if you do it right,
the public will pay to be involved in the decisions about what the news and
information media industries cover. Also, we think it is likely the content and
focus of coverage will shift in important, socially beneficial ways when the
public is invited to become more deeply involved in helping set the agenda.

Continued: Click here to read the entire interview.

Q: How
does ReelChanges work? Who selects the programming that appears on the
site?

A: Filmmakers submit projects, they are screened for quality and then, if
accepted, published on the site where tax-deductible donations are solicited and
accepted on their behalf. Currently, I am the site’s content editor but expect
to share that responsibility with others down the line as we expand and as we
begin to accept ReelChanges.org “showcases” on the site. A ReelChanges.org
showcase is essentially a channel, where the content options are determined by
the owner of the channel, for example, a specific public television station. I’m
also happy to report that my old friend and mentor, public radio legend Jim
Russell, is taking on a new role as a Consulting Executive Producer at
ReelChanges.org. Jim was the first executive producer of All Things Considered
and he also created Marketplace, public radio’s long-running business news
program, where he was kind enough to hire me as one of his first editors some 20
years ago. It’s great to be working with Jim again. I’m hoping to rope Jim into
more of the content selection and content improvement decisions over time.

And
one other key thing to note here, which is one of the more important fundamental
differences between the ReelChanges.org funding model and the traditional
documentary funding model used, for instance, by most foundations. Foundations
routinely turn down proposals from documentary makers that they wish they could
fund. They just don’t have enough money to support every good project they see.
We don’t have that problem. We don’t have to turn down any good ideas. We can
promote any and all worthwhile documentary projects and then let the public
decide which ones they want to support. So that is one of the big pluses in our
model. Our other rules and procedures, some of which are still evolving, can be
found on the ReelChanges.org website in the FAQ and the Guidelines for
Filmmakers

Q: What’s the ultimate goal — what do you hope to accomplish
with ReelChanges.org?

A: To build a new revenue stream that supports the production of
high-quality, standards-based journalism, starting with documentaries. The
steady and continuing destruction of journalism’s old business model poses very
significant threats to our democracy, whose very lifeblood is the free flow of
information and ideas. This increasingly dire situation demands some innovative
and novel responses to securing public support for public media. Frankly, I just
got tired of hearing people talking about this problem and thought the time had
come, and that my friends and I had a chance, to do something meaningful about
it. If the old business model that supports vital acts of public service
journalism was breaking down, and might not be repairable, then we simply have
to create a new one, or at least give it a good honest try.

Q:
What problem are you solving? What
are the limitations of the commercial media in showcasing these kinds of
works?

A: I
think acclaimed documentary maker Ken Burns summed it up best in the letter of
support he penned for ReelChanges.org before we had the site up: “This is a very
important moment for the documentary arts,” he wrote. “The recent advances in
broadband technologies have turned the Internet into a new highly accessible
pipeline for the distribution of audio and video. There is, however, currently
no similarly distributed funding mechanism that can support the emergence of
high-quality productions through and on this increasingly important
communications conduit.”

In
other words, we’ve had this incredible revolution in communications technology.
And yet, the business model that supports the creation of professional media,
and by that I mean media with professional standards and production values, is
basically the same as it was when we had three big T.V. networks 50 years ago.
If you don’t count bloggers in their underwear, it’s still pretty much all top
down. And no, I am not among those who think bloggers in their underwear will
replace professional journalism. I think professional journalism will replace
professional journalism. It’s just a question of how we pay for it.

Now,
if the advertisers won’t pay for it, and the networks can’t pay for it, then the
money will have to come directly from the public. But for that to happen, public
needs and interests must be better represented, reflected and served. In most
cases today, however, the public has virtually no role whatsoever in the process
of determining what the media covers. It’s just like walking into a restaurant
and being told by the waiter what you will be eating. How many other types of
businesses would stay alive with an autocratic business model like
that?

Right
now, virtually all the major media-related content production decisions in this
country are made by about 0.001 percent of the American public, primarily news
directors, big advertisers, network bosses, and a few foundation officials. Now,
I suppose it’s possible this tiny group always gets it right. But we don’t think
so. ReelChanges.org exists to give the other 99.9 percent of us a place where we
can be heard, and where we have a real voice and influence over professional
media production decisions. We don’t expect everyone will want to participate.
But over time even if only five or 10 percent participate, it will lead to big
changes at the headwaters of our national conversation. Changes that more
accurately reflect what we care about and who we are as individuals and as a
country.

Q: What kind of response
have you been getting from documentary makers?

A: The
response from filmmakers has been tremendous. ReelChanges.org has drawn praise
from dozens of documentary makers. It took just a few weeks to fill up our
homepage with great projects. Most filmmakers immediately understand the utility
of using a website to aggregate high-quality documentary projects and match them
with people inclined to support those projects. They also appreciate the fact
that we enable these connections with the public without charging filmmakers an
arm and a leg, and without attempting to interfere with their intellectual
property rights in any way. What’s even more amazing is that so far all the
filmmaker participation on our site has been entirely on a word of mouth basis,
filmmaker to filmmaker. We’ve haven’t done any paid advertising yet. It’s just
spreading virally at the moment.

Q: What types of video productions has ReelChanges been attracting? And
what’s popular with viewers?

A:
We’re still just getting started but we’ve already been attracting pretty
serious stuff from accomplished filmmakers, people who have produced and
directed at major networks. Jonathan Gruber, for example, whose work has
appeared on A&E and the Discovery Channel, has a project about a new history of Germany’s infamous I.G.
Farben
company; UCLA Research Scholar
Jennifer Abod has a neat project about
African American dance innovator Angela
Bowen
; Yoav Potash’s Life on the Inside
examines the current conditions faced by growing numbers of women in prison. One
of our more unusual early submissions is the compelling story of Kuki in Iraq, by
Jennifer Jo Utz, whose film revolves around a gay Iraqi refugee living in
Damascus, Syria. Jennifer’s work has appeared on ABC World News Tonight and
CurrentTV, among others. We get more great projects like that every week.

Some
of these are “orphan projects,” others are just seeds of an idea, floating out
there in hopes of gaining momentum. ReelChanges.org has been accepting
contributions for just a few weeks, so we are in the early stages of data
collection. But we do know that contribution response rates go way up when
filmmakers find and direct interested persons to their ReelChanges.org project
pages. So we are working on ways to improve those connections, including through
cross-promotions with public television stations and other media outlets.

Q: What do documentary makers get on ReelChanges that they can’t find on
a site like YouTube?

A:
It’s what they get and what they don’t get. On ReelChanges.org they don’t get
their serious films placed alongside some nutcase falling off a skateboard. We
curate the site. And we pay
attention to issues of quality. Also, qualified filmmakers get a cash register,
we call it their “box office,” where they can collect tax-deductible
contributions. Filmmakers also get a project page designed to help them build an
audience for their film. We’re 100 percent zeroed in on building direct
relationships between serious and dedicated documentary filmmakers and members
of the public inclined to support their work. In addition, filmmakers also
appreciate our superior online streaming qualities, which create a much better
online video experience, and our high-quality open source video player. Also, we
respect copyright rules.

Q:
This kind of business model is a bit of a shot in the dark. What kind of backing
have you had to get this off the ground?

A:
Well, it’s actually more than a wing and a prayer. To date, the underlying
technology has been paid for and developed by ReelChanges, LLC, a for-profit
entity. I currently own somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 of the LLC. The rest is
owned by a team of successful software entrepreneurs based in the U.S. and India
who’ve made this ongoing investment with the expectation they will drive
profitability over time through further development and marketing of the
ReelChanges.org platform and by providing value-added services. In addition to
having its technology costs underwritten in this manner, ReelChanges.org has
also benefited from the generous financial support of some of its founding board
members, including prominent San Jose attorney Richard Alexander, who
established the annual John Alexander Award for Excellence in Documentaries,
which is promoted on and available via ReelChanges.org.

In the beginning, I used
a zero-percent interest cash advance on my personal credit card, among other
creative if not always ideal sources of funding. We have lots of plans to expand
what we are doing when more funding becomes available, but at present we run the
operations of our still-volunteer organization on a shoestring, which keeps
expenses down. And we’ve also been helped by lots of generous friends of our
project, for example, www.ourmedia.com, which graciously offered ReelChanges.org overflow bandwidth on an as
needed basis. [Disclosure: I arranged this with Hal.] Looking forward, ReelChanges.org is seeking funding from
individuals, organizations and foundations to fund its full three-year business
plan, which is designed to enable organizational self-sufficiency.

Q: You used
to work at SFGate.com, which is owned by the San Francisco Chronicle, and
CNBC.com, which is owned by NBC. How do you see traditional media such as
newspapers or television networks responding to the plethora of creative content
coming from individuals and small operations today?

A:
It’s like watching a whale trying to tap dance on dry land. They don’t get that
this is a bottoms-up kind of revolution. So they flail about trying to change
what they are doing into whatever they think the public wants at that particular
moment. But what the public wants is to eliminate the corporate hammerlock on
information flows and to replace it with more authentic news and information. If
the traditional media could figure out how to do that they would really have
something worthwhile. But for that to happen, they’d have to drop their old,
paternalistic top-down business model, where a few bosses make all the big
decisions, and turn over more of that power to the public. My guess is the .001
percent of our population who make those big decisions now are unlikely to give
up or voluntarily share that power in any real ways, so I expect to see their
power and influence continue to wane and in that vacuum, which is growing very
fast now, the public will increasingly find new and better ways to satisfy their
individual news and information needs using sites like ReelChanges.org. That’s
all to the good, I believe. It’s in all our interests to see the public develop
those types of muscles.

Q: Do you see ReelChanges as competing with
public television and cable TV, or complementary to it? Are your producers
looking for distribution deals on larger platforms?

A:
We are already deep in negotiations
and, in one case actual development, of a promising joint venture with major
public television and other media outlets. I’m pleased to say that some pretty
sharp people within PBS and elsewhere have already understood the power of the
content-driven donation model we champion. Several stations are working with us
now to develop showcases and new revenue streams with very low, in some cases
almost negligible, up-front costs. We expect to make announcements about the
debut of some of these new relationships by or before Nov. 1, 2008.
ReelChanges.org is also exploring a variety of distribution deals we may offer
on a voluntary basis for projects on its site. We already enable filmmakers to
raise money for distribution, including rentals of theaters or other venues,
with viral marketing widgets for social networking sites such as Facebook in
development.

Q: As a
nonprofit how do you generate income to sustain your operations?

A: We
are currently operating in beta mode as we seek financial support from
individuals, organizations and foundations to fund ReelChanges.org’s full
three-year business plan. The developing revenue model envisions ReelChanges.org
continuing to enable individual filmmakers to raise funds for their projects on
the site with little or no commission charged. Later on, we will charge a
reasonable commission, based on common practices of organizations that provide
fundraising services, when ReelChanges is used by organizations such as
broadcasting outlets to raise funds, after successful beta test implementations.
ReelChanges.org also expects to offer additional revenue generating features on
its site in the near future.

Q:
How can regular people who support independent documentary making support your
project?

A:
ReelChanges.org is working to build a new way to make great public media happen.
Please help if you can by making a tax-deductible contribution today at
http://www.reelchanges.org/commons/about