The world of documentary, news and nonfiction content is as varied as the work done by Rachel Maddow, Dawn Porter and Roy Wood Jr.
Those three are among the industry notables set to appear at Variety and Rolling Stone’s third annual Truth Seekers Summit, a daylong gathering for the nonfiction production sector to be held Aug. 2 at New York’s Second, an event location on 6th Avenue.
Something else that MSNBC anchor Maddow, documentary director-producer Porter and “Daily Show” correspondent Wood have in common: a talent for examining the nation’s most cherished tropes, folklore and trending topics through a different lens on race, gender and cultural issues than previous generations of documentarians. Intriguing reinterpretations of recent history is one of the hottest subgenres of content in both narrative and nonfiction.
“Buyers are really looking for subjects that are immediately recognizable to the audience,” says Sara Bernstein, president of Imagine Documentaries, which has grown rapidly since the unit was formed in 2018. “Documentary programming in this environment has become a real business” for top platforms, she adds.
Maddow last year delivered a jaw-dropping lesson in an overlooked chapter of history involving Nazi sympathizers in Congress in the early 1940s with her eight-part podcast series, “Ultra.” On the heels of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings in the summer and fall of 2022, Maddow and her team used the podcast form to its fullest with a riveting story that begins with a U.S. senator dying under mysterious conditions, Nazi agents infiltrating Washington and the 1944 sedition trial that few of us learned anything about in high school history courses.
One reason Maddow chose to bring “Ultra” to life as a podcast was that she found incredible archival material in audio form, from radio broadcasts and other early live recordings. She stumbled on the long-forgotten scandal about Sen. Ernest Lundeen as she was researching the history of Holocaust denialism in the U.S.
“Doing that [story] in the podcast environment felt real and direct and connected,” Maddow said on MSNBC in November. “When I got into the sedition trial stuff and realized what had gone on with this Nazi agent operating in Congress, I realized I had to tell that story before I did anything else.”
Porter’s latest documentary feature takes a fresh look at an underappreciated first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. “The Lady Bird Diaries” also hinges on a treasure trove of audio recordings that Porter used to paint a nuanced portrait of the woman who tapped her inheritance to help finance the first political campaign of her her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson. She remained an important force behind his turbulent presidency that began with the shock of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
“I wanted to focus on her public life and her contribution to politics that weren’t as visible as I thought they should have been,” Porter told Variety in March. “You always have to pick a lens and not try and do everything because if you try and cover everything, you end up with a mosh. So I chose to concentrate on what I’m really interested in, which is women’s power and how do they use it? How do they balance it?”
Wood’s work for “The Daily Show” and as a stand-up comedian keeps him busy contributing to the first draft of history (although his “Daily Show” work has been tabled since the Writers Guild of America went on strike May 2). Being on the front lines with his visibility from “Daily Show” in the era of Trump, fake news and social media echo chambers has been exhausting at times, Wood told Salon last month.
“In a weird way, the truth has become something that you can outsource to fit what you believe in. The question now is, what is truth? Is truth the truth, or is the truth what you choose to accept? A lot of people choose to deny truth. They live in that denial,” Wood told Salon. “When you look at what’s happening with [critical race theory] and people just going, ‘Oh, well, slavery, that wasn’t that big of a deal,’ if enough people say, ‘Slavery wasn’t that big of a deal,’ then you have a part of the country that’s just straight-up living in denial.”
The elusiveness of the eternal search for truth, news and political scoops will be the focus of a Truth Seekers roundtable conversation with Washington, D.C.-based broadcast journalists Laura Barron-Lopez
(PBS NewsHour), Mary Bruce (ABC News), Robert Costa (CBS News) and Mehdi Hasan (MSNBC), to be moderated by Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Noah Schachtman.
On the other end of the spectrum from breaking news, top deep-dive documentarians including Dan Cogan, Lisa Cortes, R.J. Cutler, Liz Garbus, Sam Pollard and Roger Ross Williams will assemble to discuss the marketplace for their wares and other issues in a session moderated by Variety documentary correspondent Addie Morfoot.
Among the hot topics to be explored with filmmakers, producers, executives and financiers at Truth Seekers will be the mainstreaming of artificial intelligence tools. For those engaged in nonfiction production, there’s enormous potential to use AI to handle some of the grunt work of research in crafting movies and docuseries. But quality control, ethics and copyright concerns promise to create a minefield of dangers in the coming years, especially for independent filmmakers.
“That tool is about to explode exponentially, especially if it is deemed that you can use AI footage for free,” says Nicola Marsh, a veteran cinematographer and now director of docs such as Showtime’s “The 12th Victim.” “If you’re doing a doc about climate change and you can tell an AI algorithm to ‘Get me a polar bear on a tiny block of ice in a huge ocean,’ that would be very helpful because that costs thousands of dollars to pay for in a stock library or to go get yourself.”
At the same time, there are real concerns about ethical lines, such as the use of AI for re-creations of voices, images and video. Filmmakers are always looking for alternatives to re-enacted footage “that can be quite cheesy right away and hard to stomach for viewers who have just been seeing photos of the real people,” Marsh says.
Imagine Documentaries’ Bernstein agrees.
“Our job as creators is to think about how we’re using that technology,” Bernstein says. “If we are re-creating somebody’s voice, are you very upfront with your audience about that? AI will only improve visually over the next few years.”
Another overarching theme of Truth Seekers this year is sure to be the post-pandemic shakeout in media. The biggest players are in the throes of business transitions — layoffs by the thousands and rumblings about more mergers, acquisitions and divestitures — that are already having a ripple effect on content creators. Wood put a fine point on the business environment during his comedian showcase slot at this year’s White House Correspondents Assn. dinner.
“It’s a tumultuous time in media. We got layoffs everywhere,” Wood told the crowd on April 29. “BuzzFeed News, NPR, Axios, Washington Post, ESPN. Paramount Global, right now, is considering offers from Byron Allen and Tyler Perry to purchase BET. That’s how bad it is out there. These companies are so broke, they’re giving BET back to Black people. Which, by the way, is not what we meant when we said Black people wanted reparations. We meant cash.”
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