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Index of Select Previous Events

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ON THE MEDIA: Frederick Wiseman to receive honorary Oscar

Frederick Wiseman. Photo by Gretje Ferguson

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman will be one of four individuals honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at its 2016 Governors Awards gala in November.

Wiseman will receive an honorary Oscar statuette at the Hollywood presentation on November 12, along with actor/director/producer Jackie Chan; film editor Anne Coates; and casting director Lynn Stalmaster.

The acclaimed documentarian, awarded with Venice’s Golden Lion in 2014, has helmed 40 documentaries over the span of his career, with his most recent, 2015′s In Jackson Heights, being the first project he took to public pitch forums – specifically, to the Hot Docs Forum in 2015.

While presenting the project to a host of international commissioners at the Forum, Wiseman told the roundtable: “One of the reasons people like my films is because they’re complex explorations of complicated subjects, and I try not to simplify them in the service of having some fantasy of reaching a larger audience.”

In addition to the honorary Oscar and the Golden Lion, Wiseman has been recognized with three Primetime Emmys, and a Peabody award given to the filmmaker “for a mastery of television documentary destined to be studied through the ages.” He has also received the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award and an Award of Distinction from the American Society of Cinematographers.

According to the Academy, the Honorary Award is given “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.”

“The Honorary Award was created for artists like Jackie Chan, Anne Coates, Lynn Stalmaster and Frederick Wiseman – true pioneers and legends in their crafts,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs in a statement. “The Board is proud to honor their extraordinary achievements, and we look forward to celebrating with them at the Governors Awards in November.”

 

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary pays? Navigating the “anti-system” – part three

Documentary Pays 3

Realscreen‘s special report on doc financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers continues with a look at the issue through the commissioning and distribution lens. For part one of the report, click here, and for part two, click here.

In every generation, there’s a small group of doc makers for whom “sustainability” is more than a buzzword. They’re able to make that second documentary – then third, then fourth – and sustain lengthy, sometimes illustrious, careers.

But as realscreen previously explored, most doc makers working today fall outside of that elite circle. As the Center for Media & Social Media (CMSI) have found in a forthcoming study, 67% of respondents who identified as documentary professionals don’t make their primary living through doc filmmaking. Director Emily James illustrated her struggle through the concept of ‘auto-exploitation,’ while noting a wider – sometimes seen as exploitative – commercial system around doc makers that uses their work as the central commodities of the industry.

But what do those on the other side of the commissioning table make of the commercial system in which they operate? In what ways do they look out for the filmmakers they commission? And what about the distributors, professionally entrusted to turn profits for the filmmakers they represent?

Nick Fraser (pictured, top left), editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand, says bluntly that the whole genre is “catastrophic” when it comes to sustaining careers, but also doesn’t see a way of regulating documentaries or the process behind them.

“The problem about all these surveys and stuff is they circle around this subject; they kind of hold out the prospect that it will be possible to normalize and industrialize docs, and I feel trying to write a book on the subject of docs is something you can’t do.

“Docs will always be the strange hybrid of something that people love, but they get made in a borderline miraculous fashion and there really isn’t any way of industrializing them, because if they’re any good, they’re different.”

Fraser acknowledges a significant inflation of doc costs in North America, but notes more opportunities – though “poorly spread” – in the region, with decent levels of government funding available in Canada. The situation, he says, is tougher in Europe where some broadcasters have experienced hefty cuts, particularly the BBC.

“Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film.” – Nick Fraser, BBC ‘Storyville’

“It’s very tough, and the only way I can get around this has been to amalgamate the work of many broadcasters, put it together and find enough money for filmmakers,” he says, referencing the successful ‘Why Poverty?’ seriesand recent ‘Why Slavery?’ project, which unites international broadcasters in commissioning and funding a number of films around a theme.

Fraser says he tries to give all filmmakers hope and assistance in putting packages together for their projects – “Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film,” he explains – but adds that solutions to the funding squeeze aren’t straightforward.

“[It’s] an anti-system – it always has been – and you just have to hope that more important players or individuals come to the market with money,” he says, adding that an essential step is encouraging traditional elements of the “anti-system,” such as broadcasters, to step up their game and “spend more money on docs… the erosion of funding, from my point-of-view as someone working at the BBC, has been pretty borderline awful.”

“My license is what my license is.”
Jane Jankovic – commissioning editor at the publicly-funded TVOntario (TVO) – agrees there are more opportunities for doc financing in Canada through a mix of public and private funds that aren’t as widely available in other countries.

She commissions projects with budgets that range from CAD$200,000 up to $1 million, with most budgets coming in between $350,000 and $400,000. Her license fees for first-window commissions average $70,000 to $80,000 per film, with occasional exceptions on either side of that range. And often, that fee is at least matched by the Canada Media Fund, which is triggered by a broadcast license fee.

But Jankovic (pictured, center) is clear about the parameters of her support, particularly for bigger-budget projects.

“My license is what my license is, and I’ve been very vocal about what my license is. My Canada Media Fund commitment is what it is. If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money,” says Jankovic, who has served as a doc commissioner at TVO since 2006. “I can trigger a lot of it, but they have to do the footwork and the sweat equity to get that money together.”

She says that when filmmakers come in – particularly those who are new to the field – she indicates that they must pay themselves in the budget, and asks to see it in on paper as a commitment.

“It doesn’t mean [their salary] stays there, because they will continue to whittle away at it [with production expenses], because they think, ‘Oh it’s just $1,000, it’s worth the $1,000′ or ‘It’s only $5,000, that’s okay.’

“I have certainly worked with teams that have brought in outstanding documentaries but when I look at the time they put into that film and I compare it to their budget, I know they did that for nothing and they were paying their bills in some other way,” she adds. “I don’t think that should be encouraged or even, frankly, admired.”

“If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money.” – Jane Jankovic, TVO

On the other end of the spectrum, she says, are filmmakers that “absolutely pay themselves first” and appear in every budget line. Jankovic outlines that a budget has to be reflective of the needs of the production plus the filmmaker’s salary, but doesn’t have to take into account total living expenses for the numbers of months or years a project is in development.

“Sometimes, I see what I think is a very high fee for a producer or director, and they’ll say to me, ‘Well yes, but I’ve been working on this for three or four years,’ and I [say] ‘I can’t pay you for the time you’ve put in on your own. What I can pay you for is to get this film out.’”

Jankovic makes it known that her financial obligation ends following the endorsement of a license. After that, she says, it’s up to the filmmakers to look for funding from as many avenues as possible that the broadcast license can trigger.

And herein lies the problem with dual director-producer roles and the navigating of finances, says Jankovic.

“[Filmmakers] just keep slicing away at their 15% of the budget and they think, ‘Because I’m doing both the producing and directing, I can afford to lower my fee just a little bit,’ and then it’s always just a little bit, a little bit, a little bit [more].”

The commissioner says she doesn’t often meet as many people who are interested in producing. In fact, she offers that there doesn’t seem to be a full understanding of what producers do.

“They’re horrifically undervalued and I’ve seen many projects where there’s been a weak director, or a director that’s gone off the rails, and it’s the producer that saves the project – not just financially, but also from a creative perspective,” she says.

“Having that second set of eyes that can step back and see whether or not that story is working, is really critical I would say [for] 99% of the projects that I deal with.”

Art vs. commerce: a distributor’s take
Esther van Messel (pictured, right), founder and CEO of the Zurich- and Berlin-based distributor First Hand Films, is often caught in a limbo between art and commerce. Offering the character of Ari Gold from the HBO drama Entourage, she says some people perceive distributors as greedy ten-percenters.

“That’s not us. It’s documentary. Nobody goes into documentary sales or distribution for financial reasons. But on the other hand, it has to make sense and it has to pay and it has to not be abusive in any financial way. It’s a very challenging job.”

Alongside acquiring films on completion and serving as an international distributor and sales agent, First Hand is one of a growing number of distributors that often comes in early on projects, getting involved as executive producers or co-producers and helping with financing and the production process.

One of their recent co-produced successes was Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw, which last year premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was picked up by Magnolia and Participant.

A key factor in the commercial viability of such projects is an acknowledgement of what things costs, says Van Messel, who served as an EP on Princess Shaw.
“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that. You can’t tell your landlord or the person in the supermarket that you’re living off air,” says Van Messel.

“Nobody is in this for the money, but at the same time, as sales agents, if we don’t make the producers more money at better conditions – sooner, and including our commission – than without us, we don’t have a reason to [exist],” she says.

“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that.” – Esther van Messel, First Hand Films

Van Messel points out that, overall, there has been more of a professionalization of the industry in the past 10 years, but admits the situation could be better, and there could be more self-respect among filmmakers as well as respect for the genre.

“I do think there’s a professionalism required, [an ability to] actually think a bit vertically and think ahead, and I think that’s a producer’s job in cooperation with their international representative,” she says.

“It’s such a complex profession that I really wish people would take more pride in it and refuse to be taken for granted just because they’re allowed to tell stories. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid properly.”

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary pays? A field-wide responsibility – part two

Financing - Part Two image

Realscreen’s special report on doc financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers continues with a look at some funders’ perspectives on sustainability and diversity, creative producers and carving a way forward. Catch up on the first part of the report here

Paradise Lost director Joe Berlinger admits he chose “a tough subject” for one of his first feature docs, Brother’s Keeper (1992), which he made with the late Bruce Sinofsky.

“Four farming brothers who all slept in the same bed together. One was accused of murdering the other,” Berlinger says plainly. “Today, that would be a very common thing to make a film about, but back then, it wasn’t common.”

Joe Berlinger

Joe Berlinger

The pair maxed out a dozen credit cards, took second mortgages out on their homes and went hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt in order to make the film, which “at the twelfth hour” received some funding from PBS program ‘American Playhouse’ and UK pubcaster Channel 4.

Brother’s Keeper later won the Sundance audience prize, and grossed about US$2 million in its international theatrical release via self-distribution.

“We really gambled everything. Luckily it paid off, but I swore I would never pay for a movie myself again unless it was something that meant a lot to me and I couldn’t raise the funding any other way.”

Since that experience, Berlinger says he’s “always had commercials as part of his DNA” and also pursues branded content and TV series. “You’ve got to treat it like a business and pay yourself a living wage,” he says.

“If you’re going to go about it as your way of making a living, you have to either know how to budget a film or hire a producer who knows how to budget a film, and figure out what it fairly costs.”

Costs of the “average” doc

But how can early-stage filmmakers know what things are supposed to cost when there are few rules of thumb, particularly when it comes to how much they pay themselves?

At the Sundance Institute, Tabitha Jackson, director of the Documentary Film Program, finds herself wrestling with exactly this quandary: the cost of the average doc.

“There is no such thing,” she says, but if there were, she estimates a price tag of around $400,000 to $500,000.

“And that actually is not true. I would say that it’s probably closer to $800,000, $900,000, if the filmmakers paid themselves,” says Jackson, who joined the organization from UK pubcaster Channel 4 in late 2013.

Tabitha Jackson

Tabitha Jackson

With all kinds of different money sources starting to enter the field – some of it recoupable, some of it not – Jackson says the sustainability conversation is stirring among funders who are keen to convene and discuss ways of making the system work for all stakeholders.

“Part of what I hope is that we, as a field, can be scrutinizing budgets as we give grants, and making sure filmmakers have a proper line and a realistic line [of] what it would take to pay them – and not just the directors but the producers as well – so that we, as funders, can get more used to seeing what a doc actually costs.”

Jackson advises that improving education around the cost of filmmaking, and what is okay to put into a budget, are steps in ensuring not only sustainability, but also diversity among filmmakers.

“The voices we also need to hear from are the people who can’t even contemplate going into this work because it’s not sustainable, and they simply can’t shoulder the amount of debt that it might take to make their film with no expectation of getting any money back from it,” she says.

“If we’re not representing the voices that can express our realities somewhat, it weakens the power of the form, and it’s not a cultural record anymore – it’s a very partial picture.”

Supporting producers

One recent advancement, Jackson says, is increased support of creative producers through such initiatives as the Documentary Creative Producing Lab, taking place at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah this August.

The myriad roles occupied by producers working in documentary warrants its own exploration, but what is clear is that many directors are also wearing producer hats on their projects – a tension that can negatively impact their finances.

The Overnighters

Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters

“When my director self is fighting with my producer self, you know who wins? The director always wins,” says Jesse Moss, director of The Bandit (2016) and The Overnighters (2014).

“The director always wants or takes more time, wants or takes the expensive archival shot, wants or takes the extra production days. The production part of me loses out and the creative part wins, often. It’s very hard to maintain internal financial discipline when you’re wearing both hats.”

Creative producer roles, which are commonplace in the narrative world but less so in non-fiction, involve management of budgeting, legal, accounting and other financial aspects, as well as the creative resources needed to keep projects running day in and day out.

“We really see the need for, and the shortage of, creative producers in the non-fiction field, particularly in the U.S. economy,” says Jackson, who adds that Sundance wants to address issues of recognition, education and sustainability around these roles as well.

As such, delineating best practices around budgeting should also include conversations about crediting, and the role of creative producers as well as producers and EPs – another dialog that is essential, says Jackson, in helping the industry acknowledge the expectations of not just the individual filmmaker, but also the doc making team.

But ultimately, the filmmaker needs to be recognized as the first investor.

“So often the filmmaker spends years of their lives going out and getting the story, filming and doing the research and getting contributors for their film – completely unpaid – so we need to bear in mind that the artist is the first investor, and find a way that that is reflected somehow in the budget.”

A way forward

Looking ahead, Luke Moody, head of film at the London- and New York-based Britdoc Foundation, predicts there will be more developments in non-project specific support that allows filmmakers to hone their creativity without financial restrictions. Some examples are the BFI’s Vision Award, intended to support a “new generation of diverse and ambitious film producers,” as well as Sundance’s ‘Art of Nonfiction’ program, which helps filmmakers develop creative voices without having a specific film to pitch (though it is invitation-only).

Other opportunities might take the form of fellowships, residencies, artist development bursaries, seed funding and production company overhead grants. And to bridge professional knowledge gaps, Moody points to such producing labs and workshops as European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE), Future Producer School and Jihlava Emerging Producers.

Luke Moody of Britdoc

Luke Moody of Britdoc

He similarly notes there is “no one model” to adhere to in structuring a team and raising budgets, but adds, “More could be done on our behalf and other funders. For example, collecting sample anonymous budgets to share on the Britdoc resources page.”

Also key, he says, is that industry events – festivals, labs and workshops – build detailed sessions on financing into presentations.

One such major opportunity to coalesce and broach some of these topics will be the IDA’s Getting Real conference, which takes place in Los Angeles from September 27 to 29. Career sustainability is one of the event’s three pillars, alongside diversity and the art of storytelling.

“One of the approaches of Getting Real is to create spaces for a much more frank conversation,” says Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the IDA.

And while that’s hard to do on an individual level because a doc maker’s projects may rely on grants and commissions, it’s easier as an organization to step back and identify who’s getting paid, and who’s not.

“I think what we’ll get out of Getting Real as an organization is a way to frame the [conversation] with funders and financiers, so at least there will be a more field-wide acknowledgement that perhaps we might be undervaluing some of this content, and if we really want a field that is sustainable and vibrant and creative, we may need to step back and reassess the economics of it.

“There’s probably a percentage of filmmakers who are doing really well and others who are kind of embarrassed that they’re struggling. But the reality is, when I talk to filmmakers who might be perceived as really successful, they’re struggling, too.”

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ON THE MEDIA: Documentary pays? The price of filmmaking – part one

financing-feature-image
realscreen.com, by Manori Ravindran, July 8, 2016

In this special report, realscreen examines the economic pressures placed on some documentary filmmakers working today, and why doc directors – many of whom also play double duty as producers on their projects – aren’t paying themselves for their time.

In part one, we look at recent surveys and studies investigating the costs of doc making, while part two, to publish tomorrow (July 8), features funders’ thoughts on transparency around financing.

Forgoing personal wages to force down a budget and secure funding is a familiar exercise for doc makers. So familiar, in fact, it makes you wonder: if this is the so-called golden age of documentaries, why aren’t more filmmakers getting paid accordingly?

“It’s like I should be grateful to be able to do my art, and expecting to get paid is like an after-thought”
-Jesse Moss (The Overnighters)

The reasons are two-fold. The democratization of technology and abundance of distribution platforms allows most anyone to make docs, but with so many opportunities and a saturated market, it also means more doc makers – even veterans of the field – are struggling to first get their films financed, and then make money and recoup debts incurred.

Personal pay cuts and deferred fees abound, rendering documentary filmmaking a curious profession in which one pays an impossible price to sustain a career – if you’re lucky.

“Part of it is that tension between art and commerce that afflicts us,” offers Jesse Moss (pictured above, left), director of critically acclaimed doc The Overnighters (2014). “It’s like I should be grateful to be able to do my art, and expecting to get paid is like an after-thought.”

financing-moss-films

Jesse Moss-directed docs

Moss recently made his fourth feature doc, the CMT-backed The Bandit – the first of his films to be fully financed at conception, allowing him to take a combined producing and directing fee. Most of his previous work, however, including Speedo (2003) and Full Battle Rattle (2008), was made through a combination of sweat equity, private equity, grant funding, loans and – as always – a significant personal financial investment.

“You assign a commercial value to your work, and it’s almost like that’s antithetical to the [act of] making art, yet we need to survive,” he says. “And because the system is so fluid, the way in which films are financed is so different in every film that your value on one project is not necessarily your value on another project because of the nature of the film itself.”

The golden age offers no golden rules for budgeting, but many argue it’s time now for a field-wide conversation about sustainability. If the doc community aspires to be less self-selecting and more diverse, part of that effort should include improved transparency around financing, and best practices for drawing budgets, discussing maker salaries and crediting.

It appears that for the documentary field to move forward, it needs to first step back and turn the lens on itself.

Unpaid or underpaid, from Los Angeles to London

Perhaps one of the best indicators that sustainability is becoming a priority in the non-fiction community are recent surveys delving into the pressing, day-to-day issues facing doc makers in the field.

A forthcoming study by American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), in collaboration with the International Documentary Association (IDA), is looking at the experiences of working documentary filmmakers and other industry professionals in the U.S.

Launched in late January, the tentatively titled “The State of the Documentary Field Trend Study: Perspectives from the Industry” had collected 573 complete responses to its IDA-distributed survey as of June 17, with a breakdown of about 47% directors and 28% producers. Full results will be presented at the IDA’s Getting Real conference in September.

Jane Ray of Whicker's World Foundation

Jane Ray of Whicker’s World Foundation

Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of CMSI and the study’s director, says preliminary findings show that about 67% of respondents who identified as documentary professionals do not make their primary living through doc filmmaking, and about 66% of those who identified as such made either no salary at all, or less than 50% of their annual salary from their films.

Initial findings of how recent doc projects were funded reveal the main sources of funding as foundation grants (31%), followed by personal finances (26%) and then broadcasting and cable licensing deals (21%). In response to how much personal money was spent on a recent project, about 36% said they spent between $5,000 and $50,000.

Meanwhile, the London-based Whicker’s World Foundation (WWF) in January partnered with Sheffield Doc/Fest and the European Documentary Network to assemble a picture of the current doc making field in the UK and Europe by reaching out to filmmakers via a 16-point questionnaire. The goal was to see how much the organization’s top funding award of £80,000 could buy for a doc maker.

Based on the responses of 191 participants at varying stages of their careers, findings revealed that around 27% of respondents said their time would have cost more than £60,000 if they had paid themselves fully for every day of work, while the median valuation was roughly £10,000.

In addition, 87% of respondents said they had not received the calculated wages for their work. Common reasons included “tight production budgets” or the inability to raise necessary funding, while some who worked on passion projects out of love, or a need of experience, simply didn’t expect pay.

“Auto-exploitation”

Jane Ray, consultant artistic director for Whicker’s World, says the financial strain evident in their survey wasn’t only relegated to emerging talent, but also involved 30-year veterans of the industry.

“The whole emphasis on the broadcasters is the strength of your idea: ‘You seduce us and we will take your idea but let’s not talk about money,’ and it makes things very difficult because obviously the whole nature of doc production is enormously isolating,” says Ray.

“I think there’s a sense that it’s such a competitive world that if anybody gets a whiff that [a doc maker is] a bleeding heart, difficult person who is going to go into the commissioning room and say, ‘Look, are you going to pay me for this or what?’ they will never work again. I think it’s a mix of fear and shame.”

Filmmaker Emily James

Filmmaker Emily James

California-born doc maker Emily James was among the respondents of the Whicker’s survey. A UK resident since 1995, James studied documentary directing at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) and sold her first doc, The Luckiest Nut in the World (2002), to Channel 4. Her current feature effort is a copro between BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand and A&E Indie Fund.

James hasn’t managed to pay herself much of a salary on any of her projects, and like many filmmakers, she subsidizes her docs through commercial work and savings. In the 16 years since graduating NFTS in 2000, the amount of time she has been in production – fully-funded – and without needing other sources of income adds up to five years.

Speaking of her experience at film school, James says there was little practical guidance around financing – a pattern she still notices while mentoring.

“Often you meet filmmakers and you show them a budget and they don’t even know what they’re looking at,” explains James. “If you’re not able to get your head around where the money is and how you use your resources to maximize efficiency, then it’s like you’re trying to run a race one-legged. It’s such an important skill but it’s one that gets very, very little formal teaching or education.”

In the Whicker’s World survey, James labeled the standard of paying everyone on a film crew full rates except yourself “auto-exploitation” but cautions that the wider commercial system also needs to be challenged.

“We’re exploiting ourselves, but we’re also being exploited by all the people around us who are making a proper living from what they’re doing, and using our work as the center of that.

“Nobody ever pays you back for all of that effort you put into [development]. But then, if the film is good, you suddenly have all of these other people that are working for distributors, festivals and broadcasters – who are being paid a waged job – and they’re using the work that we’ve created as the central commodity of their industry without ever repaying the people that took the major risk at the beginning.”

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