Etsy Gets Cozy with Indie Filmmakers on its Documentary Video Blog

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Etsy logo

Etsy is one of a handful of popular
e-commerce sites attracting
documentary filmmakers.

What do an underground second-hand bookstore in New York City and Cypriot lacemakers have in common? Plenty, according to the folks at Etsy, the arts and crafts storefront site.

Brazenhead Books and the Lefkaritika were both subjects of short web documentaries crafted by independent filmmakers for Etsy’s video blog.

For more than three years, the popular DIY e-commerce site has not only been building communities around eclectic homemade crafts, but also has been offering journalistic video to animate their community of sellers and their wares.

And it turns out Etsy is not alone. Web videos by indie filmmakers are popping up on blogs for e-commerce sites such as Tom’s of Maine, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, that are directing their resources toward web video to meet a greater demand for content. As YouTube celebrated its fifth anniversary last year, it attracted over two billion views a day, exceeding viewership from three major U.S. TV networks combined.

Etsy Supervising Producer Beth Levison summed up Etsy’s reason for investing in video this way: “If Etsy is about stuff, our videos are about the meaning of stuff. In many ways the video is more aligned with the mission of Etsy than is immediately apparent. We can be a somewhat more explicit voice of the social mission that is Etsy.”

Etsy’s founding values promote local economies, community and micro-entrepreneurship, which lend themselves to storytelling. Etsy Editorial Director Juliet Gorman said, “We talk about storytelling in different contexts. It’s a value throughout the site and we do believe that people are interested in the stories behind the items they find on the site. We encourage sellers to write about the provenance of their item on the site, whether it’s handmade or its vintage and they sourced it and they know something about its history or its social context.”

Screen shot of Etsy's video blog

Etsy’s video blog highlights
documentary shorts about crafts.

Richard Hernandez, a multimedia journalist and professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, said reality-based content online is thriving because it’s something that connects with people. “It’s seeing a real person not a model or an overly produced thing. By employing a journalist or documentary storyteller to tell a real story, there’s already a perfect amount of authenticity that’s injected into it, and the audience feels it.”

But despite this, he has a warning for e-commerce sites just jumping on the bandwagon now. Hernandez and others have a name for these web docs: “documercials.” He says it’s a trend that’s peaking and will soon run its course. “It’s very much in fashion and a thing of now. We’ve seen it. We may ride it a little longer, but it’s going to shift into something else.”

“Ew! I’ve never heard the word ‘documercial!’ We are not making those,” said Levison, a veteran film producer whose credits include PBS’ EGG the arts show, Sundance Channel’s DocDay shorts and HBO family programs. “We are making documentary shorts that give viewers a window into objects, how they are made and by whom. We’re telling stories about the choices individuals and communities make that are clear alternatives to mass production. Many times we’re not even telling stories about sellers on our site — take the case of Brazenhead Books. So, if we considered these videos as advertisements, it wouldn’t make sense for us to go off site for our subject matter.”

“We’re eager to experiment with shorter formats, user-generated content and even acquired content,” Levison said. “We know that web videos need to be shorter than the TV segment. Oftentimes, they need to grab viewers attention more quickly.”

Regardless of the direction Etsy takes its video storytelling, Hernandez said, “The one thing that will always last is the power of a true documentary story.”

Bridging the gap between funding and production is another key element in video content curated by e-commerce sites such as Etsy. “There’s less and less funding and maybe it makes sense that a lot of this is moving to the web. E-commerce sites maybe have budgets that other people don’t,” Levison said. “This is one way in which journalism and documentary storytelling is finding alternative funding sources,” Gorman added.

Levison calls herself “filmmaker compassionate” and works closely with docmakers to craft web stories for Etsy. Through outreach to docmaker forums online and social media sharing on Etsy, she said many storytellers she has hired have embraced the site, and word is spreading about the filmmaking opportunities Etsy offers.

Alana Kakoyiannis is one filmmaker who responded to the open call. In her five-minute web doc “Lacemaking in Lefkara, Cyprus,” she tells the story of a dying art of embroidering. Kakoyiannis doesn’t think it’s unusual that Etsy is commissioning videos about craftmaking. “I think it’s a natural fit,” she said. “A lot of the stories being told are handmade, as well.”

Alana Kakoyiannis is one filmmaker who responded to the open call. In her five-minute web doc “Lacemaking in Lefkara, Cyprus,” she tells the story of a dying art of embroidering. Kakoyiannis doesn’t think it’s unusual that Etsy is commissioning videos about craftmaking. “I think it’s a natural fit,” she said. “A lot of the stories being told are handmade, as well.”

“I think the reason it worked so well is that [Etsy was] looking to work with filmmakers and have you share your story in your perspective in your style instead of having you mold to theirs, which is something you don’t find everyday.”

Filmmaker Alana Kakoyiannis

Filmmaker Alana Kakoyiannis

The Etsy films also have the perk of instant feedback for filmmakers from its large community of crafters. Kakoyiannis received more than 150 comments for her documentary short.

“It’s been a shot in the arm for them to get that kind of immediate reaction,” Levison said.

Kakoyiannis, who divides her time between Cyprus and New York, said the response from Cyprus has been “tremendous.”

Some of the Etsy filmmakers have piqued the interest of production houses, according to Gorman. That hasn’t happened yet for Alana. She’s in Cyprus, researching a feature-length documentary, and crafting her next project, on recycling discarded bootleg videotapes, which sounds like it could have a place on Etsy’s main site as well.

Filmmakers: Etsy is accepting pitches from documentary filmmakers and video journalists who shoot, edit and produce. Formal pitches should be sent to Beth Levison, blevison at etsy.com.

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Alva French
Alva French
Alva French is a freelance multimedia journalist and was a POV Digital intern in Summer 2011. She has been blogging on French and Francophone music, politics and culture since 2007 and is an aspiring documentary filmmaker. Alva is currently an M.A. candidate in International Reporting at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.