One is the Loneliest Number

Is it possible to make one-off “POV” docs anymore?

27 mins read

“Garry Beitel, if I were your student today, would you still encourage me to become a POV documentary filmmaker?”

Garry is the reason I became a filmmaker. In addition to making films himself, he was my documentary professor at McGill University, where I was a student in the Cultural Studies programme. After our final class together, he told me I should consider pursuing documentary filmmaking as a career. Until that point, I don’t think I’d seriously thought about it. Eleven years later, I’ve called him to ask if he would give me the same advice today, given the current abysmal state of the industry for financing one-off, point-of-view docs.

He hesitates: “What an interesting question. When I was encouraging students to do that a few years ago it was a completely different climate…”

I learned in Garry’s class that one-off POV documentaries are a vitally important art form. As a platform for social issues they can effect change in remarkable ways. (I always think if The Thin Blue Line were never made, a man might have been put to death for a crime he didn’t commit.) Canada has a long history in this kind of documentary filmmaking—it is part of our cultural DNA and such films communicate our unique worldview to each other and to the rest of the world. To lose one-off docs would be to lose an important voice, and a vital part of our Canadian identity.

Today, one-off POV docs are an endangered species. Broadcasters—the keystones of documentary financing in Canada—have become increasingly reluctant to invest in one-offs. Vital strands such as CBC’s The Lens and Wild Docs! and Global TV’s Global Currents were recently tuned out. Money is becoming scarce. According to the most recent “Getting Real” study conducted by the Documentary Organization of Canada, POV documentary production has fallen from 352 films made five years ago (2004–05 fiscal) down to 233 films last year (2009–10). Every person interviewed for this article stated that the industry is in a “state of crisis.”

Cindy Witten, director general of the NFB English programme and former VP of content at History Television, understands first-hand why broadcasters are shying away from one-offs. “It’s tough to create ‘appointment viewing,’” she says. “The way you market series is amortized over the life of the series. When you’re marketing a one-off film…you’re trying to build up audience for one hour of a very big schedule. And increasingly I don’t think that’s been making sense for broadcasters.”

So what does this mean? Can the current funding model be reformed, or should documentary producers be prepared to pursue new sources of financing for their one-off projects?

Industry hiccups

“It’s feast or famine,” lamented Edward Peill of Tell Tale Productions over cocktails during one of Hot Docs’s daily Happy Hour events. In a later interview, the Halifax-based producer recounted his struggle to find a broadcaster to put up the final $75,000 he needed to complete the budget for a one-off doc called Borderline, which already had two other broadcasters behind it. Without that money, he explained, he couldn’t trigger the financing he had already lined up through the Canadian Media Fund’s (CMF) English POV Program—a unique fund that doesn’t require broadcaster support at the outset, but does ultimately require a percentage of the budget to come from broadcasters to close the deal. “The reason they came up with this POV fund was to try and stimulate one-off production because it had clearly gone off a cliff in the last couple of years. So the reasoning behind it was great,” says Peill.

But the CMF POV funding was awarded last summer, and one year later, Peill is still seeking those funds. Apparently, he’s not alone. “[The CMF] greenlit around 22 projects last year with the POV fund,” Peill explains, “And, as of the beginning of Hot Docs, only about seven were actually fully financed. So [the creators of] 15 projects—they’re chasing around after six or seven broadcasters who aren’t even interested.

“We’re creating supply, not demand,” he says. But Peill says there may be another, less obvious issue behind broadcasters’ dwindling interest in one-off documentaries. “It’s not that POV docs don’t pull audiences,” he explains. “The challenge is the way the CMF envelopes are calculated.”

The funding envelope programme was introduced by the CMF in 2010 in an effort to give the production community a relatively predictable amount of money each year to produce Canadian programmes, both drama and non-fiction. The envelopes consist of money from Canadian Heritage (which contributes $100 million annually) and cable and satellite TV providers (which are required to contribute five percent of their gross annual revenue to the fund each year). The envelopes are determined by a number of performance factors, including audience numbers. In other words, if a broadcaster’s numbers are good, their envelope can increase. If they’re low, their envelope can decrease.

“The guys who do one-off documentaries all lost envelope [funds],” says Peill. “That’s a huge disincentive. I heard one broadcaster say they are getting out of one-off docs for that reason alone: ‘We’re losing envelope, we don’t want to get out of them but if we continue doing one-off docs our envelope will continue to shrink and we can’t afford to lose any more.’ So that’s it, they’re out of one-off docs. For now anyway.”

“Certainly when the CMF was announced it was a dramatic shift for the industry and I think we’re still adapting to that shift,” says Lisa Fitzgibbons, executive director of DOC. “The whole financing structure is incredibly complex and has all of these moving parts. As soon as you tinker with one, the whole system hiccups.”

Different camps

When it comes to solutions, Peill points out there are two factions within the community. “There are those who think that broadcasters should be cut out of the equation and those who feel that broadcasters are actually your partners and you want them included,” he says. “I’m in the camp that the broadcaster’s your partner. You want them part of the process, not excluded.

“What I proposed at Hot Docs was that the English POV fund become broadcaster triggered [i.e., a broadcaster is involved before applying] and similar to the Regional Incentive Funds…except it’s a genre incentive. So if the goal is, over a three-year period, we want to have 60 POV documentaries being commissioned every year on an ongoing and sustainable basis, and [the CMF] puts in $3- or $4-million into the POV fund, the broadcasters who trigger that money would then get that money as permanent POV money.”

“Edward and his colleague presented a paper on how to fine-tune the POV fund and it was quite a smart paper,” says Rudy Buttignol, CEO of B.C. public broadcaster Knowledge Network. “I said, ‘You should sell that to your community to get behind it,’ because the CMF are very receptive—[they] really do want to support the one-off but they’re looking for reasonable ways to do it in a public-policy format.”

Previously the creative head of network programming at TVO, Buttignol has championed some of the most important Canadian documentaries made in the past few decades. His conviction is that public broadcasters like Knowledge and TVO have a responsibility to support point-of-view documentaries and should not be penalized because their numbers don’t compete with mass-market-targeted broadcasters. “The one-off documentary is never going to compete with reality-based entertainment or the industrial volume of a 54- or 108-part factual series, in the same way that important novels will never compete against cookbooks,” he says.

“We are a regional public broadcaster so we only pull our audience from B.C. We pull from 4.5 million potential viewers, but we’re measured against national channels that pull from all 35 million Canadians. And when we’re weighed by sheer numbers, we’re never going to win, even if we have a hit.”

And for Buttignol, the notion of a “hit” is relative. “There were films that I commissioned going way back, like Manufactured Landscapes. Now that was a real critical film that did some serious box office for a documentary, travelled around the world [and] was seen in festivals and theatres and television. The numbers on TV were never big but it was important: it was an important issue, an important artist [photographer Edward Burtynsky], an important film. Same thing with The Corporation.”

Buttignol asks, “Why don’t we work to make it easier for broadcasters like Knowledge Network, like TV Ontario, like Télé-Québec, TFO, to trigger those one-offs so we can afford it? At Knowledge, we build our brand around one-off documentaries. We make a virtue of it and as a result we’re the fourth-most-watched network in primetime in British Columbia because that’s the alternative that we provide. Does it make sense for other broadcasters to do it? No, probably not. And forcing TSN or CTV to do a documentary, well, they don’t want it. They’re not going to support it institutionally, so why force them? Why not fine-tune the policy instruments that are already there, to reward those broadcasters for taking a chance on the really important work from important artists or developing artists and who make it their business to find an audience—not always a big audience but some kind of critical audience.”

In the meantime, it seems that one government agency is working to fill the current void of broadcaster investment in one-off docs. “We’re definitely doing more 100-percent funding of projects.” says the NFB’s Cindy Witten. “There aren’t the broadcast partners that there have been in the past” she says. “I think for one-off documentaries, TV is an important piece, but that piece will probably get smaller. Hopefully it won’t be the only way to trigger financing.”

The NFB is also extremely committed to exploring the web as a venue for showcasing documentaries—whether they be interactive “web” documentaries like Highrise, linear films like Garry Beitel’s The So-Called Movie, which they premiered on YouTube in the U.S., or combinations of the two, like Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife, which was released as a linear doc on television, as well as a much different interactive doc online. Waterlife explores environmental issues concerning fresh water, specifically the Great Lakes as the last major fresh water supply in the world.

“Waterlife is a big one,” she says. “That was our first foray into interactive… It was an interesting experience.”

Not to mention a successful one. “The numbers are around 1.5 million people now,” she says. “The traffic early on was mostly geeks, people interested in the technology of [the site] and how it had been built, because it was innovative and it pushed the envelope technologically. But then it quickly attracted people who dug into the issue and cared about fresh water, and cared about it all over the globe.

“It’s such an interesting example for me about the potential of tackling the issues of our day and reaching a broad audience. I think the linear film Waterlife reached all kinds of people, and it had lots of broadcasters involved—it was Sundance, it was History Television, it was NHK in Japan, but I’m guessing that online it quite easily reached a lot more people.

“I do still see a bright future for documentary, both within Canada and [throughout] the world, and I think it will be around different means of distribution. It’s not going to be television—it’s going to be Internet, it will be mobile and other things. And once TV is taken out of the funding mechanism, it’s about how you reach [a new] audience [through] different means of distribution. The funding mechanisms need to be opened up to other comers. And I think when that happens, the one-off film will explode again.”

Lisa Fitzgibbons of DOC agrees and hopes one day that the CMF will allow private foundation investment, crowd funding, arts-council grants and even corporate sponsorship to trigger the POV fund. “I think the CMF policies need to be tweaked to better reflect the documentary reality, and that’s where being tethered to a broadcaster is not working to the genre’s advantage right now,” she says.

“What DOC would like to see is something that would replace the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund [CIFVF],” she says. The CIFVF was a non-broadcast-triggered fund and critical in either kick-starting funding or providing completion funding. The fund, along with its $1.5 million annual budget, was eliminated in 2008 when the Conservative government cut arts programmes it deemed “did not demonstrate that the federal government’s investment in them had enough impact to make a difference.”

But Fitzgibbons believes that those programmes did make a difference. “Docs are an important part of civic engagement,” she says. “Independent documentary film plays an essential role in Canadian society by favouring diverse perspectives and viewpoints on social, political and cultural realities, thus promoting reflection and debate…. We believe in the power of those films.”

The road ahead

But regardless of which way you swing on the issue, it’s clear that the landscape for financing one-off docs is changing, and the industry faces a bumpy road ahead.

“Are we crazy?” I ask producer Howard Fraiberg as we dine on salade Niçoise and discuss our upcoming projects at an outdoor café. Fraiberg is the founder of Proximity Films, and we have recently joined forces to develop a number of one-off projects together.

“Maybe as Canadian producers we need to be more strategic or hungry or creative about the way that we make our documentaries,” he says. “The current situation probably won’t last…. I think a lot of us are going to be left behind, if we don’t make an effort to get beyond this Canadian concept of how to fund our projects.

“I think this is actually an exciting time to try and get documentaries going,” he continues. “We’re slowly starting to wake up and realize, ‘I don’t necessarily need to have a broadcaster on my budget—I can still get my documentary made.

“There’s iTunes, there’s Apple TV, there’s websites where you can just stream it yourself….In the past, when you used to be required in your proposal to describe your audience, you would say, ‘Oh it’s men or women between the ages of 18 and 35.’ Now, it’s not about gender and it’s not about age, it’s about targeting a specific interest group that is invested in your subject and using social media to reach them. To sell DVDs. To tell them about a theatrical screening that’s going to happen in their city…. Things are changing.”

Fraiberg makes a compelling argument, but what would Garry Beitel tell me if I were his student today? It seems his resolve has strengthened over the course of our interview. “Going back to your original question, ‘What would [you] advise students who are asking how to make documentaries with a unique voice?’ We have to continue to encourage students to do that. And not be completely naive, because we still have to make a living, but we’ve always had to do that. We’ve always had to be savvy about where the money is coming from…but you can’t give up that voice.

“It’s part of our history, it’s part of our view on the world, it’s part of what we take pride in. And I don’t think we’re going to give that up. The last 20 or 30 years have given rise to an incredible, talented generation of documentary producers in this country and in the world. I think creatively we’re going to find a way to get past this major crisis that we’re facing now.”

Crowd Financing? It’s not as easy as you might think…

“While there are emerging possibilities for creative financing in a social-media world, we’re probably a ways off from Kickstarter-financed films dominating the market, and perhaps they never will. Filmmaker Velcrow Ripper knows first hand the challenges of crowd financing for his latest project, Evolve Love, the third in his ‘Fierce Light’ trilogy, which includes Scared Sacred and Fierce Light.” — S.K.

It was as much work doing that Kickstarter campaign as it is doing a theatrical release of a film. You’re not going to make it unless you really go for it and it’s almost close to a full-time job for part of that time.

If you don’t constantly tweet and post and remind people every day—twice a day at least—it’ll just slip.

You can start with your friends and family, but that’s only going to take you so far; then you need to find ways to expand out. And that means getting blog posts and articles written, getting high-profile people to endorse your campaign and retweet and repost. Getting the community excited about your project.

I do believe it’s a service [making POV docs] and these community interests will totally get behind you. You just have to find how to reach them. And so that’s absolutely key: identify them through social media, through their blog posts… In this era of collapsing funding opportunities, the communities of interest need to step up to the plate and help these films get made.

You have to personally reach out to people, too. You can’t just do mass mailings. You need to personally reach out to people who may have larger funds and ask them if they can contribute directly and let them know the stakes. And ask them if they know other people. You have to be a little bold that way.

As far as this being the funding model of the future, I’m not sure because it’s early in the day with crowd funding and it could be that people just say “Okay, I’m done with this.” It’s growing really fast—there’s dozens and dozens of new crowd-funding sites and at least 50 percent of all Kickstarter projects fail, so it’s not a guaranteed success by any way, shape or form.

Don’t launch a Kickstarter campaign or any crowd-funding campaign without having a strong social network already in place. Mine [was established] over my 30-year filmmaking career…. I’ve been a media activist my whole life…so in a way I’ve been at the social-media game for many, many years and I’ve kind of been really eager for each new evolution of it.

There’s a whole base of people that now know about Evolve Love —even those that didn’t give money but are still part of the process—they’re going to want to see it, especially the ones who invested in it. It’s their film now; they’ll want to bring their friends, so we already are building the base for the audience of the film.

In the end we had 208 community film producers on the project.

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