Do It Yourself or Die: American Docs Now

American Docmakers and Festivals Adopt DIY to Survive

27 mins read

With its passion for individual liberty and limited government, the United States has defined its culture in a relatively libertarian framework. Without a consistently robust national infrastructure for support of creativity and culture, arts organizations have survived and thrived by cobbling together a portfolio of private and public sector funding, and tempering their artistic ambitions with a healthy dose of managerial prudence.

For independent artists, the support structure has always been less defined and promoted than it has been for organizations. While such unsolicited support for individuals as the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and the Heinz Award demonstrate a smattering of generosity, an independent artist has always had to hustle to carve out a niche—and sometimes, through Yankee ingenuity and rugged individualism, an artist will rise to the top and define American culture in the process.

But in this Great Recession, all bets are off. Diminished portfolios and lagging profits have resulted in diminished patronage from foundations and individuals.

For documentary filmmakers this means, more than ever, activating both sides of the brain: thinking like a producer and a director, from the conception of the idea through the delivery of your final product to the audience—by and large a seven-year process, including two years taking your film on the road. We are witnessing the waning of the much ballyhooed “Golden Age of Documentaries,” which saw an unprecedented groundswell of interest in the art form in theatres, on television, in festivals and online.

That halcyon time inspired more people—whether from fiction filmmaking, journalism, still photography or a number of other disciplines—to tackle the documentary-making adventure. The power triumvirate of HBO, helmed by the indefatigable Sheila Nevins and her estimable crew; PBS, and its venturesome strands POV and Independent Lens; and the Sundance Film Festival and Institute helped foster a dynamic range of mind-expanding work that pushed the form forward artistically and journalistically.

The doc-making journey is powered by the seduction of cost efficiency, innovation, autonomy and making a difference. But there’s also the reality of the long haul, diminished returns and an insufficiently remunerative livelihood. The Golden Age has given way—thanks, on the downside, to the sputtering economy, and on the upside, to the dizzying opportunities on the web—to the DIY (do-it-yourself ) Age. And in the U.S., the entrepreneurial spirit that has always fuelled American industry and innovation just might save documentary filmmakers as they retool.

Funding and Fundraising

According to fundraising consultant Morrie Warshawski, author of the highly regarded Shaking the Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects, a filmmaker can expect to spend 80% of his or her time over the life of a film on the business side of things—fundraising, marketing, creating a distribution strategy—and just 20% on the artistic side.

Over the past 15 years, the digital revolution has facilitated the filmmaking process tremendously. Starting with the introduction of cost-efficient/cost-effective digital cameras in 1995, and continuing with the breathtaking evolution on the Internet, new technologies have transformed our lives. Just as the equipment has made the process easier at both the production and post-production stages, the social networking mechanisms that have appeared in the last decade—Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, blogging—have made fundraising and marketing a more dynamic, global and democratic enterprise.

For American documentary filmmakers, activating the web is part of the DIY ethos. The middleman is less of a player, and the traditional means of distribution—commercial theatres, cable, public television, DVD sales—hold less promise. More and more filmmakers are taking ownership of their work—or at least controlling certain aspects of how it’s distributed. And although the economics for online sales and VOD (video on demand) have yet to show the kind of potential that the music and publishing industries have shown, filmmakers are developing innovative hybrid means to take their work to the audience—and perhaps make a decent living at it.

But it all begins with money—and of course the idea to drive it. Public support of culture and creativity in the U.S. has always lagged behind many of its counterparts around the world. Funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and its local affiliates, didn’t come into being until the mid 1960s. Over the past two decades, these agencies have come under attack from conservative lawmakers and lobbyists, who have underscored their attacks with claims of obscenity, elitism and frivolousness. Counter-arguments for supporting and sustaining America’s culture as an educational asset and economic booster have been effective merely in keeping the funding agencies alive—not necessarily increasing their allotments appreciably.

Nonetheless, public funding has proved an effective stimulus for private sector support from individuals, foundations and corporations. The aforementioned federal and state public agencies, along with long-time supporters such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation; emerging innovative sources such as Cinereach, The Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures; and media arts organization-based funds such as the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, and the San Francisco Film Society/Film Arts Foundation Documentary Grant program also support non-fiction media at a fairly significant level. But with thousands of filmmakers looking for money every year across America, even the most promising and innovative of projects will take years to get made.

Fundraising and marketing need to be enfolded in the process from the beginning—and the beginning is a difficult stage to fund for most documentary filmmakers. Start-up funds, research and development, seed money: these are rare sources. The more common sources are finishing funds, and in general, you need to produce—and keep refining—some sort of trailer to help sell your film.

Kickstarter, and IndieGoGo are leading the crowdfunding wave—utilizing social networking mechanisms for raising money at the grassroots level. It’s also crucially important for American documentary makers to get fiscal sponsors. Given that support for individual artists is rare, particularly from foundations or corporations, most filmmakers apply for sponsorship through U.S. non-profit organizations, which can legally receive money in support of film projects, then pass the money on to the filmmaker, after taking a fee to cover administrative costs.

What documentaries are most likely to be funded these days? Those that address a social and political issue. Many foundations look favorably to the social issue-driven doc as a conduit for promulgating a cause, and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which licenses programming for such PBS strands as POV and Independent Lens, makes outreach a fundamental part of a documentary’s life, through an extensive website for the film, with links to non-profits and NGOs that are invested in a given cause.

Social issue documentaries have inspired such dot-com moguls as Jeff Skoll, Ted Leonsis and Jim Clark to cash in on their respective largesse at eBay, AOL and Netscape to give non-fiction media-making a vital boost. Skoll founded Participant Media six years ago to support both documentaries and features that provoke dis- cussion and, crucially, action.

Among the films that Participant has supported are Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth and his latest, Waiting for “Superman”, about the state of public education in the U.S.; Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc.; and Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side. Ted Leonsis produced Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Nanking and Susan Koch’s Kicking It before launching SnagFilms, the online, advertising-based venture devoted to streaming and “snagging” documentaries. And while his support of non-fiction media is not as expansive or structured as that of Skoll and Leonsis, Clark was the executive producer on Louis Psihoyos’ multiple-award-winning The Cove.

The Good Pitch, founded in 2009 by The Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation, with the Sundance Institute as a producing partner, has been instrumental in helping forge partnerships between non-profits and documentary projects that embrace a given cause. One of these partners is the North Carolina-based non-profit Working Films, which, as its website describes, “leverages the power of storytelling through documentary film to advance struggles for social, economic, and environmental justice, human and civil rights.”

Social change is good, but what about those docs that don’t have a salient issue—that are docs for art’s sake: character-driven, personal, essayistic, or experimental? Filmmaker Ross McElwee pioneered the personal documentary genre with the 1986 film Sherman’s March, and he is acknowledged as an influence by countless filmmakers ranging from those who studied under him at Harvard to others, like Doug Block, who credit their filmmaking career to McElwee.

In an interview in Documentary magazine, Block acknowledges the difficulties of pitching a film like 51 Birch Street, about his discovery of secrets about his parents, in the early stages because the journey the filmmaker would take was unknown at the time: “You go in thinking it will be one kind of film and it turns out being totally different, and that can be a hard sell.” The eventual acclaim for 51 Birch Street, both in the U.S. and abroad, did help Block sell his next film, The Kids Grow Up, to HBO and three international co-commissioners.

The paradox of American filmmakers trolling for funding abroad is not unusual. Filmmakers like Alan Berliner and Jay Rosenblatt have found homes for their formally innovative essays on IFC, Sundance Channel, PBS and HBO in the U.S., but their works strike a deeper chord with European audiences. While it may not be practical to build an outreach infrastructure around a film by Block, Berliner or Rosenblatt, work like theirs, which push the form forward, resonate with audiences around the world and ought to be supported. “More and more people find the social issue angle to their personal film when they’re applying to grants,” said Rosenblatt in an interview with Documentary. “But all of us have to be more creative and ingenious in finding ways and sources of funding.”

Festivals—and especially documentary festivals—have proliferated at a dramatic clip over the past ten years. They remain a vital venue for launching, showcasing and, hopefully, selling work. American tentpole festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Full Frame and Silverdocs continue to attract a dynamic cross-section of audience members—commissioning editors, funders, festival programmers, exhibitors, journalists and, of course, the audience.

But the festival circuit has undergone a dramatic shift over the past few years, with changes at the helm spurring festival mavens to rethink how they can better serve their missions and their communities. Filmmakers, in turn, in light of the Great Recession and dimming prospects for rewarding theatrical distribution runs, are rethinking how they get their films out there.

Before Geoffrey Gilmore stepped down as director at Sundance, he delivered a closing night address, in which he expressed his frustration that too many good films were coming out of the festival and not finding their audiences. At his next destination, Tribeca Film Enterprises, the for-profit counterpart to the Tribeca Film Festival and Tribeca Institute, he and his colleagues have tried to develop a hybrid model by taking some of the films that premiered at the festival on the road under the Tribeca Films umbrella.

The Sundance Film Festival also tested the extra-festival waters this year, launching Sundance Film Festival USA, which toured a selection of films to various cities during the festival. But can—or should— festivals play that dual role, of a discovery showcase and quasi-distribution mechanism? And how might filmmakers work the festival circuit to their advantage? Or is the festival circuit alone a viable option?

The Theatrical Market

Despite an epochal 2004 that saw an unprecedented 11 documentaries cross the $1 million threshold at the box office, that year would prove to be an anomaly. In 2007, only three documentaries—Michael Moore’s Sicko, Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight and David Sington’s In the Shadow of the Moon —hit that mark. And In the Shadow of the Moon actually fell way short of expectations, given the potentially popular subject matter: American lunar landings in the 1960s and ’70s and the people who commandeered them.

Sington’s film was a THINKFilm acquisition, and would prove to be that venturesome, doc-friendly company’s Icarus moment. With an impressive string of hits from 2002 through 2005— Spellbound, The Aristocrats and Born Into Brothels among them—the company started aiming higher, paying more for more, and the ratio of hits to misses took a precipitous drop. In THINKFilm’s final months in 2008, Alex Gibney, maker of the Academy Award- winning Taxi to the Dark Side, filed a lawsuit against the company for not putting enough marketing muscle behind the film.

That same year, Mark Gill, a film executive formerly with Warner Independent Pictures and Miramax, delivered a keynote address at the Los Angeles Film Festival Financing Conference entitled “Yes, the Sky Is Really Falling,” which became the cri de coeur for the rest of the decade. Although not specifically related to documentaries, Gill’s address cited such studio specialty divisions as Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent Pictures and Fox Searchlight, all of which had tested the waters with docs without quite knowing what to do with them.

Paramount Vantage had a big hit with An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, then the studio invested a lot of acquisition and marketing dollars in Nanette Burstein’s American Teen, to less-than-inspiring results at the box office. Warner Independent Pictures struck it rich with March of the Penguins, but its parent company later closed up shop. Young @ Heart grossed nearly $4 million—and distributor Fox Searchlight’s Steve Gilula told the Los Angeles Times, “We are disappointed…We will be very cautious in considering future documentaries.” On the other hand, Sony Pictures Classics has stayed true to non-fiction media, spending a reasonable amount for a reasonable return, and releasing four or five documentaries per year.

This is not to say that documentaries are anathema to indie distributors. Magnolia Pictures, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions have championed the genre. So have a few of the more modest, low-overhead companies like Zeitgeist Films, First Run Features, The Cinema Guild, Shadow Distribution and International Film Circuit. They have survived by taking on a few titles per year and crafting sensible, carefully targeted marketing campaigns.

But a few companies cannot accommodate the many hundreds of documentaries produced every year in the U.S. And even those fortunate to find distribution have found it difficult to see real money at the end of the day. What’s more, the higher the profile of the distributor, the less control the artist will have over how the work is presented. Although 2009 proved to be one of the most successful years of the decade, matching 2004 for number of docs in the Seven-Digit Gross Club, most of the documentary community had long since taken matters into its own hands.

Alternative Distribution Strategies

This is where the DIY culture comes in. Enablers/consultants like Peter Broderick, Sandi DuBowski, Jon Reiss, Scott Kirsner and Ted Hope have been touring the country for the past few years, encouraging documentary makers to take ownership of their work. The mantra, with variations, is to develop a hybrid distribution strategy with third parties so that the filmmaker retains as many rights as possible (DVD, website, non-theatrical screenings, educational markets, etc.); defines the target audience; utilizes the web via social networking; and manages release windows. Reiss himself parlayed his experiences in distributing his film Bomb It, about graffiti culture, into a teaching/lecturing/writing career, manifested audaciously by his book Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era.

Last fall, filmmakers Sacha Gervasi and Matt Tyrnauer appeared on a number of different panels and seminars discussing the distribution strategies for their respective films, Anvil! The Story of Anvil and Valentino: The Last Emperor. (Yes, Anvil! is about a Canadian heavy metal group, and Gervasi and producer Rebecca Yeldham are originally from the UK and Australia, respectively, but the story of how it found its audience is made in the USA—and besides, the filmmakers have been based in the U.S. for many years.) Both filmmakers decided to opt for service deals for theatrical distribution—Abaramorama for Anvil!; Truly Indie for Valentino —because they were both dissatisfied with what they were initially offered, and wanted more control in getting their films out there.

This meant the time-honoured combo of luck, pluck and virtue— Valentino found its way to Oprah Winfrey, while rockers Chris Martin, Eddie Vedder and Madonna all tweeted favorably about Anvil!. Both films received positive acclaim from high-profile publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times and, for the pluck part, the filmmakers spent a year or two on the road with their films. Garvasi and his team devised The Anvil Experience, in which the group would perform after each screening. Tyrnauer was grateful for having shown up at every premiere to meet his audience—which included a national sewing group that he never knew existed. As Gervasi told an audience at a seminar at University of Southern California last year, “If you decide to do this, you have to sacrifice the next two years of your life. It’s a big cost to pay, but you learn invaluable lessons along the way.”

While Anvil! and Valentino share the kind of commercial subject matter—heavy metal; fashion—that can appeal to a fairly large target market, it’s still work to reach that audience. It’s even more work when that audience is not as high-profile. Adrian Belic developed a hybrid campaign for his film Beyond the Call, which profiles three freelance humanitarian aid workers and retired veterans who travel to war-torn regions around the world to deliver help to civilians and doctors. The film premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, then aired on PBS’s Independent Lens series later that year. Then, over the next three years, Belic took his film to over 150 festivals on five continents, in addition to screening his work at commercial theatres in the U.S. Belic would pitch each festival as well as its hometown or city to set up special screenings for his target audience, and he would sell DVDs of the film. This extended road trip enabled him to build a fan base and make crucial connections in furthering the life of his film—and in harvesting ideas and support for his next film.

What Now?

The carnival is not necessarily over. HBO and PBS and its various strands—POV, Independent Lens —continue to be the vanguard showcases for innovative non-fiction storytelling, while other cable giants such as the Discovery empire of channels tend to favour factual—dare I say—reality series. The Sundance Channel has demonstrated its smarts with such non-fiction series as Brick City, and Architecture House. History, formerly The History Channel, is exploring the parameters of its namesake, with such landmark series as WWII in HD to complement its not-so-historical hits like Ice Road Truckers. And many on the documentary community are holding out hope that Oprah Winfrey will work her magic on her soon-to-be launched Documentary Club on her OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) channel.

All of this, plus the festival circuit; the theatrical, non-theatrical and alternative exhibition circuit; and the ever-shifting skein of digital/download/streaming models that link this whole frontier together, will continue to evolve. The dynamic community of documentary filmmakers, supported by bloggers like AJ Schnack and listservs like The D-Word and DocuLink; non-profits such as the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Institute, Film Independent, Independent Feature Project and International Documentary Association; and educational institutions such as University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and Stanford University’s MFA program in documentary film, will find a way, even in the Great Recession, to discover new stories and conjure up the means to deliver them.

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