Ellen Windemuth is the CEO of WaterBear Network, overseeing the strategy and direction of the new interactive video-on-demand platform dedicated to storytelling around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. WaterBear is already partnered with over 80 global NGO's and is currently available in eight countries.
Prior to founding WaterBear, Ellen was and still is CEO of Off the Fence, a global nonfiction production, and distribution company based in Amsterdam. Under her leadership Off the Fence acquired, produced, and co-produced over 6,000 hours of content including their latest feature documentary MY OCTOPUS TEACHER, a Netflix Original.
New York Festivals: 2020 was a year of every kind of disruption, including how audiences viewed content over a growing number of on-demand streaming services. WaterBear Network just launched in November and gives audiences free access to award-winning films and documentaries about the natural world. How did you put together this amazing selection? And could you talk about strategy for the launch?
Ellen Windemuth: We have been in the documentary rights business and the production business for almost 30 years. The overview we have over what is available in the international marketplace is therefore very extensive. As the Chair of the Jackson Wild Film Festival Board, I am also in touch with a number of festivals across the world who curate the best of the best. That is why WaterBear is such a dream come true for us :-).
New York Festivals: WaterBear Network’s slogan is “Watch. Connect. Take Action” Will storytelling be the key element for engagement? And how important are partnerships with environmental groups?
Ellen Windemuth: We partnered with over 80 NGO's before launch and will be signing on many more as WaterBear grows its worldwide audience and reach. The wonderful work done in the field by our partner NGO's is very inspirational ground for the production of great stories. There is much more good being done than people think, and WaterBear will inspire action by showing films of the shining examples.
New York Festivals: Nonfiction longform – and natural history documentaries in particular – has a long development process from pitch to finished film. Looking ahead to the near future, what trends in topics and techniques do you see?
Ellen Windemuth: The process can indeed take years as especially the big digital platforms require films to often already be at rough cut stage before they commission. Commissioning can be as late as the actual refinancing of a feature documentary. Going forward, there will be more competition between platforms like Paramount Plus, Disney, Apple, Netflix, and key cable/sat players like National Geographic and Discovery for films that deliver high viewership and a potential raft of awards. I would lookout for more personal stories, fewer laundry lists, films with higher production value, and especially now given the post-election state of mind in the US, films about the values we all care most about. Technology will matter less than skilled storytelling. Audiences want to feel heard and want to be moved.
New York Festivals: Off The Fence continues to acquire, produce, and co-produce feature documentaries. Could you share some of the backstory of your latest feature documentary MY OCTOPUS TEACHER, a Netflix Original?
Ellen Windemuth: Craig Foster, the main character in the film, is one of my closest and oldest friends. This film came together while he was going through mental and physical exhaustion from filming in too many dangerous locations. None of us knew that during his slow recovery, he would one day come home and tell us: 'you won't believe it, but I just met an Octopus!'. In the months that followed, it became clear that the relationship between the two of them was our film. The best films are films that happen to you.