Making “Unsung” and Other Tales

Doc-makers are singing the blues about funding. Are point-of-view docs going to become as rare as contemporary operas?

26 mins read

This is what I imagined: a documentary about hope. About ambition and dreams. A documentary about talented kids singing and dancing their hearts out. And ultimately, a documentary that would reveal the extraordinary transformative power of art. It would contain stories that would make you laugh and cry. It would be uplifting. Colourful. Transcendent. Heck, it would even bring peace to the Middle East.

OK, maybe that last part was pushing it, but the other themes were as clear as a bell. At the time, I was watching a nine-minute demo video that the organizers of the Show Choir Canada National Championships had sent me. It showed the various high schools from across Canada who had come together in the spring of 2012 to compete for the top show choir prize. Dazzling choreography. Great dancers. Lighting and staging that would make Garth Drabinsky drool. Who knew these high school kids could be this good? And who knew that thousands of people flock to see these competitions? They are so well attended, in fact, that the two shows at the cavernous Sony Centre in April 2012 were completely sold out.

If you aren’t familiar with the term “show choir”, neither was I. But I had heard about Glee, the hit TV show, which gave rise to the show choir phenomenon. The show took something once associated with nerds and wallflowers and made it sexy and cool. It was like seeing Miss Jane, the plain, androgynous secretary on The Beverly Hillbillies, turn into Cindy Crawford. High school show choirs are now a training pool for a new generation of talents who can dance Bob Fosse or sing Lauryn Hill like you’ve never seen or heard before.

After I watched the demo, I had just one thought: I must do this as a documentary. I decided that I would follow the two top schools, Wexford Collegiate and the Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA), as they got ready for the 2013 championships. Those two schools have alternated winning the top prize since the inception of the competition in 2010.

I would focus on four students from each school who would become the emotional anchors of the film as they went through all the twists and turns of preparing for the big day. I also wanted to show how art, as encompassed by song and dance, gives these high school kids the means through which they’re able to rise above their issues, including cancer, bullying and drug abuse. Pushing, coaxing and inspiring them would be their musical directors, Ann Merriam at Wexford and Paul Aikins at ESA. Central casting could not have come up with two more colourful or watchable characters. If a drama were made about them, Amy Poehler would play Ann and Steve Carell would play Paul.

I then took the idea to Christina Jennings, the CEO of Shaftesbury, with whom I had had the chance to work on my previous documentary Romeos & Juliets, which was shot in 2011 and broadcast on the CBC a year later. Once she saw the demo, she was instantly smitten. “Yes, of course,” were the first words that she uttered after the video demo was over. “But I don’t think you’ve got a one-off here, Moze. I think you have the potential to do a one-off and a follow-up documentary series.” I love the way Christina thinks: Why go for a slice of Melba toast when we could have the crème brûlée?

Within days she brought in Jeff Spriet, who had scored a big hit recently with his high school basketball documentary Nothing But Net for MTV, as co-producer. I knew I liked him immediately when he quickly came up with the title for the film, Unsung. It took just a couple of weeks to get our storylines and crew in place. Now we just had to get the funding together.

Did I actually hear myself saying that? “We just have to get the funding together”? I might as well have said “Let’s get Rob Ford to do drag in the next Gay Pride parade.” Little did I realize how much the landscape of funding docs has changed in the years since my last outing and how tortured a path it has become for my fellow filmmakers and producers.

Annette Mangaard, a seasoned documentary filmmaker, is more than familiar with that tortured path. She is now into year six of trying to get her documentary about Suzy Lake, the great feminist and photographer, financed. Mangaard’s strong determination was certainly behind her most successful work, the Gemini-nominated General Idea: Art, AIDS and the Fin de Siècle, which aired originally for Bravo! in 2009. The doc was a lively portrait of the famed artists’ collective General Idea, contextualized against an awareness of AIDS and its impact on the world at large. “Back in 2000,” she explains, “I could make a decent living making documentaries, but that has now changed completely. And the strange thing is that while I always encounter people who say they love docs and watch docs, broadcasters are telling me that no one is watching docs on TV anymore. It’s a weird conundrum.”

With Bravo! gone and the CBC only producing docs under the rigid template of Doc Zone —which states that their “style is a briskly-paced well-written journalistic narrative” — the onus falls on other private broadcasters who are less inclined to commission more personal or director-driven docs. Adding more hardship to the mix are the contradictory rules guiding certain tax credits, which at times comprise up to 30 percent of a production’s budget. “The government grinds down any monies received from arts councils, which are practically the only venues left for director-driven films,” explains Mangaard. “It’s a glitch, a dumb one, and it has to be fixed because those [tax] credits are a huge part of financing, especially films like mine that are now only funded by the arts councils.”

Nik Sheehan, the charismatic director of FlicKeR, which was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Best Canadian Feature Documentary at Hot Docs in 2008, echoes Mangaard’s lamentations. Like Mangaard, he’s now into his sixth year of trying to get a doc financed. Riotously, if not insolently, called Fart: The Movie, his proposed feature has been greeted with a degree of skepticism. “After making a whole bunch of docs with ‘serious’ themes, I wanted to try something different,” says Sheehan. “I wanted to bring people together by creating a comic doc but one that would also show our cultural differences with an underlying pedagogical element. A doc for people to laugh at and learn from as well. It’s like the biggest fart joke of all but you end up seeing it from different sides—North American, Japanese, British, Italian, you name it.”

Sheehan’s gaseous idea actually opened a few doors in the beginning but for one reason or another, each potential broadcaster or producer backed away from a deal. “They’d say to me, ‘There’s no way I can fund this but call me when you finish it. My kids loved the trailer!’” Sheehan explains. “Or at other times the development people would say ‘This is great, but I can’t take it upstairs.’” As Sheehan regales me with these stories, I can’t help but feel that it takes tenaciousness to withstand six years of this sort of thing.

“Why do you keep doing this?” I ask.

“Because docs are different from drama,” Sheehan replies. “They are a true alternative to telling a story. They actually give you an experience that you can’t get with drama. There is an immediacy and, yes, reality that you couldn’t possibly achieve otherwise. It’s not better, just different.”

But when I ask Sheehan about the whole notion of crowdfunding, or crowd-sourced fundraising, as a way to finance his film, his mood turns rather dark. “Oh, don’t get me started,” he cries out. “Crowdfunding degrades the whole medium. It takes the responsibility off the broadcasters and the financiers who should be involved right at the beginning. Because you can’t really make a doc without a broadcaster or distributor.” Sheehan pauses, wondering if he’s made his point, and goes in deeper: “[Crowdfunding] is not the answer. It’s a distraction. It’s a side show taking away from the real problems of getting a doc made or financed.” Sheehan may have a point about the dire need for broadcaster engagement but I would still argue that crowdfunding can play a vital part in the financing of a doc, especially for those on the bottom rungs of the ladder trying to get their first film made.

Back at the ranch with my doc Unsung, I’m discovering trials and tribulations I had not counted on. Armed with a dynamite proposal that’s in line with the current youth zeitgeist and a sizzling demo reel, we approach a private broadcaster that specializes in all three big ideas encompassed in our film: kids, pop music and stories. If you could imagine a match made in heaven—say, like hockey and beer—this would be it. A meeting with the executive branch is arranged where all sorts of approval noises are made. People nod and smile and use words like “current”, “timely” and “really neat.” At the end of the meeting, we leave confident and energized, and follow it up with all sorts of PDF attachments showing production schedules and a gorgeous financing scenario. But for reasons too dreary to get into here, the deal falls through and the match made in heaven is suddenly no more. The gist of it, though, is that the documentary form won’t be an easy sell for the network’s audience. In fact, the documentary stream on their schedule got pink-slipped some time ago. I can’t help remembering this rueful comment from A Chorus Line: “What do you mean Broadway is dead? I just got here!”

A while later, I’m talking to Michael McMahon, the seasoned president and executive producer of Primitive Entertainment, who certainly knows a thing or two about making well-crafted docs. His company is a leader in the production of documentary features, series and one-offs, with many awards on the shelf for projects like The Falls, Waterlife, A Hard Name and The Trouble with Boys. His blunt assessment?

“Look, the traditional doc in Canada is having a real hard time today. That’s a fact. What broadcasters want today are light, entertaining formats that are cheap and easy to produce and can be repeated until the earth cools.” When I ask if reality TV is partly to blame for all this, he counters with: “Yes, of course, reality TV has made it harder because there’s less demand for the traditional doc. But even if we did make those shows, the irony is that reality TV does not conform to European tastes, which we depend on to co-finance our programmes. Public broadcasters in Europe are still producing traditional docs but without a Canadian partner, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make them here.”

I hesitate to ask McMahon about crowdfunding but I go for it anyway. Like Sheehan, he’s deeply skeptical: “It’s a joke, because setting it up is an enormous amount of work. Just think about what you have to do to raise $25,000 when the actual cost of the film is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then there are the promises to deliver on the extras for your investors—DVDs, T-shirts, mugs or dinners with the director. All of it is an enormous amount of work, which costs a great deal to organize and carry through. I tried it once and will never do it again.”

As I’m listening to McMahon, I wonder how on Earth I’m going to reignite the engine behind my own show choir doc. Clearly crowdfunding is not the panacea I thought it might be. McMahon brings me back to Earth: “The bigger problem is that we have an industrial dysfunction when it comes to financing and making docs. And part of that has to do with how the CRTC rules have been twisted and reshaped. Those permutations have cost docs dearly. Because when you have rules, then everyone should play by those rules, not by the letter but in spirit as well. Private broadcasters should respect the conditions of their licence and public broadcasters should get back exactly what their name calls for — public broadcasting.”

Indeed, a public broadcaster was exactly who we called upon next to pitch Unsung. Who better than a national public broadcaster to commission a film about kids, music and the transformative power of art? In marriage terms, it would be a trade up, much like way Brad and Angelina traded up from Jennifer and Billy Bob. So imagine our delight when the executive at the public broadcaster agreed to consider our proposal. “Your project ticks off many boxes for us,” she said. “It’s got youth; it’s got music and performance elements. And there are great stories. Wonderful Canadian stories. It’s got almost everything we look for in our schedule. We’ll definitely take this upstairs.” But, alas, the upstairs people had neither the financing nor a suitable place to schedule my doc. You can blame the slash-and-burn cutbacks of the current government for the lack of money but the fact is that traditional docs are no longer a presence on the public broadcaster’s schedule. For a country that once made its name as the maker of the best and most highly regarded docs in the world, this is more than a crying shame. It’s just short of a catastrophe.

So, I’m now wondering whether TV is the right place to start—have I been madly pushing and jiggling the handle of a door only to realize that I have to let go and pull instead? Is a theatrical release the way to go with this? To find out, I thought I’d pick Jamie Kastner’s brain, since he’s been down this path himself. His excellent and successful feature doc The Secret Disco Revolution was released theatrically, with TV pre-sales to Bravo! (BITGOD—Back In the Good Old Days), ZDF/Arte, Canal D and Knowledge Network. He reminded me that there are as many land mines in the theatrical documentary path as there are in the TV field.

“In a theatrical doc, you still need a high-level Canadian broadcaster licence, which you never get anymore, anyway,” he explains. “So, you try and pre-sell it here and there in order to make up the licence portion you need. But here’s the catch: to apply to something major like the Telefilm Theatrical Documentary Fund you also need a distribution deal. But no distributor is going to pick up your film if you’ve sold off too many windows or territories. They have [fewer] places to sell to in order to make their own investment back.” I ask Kastner if Telefilm is even aware of this contradiction but he answers by hinting at a darker reasoning. “A cynical observer might say that this is the best to kill that funding stream. They’ll argue by saying ‘Look no one is using it.’ And then there’ll be absolutely no place to go.” (Telefilm, which has about $1.2 million in its purse to finance two to three docs in production and three to five docs in post-production for each language market, currently states that there is an ongoing programme redesign to improve the marketing and distribution of Canadian content on various platforms.)

I finish speaking with Kastner and I realize that I don’t want to go down a path laden with land mines—I have enough of that when I attend my own family dinners. Instead, my producing partners and I marshal our resources for one last kick at the can and submit the project to TVOntario. We wait and wait. And wait. And then comes a call. “When can you start?” The person asking the question is Jane Jankovic, the commissioning editor/producer at TVO. She has a lovely voice, even more so when she commits a license fee plus some CMF funds toward the project. It’s much less than we had hoped for but enough to get it made. (I would have to forego buying the Ferrari for now.) The balance of the financing is derived from the Shaw Rocket Fund and tax credits. It’s the classic financing model for a project like Unsung, but one that will likely undergo further permutations in the years to come.

But I have a lot to be thankful for: the film was shot and edited and is now scheduled to air on TVO on December 4, 2013. At the time of this writing, the jury is still out as to how good the film is but whatever the verdict, I know the film has captured something about what it’s like to be young and full of dreams. It shows young men and women trying to express the inexpressible through the only means available to them: singing and performing. It also shows the transcendent and transformative power of art, something I had almost forgotten until the kids revealed it back to me. For these reasons alone, I know Unsung had to be made, and I can give TVO credit for giving us the soil to plant our tree.

So, as I sit back to take a breath, what do I make of all this? Despite the ongoing affection of people for docs, there are fewer and fewer opportunities on TV to air them. The crisis encompasses Canadian theatrical docs as well since they need a TV licence in order to finance them. There are so many problematic issues in the financing of docs that need to be addressed. Most importantly, Canadian broadcasters—private and public—need to up their game when it comes to programming or scheduling docs. The public is actually being under-served, given the existing appetite for powerful, well-made docs. How else to explain the success of documentary films on strands like ‘Storyville’ on BBC or the ones on HBO? Surely, Canada can reclaim its rightful place on the broadcast and feature film turf.

So, to our two distinguished gentlemen, Mr. Public Broadcaster and Mr. Private Broadcaster: it’s time to make room for the great Canadian documentary again. Nothing fancy, just a place where people can stop by and watch reality in all its true and essential glory. Because there’s nothing more Canadian than docs and TV. It’s a match made in heaven. Like Wayne and Shuster. Or Bob and Doug McKenzie. Or Glenn Gould and his piano. One is really not good without the other.

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