How New York Times Op-Docs Change the Way Film and News Media Intersect

“We make sure all of our films, while very artistic and experimental, also stand up to the rigors of The New York Times,” executive producer Kathleen Lingo tells TheWrap

Last Updated: January 18, 2017 @ 4:58 PM

The New York Times has quietly been producing award-winning films that blend filmmaking with news media, but Op-Docs executive producer Kathleen Lingo doesn’t expect documentaries to replace the newspaper anytime soon.

“I don’t want to use the word replace, I would use the word extend,” Lingo told TheWrap. “I think things like Op-Docs extend the mission of The New York Times in new ways, given the fact that we do have a website and the internet is a wonderful vehicle that puts video in everyone’s hands fairly effortlessly.”

Lingo said her team is simply “taking advantage of the opportunity and the technology” that allows these films to be made.

“From the point of view of documentary filmmakers, when Op-Docs first started there were very few platforms for documentaries. There were film festivals, HBO and a few other broadcasters with programmed shorts but there was really a limited reach,” she said.

The New York Times’ editorial department formed Op-Docs back in 2011 and made a series of short films designed to present a unique point of view and initiate conversation about important issues. The op-ed page is where outside contributors write essays on pertinent issues and the Times wanted to extend the same opportunity to filmmakers.

Lingo said it was initially an experiment to see if audience were attracted to the genre.

“I think that’s really been the biggest innovation of Op-Docs, to breath new life into this form that already existed because of the technology and distribution methods that now exist,” she said.

Six years and over 200 films later, honors for Op-Docs include an Oscar nomination, two films on the Oscar shortlist, six Emmy nominations resulting in two Emmy awards, a Peabody Award, multiple International Documentary Association nominations for best series, Picture of the Year award for Best Multimedia Feature, and the World Press Photo Multimedia Award for Interactive Documentary.

“Our work really runs the gamut. We have films between one and 30 minutes, we have a number of series. In 2016 we published our first VR film… so we don’t just do short documentaries, we are also interested in different forms. We’ve also done interactive documentaries,” Lingo said.

Lingo admits there is a lot of debate between documentary and journalism but thinks the biggest difference between them is that the person creating the content.

“The way that a newsroom works, or even a freelance reporter, is you’re often assigned a story and then you go out and report it whereas a documentary filmmaker usually starts from a place of more like the artistic passion and creativity,” Lingo said. “When it comes down to doing documentary work within the confines of a news organization like The New York Times, every single Op-Doc is fact checked, so a lot of times it’s a process documentary filmmakers are not familiar with. We make sure all of our films, while very artistic and experimental, also stand up to the rigors of The New York Times.”

Lingo also explained that journalists typically want content to come out immediately, while Op-Docs have a more evergreen approach to tackle the roots of the issue.

“We have a newsroom, they do the news,” she said. “It’s not about responding or reacting to current events.”

The films are currently available for free on the Times’ website in addition to Vimeo and YouTube. The docs occasionally find their way to theaters and recently had screenings everywhere from Australia to Los Angeles.

Op-Docs have also been official selections at leading international film festivals, including Sundance, the New York Film Festival, Telluride, Ambulante in Mexico, Camden, AFI and SXSW. The team also holds annual events at the Sundance Film Festival, the IFC Theater in Manhattan, LACMA in Los Angeles with Film Independent and The New York Times Film Club, and San Francisco Film Society’s Doc Weekend in San Francisco.

Lingo’s team has worked with a wide range filmmakers including Errol Morris, Laura Poitras, Alan Berliner, Alex Gibney, Casey Neistat, Victor Kossakovsky, Lucy Walker, Abigail Disney, Roger Ross Williams, Jessica Yu, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

“We also pride ourselves on finding emerging filmmakers and a bunch of our most popular films this year were made by filmmakers making their first film,” Lingo said. “We have a real range of contributors.”

Other news organizations have created documentary films since Op-Docs launched, but Lingo credits the Times’ leadership for her unit’s success.

“One of the things that has made Op-Docs so successful creatively is the Times has really given us wide latitude to experiment. I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck,” she said. “We’re really able to experiment, innovate.”