The Peabody Awards

The Peabody Awards

Elaine McMillion Sheldon Interview: Sen. Manchin Invites HOLLOW to the Capitol


Matt Shedd - 7/15/2014
Elaine McMillion Sheldon Interview: Sen. Manchin Invites HOLLOW to the Capitol

Winning a Peabody Award has different results for different programs.

In many cases, the award is a sign of approval from the Peabody Board about a program that is already widely known. Shows like Breaking Bad and Key & Peele are already on major networks with significant advertising budgets behind them, but the Peabody seal of approval signifies that the show has gone beyond mere entertainment to telling a story that matters.

However, for lesser-known shows, a Peabody win means exposure to a much larger audience. For example, one of this year’s surprise winners, the 26-second viral video titled “A Needed Response,” had been viewed just over 3 million times right before it was announced as a Peabody winner. Since the announcement, that Youtube video has now been viewed over 9 million times—an over 200% increase.

In addition to bigger exposure and better opportunities, sometimes, just sometimes, a Peabody Award will get a U.S. Senator to host a screening of your program in the Capitol building.

HOLLOW, an interactive documentary, won a Peabody Award this year. In addition to bringing more people to the webpage to experience this hybrid documentary film/website, the Peabody immediately caught the attention of Senator Joe Manchin, who represents the county that the documentary depicts.

Director and project organizer Elaine McMillion Sheldon got the following tweet from the Senator:

She immediately responded, and eventually the Senator agreed to host a screening. On July 22, an interactive documentary with less than half the budget than is typical for a project like this, will be playing at our nation’s Capitol building.

Like all success stories after they’re complete, HOLLOW‘s Peabody win and screening at the capitol now seems inevitable. At least, that’s the case from an outside perspective. Sheldon has a different narrative. “When I applied for the Peabody Award I thought, ‘You know what, this is probably a total waste of time, but I gotta try.’” Two-and-a-half months later, she was out getting a bagel when she checked her phone and saw Hollow next to House of Cards. “The Peabody Award, more so than any other award or any other funding that we’ve gotten, has really gained the respect from people that we needed to, including Senator Joe Manchin.”

 Elaine McMillion Sheldon HOLLOW is a difficult website to explain. Sheldon describes it as “a non-linear piece where you can choose your own experience.” If that’s a little confusing, she boils it down even more to the simple phrase: “the more you scroll, the more you explore.” Sheldon wanted to make visitors “active participants” in the life of McDowell County. “It’s not allowing you to just sit back and watch,” she said, “but actually encourages you to participate.”

Throughout the process you meet 30 people from McDowell County, a place that is emblematic of rural America. McDowell has been losing residents in a steady stream since the mid-twentieth century, facing significant economic hardships and losing its young people who leave to find work in more populated areas. She decided to focus on McDowell because is the only county in West Virginia where every single town is losing people.

From the start, Sheldon was passionately invested in giving a richly textured portrait of the county. She wanted to help present the challenges facing rural America, but she wanted to avoid the negative stereotypes we tend to have: cliched narratives of dying towns whose main streets are lined by abandoned buildings with broken windows.

“I knew that this would be an area very sensitive to a documentary” she explained. Her plan was to get the people involved in telling their own stories. “I come from journalism and linear filmmaking, so that was my first idea, let’s go in and make a documentary, but I realize that this should be more collaborative, and that they should feel that they have some ownership over this and be a participant and not just be a subject.”

So to do that, she interviewed 75 residents and ended up training 20 of them to shoot footage and take their own photographs of their lives in their hometowns. Having the would-be subjects become the filmmakers allows for a surprisingly intimate experience of resident’s day-to-day lived experiences. “It was really about redefining not only their stories but the future of their community, and I can’t do that. I’m an outsider, so I really wanted them to be on board.”

When residents started handing over their footage, Sheldon and her team worked hard to build a website that would fit well with the content. She emphasizes that they always focused on the stories before the technology, but she’s quick to acknowledge that the technology was helpful in getting it the attention it did: “I think a lot of the attention and support can really be traced back to the fact that this is a new form of storytelling,” Sheldon said. “There’s been a lot of films made about dying technologies made through the linear form but they’ve never been able to attract this type of attention, so I’m really thankful that we took some risks with technology so that we can get this amount attention for the residents there.”

Now that the project is complete, Sheldon says the most important thing is for people to hear the stories from McDowell County. She’s encouraging residents to come up to the Capitol for the screening with Senator Manchin. She believes that their presence will send a strong message that these residents (and newly minted filmmakers) are invested in changing the future of McDowell County and that there is hope for other rural areas facing similar challenges.

The screening on July 22 will take place from 6 to 8 pm at the Congressional Auditorium and Atrium in the Capitol Visitor Center. The event is open to the public but an RSVP is requested. If you are interested in attending, send an email to HollowEvent@manchin.senate.gov.

Hollow (trailer) from Hollow Interactive on Vimeo. Hollow is an interactive documentary that explores the stories of small-town America through the eyes of Appalachians. Experience Hollow at hollowdocumentary.com (use Google Chrome).