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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, October 1995

By Peter Stuart

A few months ago (ID, July/August 1995), I explained why and how I made my first independent documentary. Using my own funds, I produced a half-hour video, Off the Wall!, dealing with the elimination of graffiti. It revolved around the activities of a charismatic activist named Joe Connolly. That was the fun part.  Then came the hard part: getting the program distributed. How would I convey my antigraffiti message to millions of Americans?

I knew that there was little chance of getting it on the broadcast networks.  Obtaining a decision from any of the cable networks would require an enormous amount of patience (about six months' worth), which unfortunately I have in short supply. So I thought I would try to get a playdate on one of the local commercial stations in Los Angeles, Connelly's hometown. Surely the news director of one of the L.A. stations would be willing to part with a few pence in order to bring a very entertaining yet important and informative half hour to their viewers.

Accordingly, I contacted news directors or station managers at seven stations in the area, personally gave them what I considered a good pitch, and sent them a cassette of the show. Days flew by, weeks went by, a month crawled by, two months dragged by-phone calls went unanswered. Finally, one of the stations returned my cassette in a brown envelope without the courtesy of a note to accompany it. Another sent a brief note of rejection. The rest was silence. From the remainder of the stations, I have yet to receive the consideration of an answer. A good friend, independent producer Bram Roos, having heard my tale of frustration, reminded me of the line Peter O'Toole used while snuffing out a candle flame with his fingers in Lawrence of Arabia: "The trick is not minding that it hurts."

Fortunately, as the months went by, I contacted KCET, the PBS station in Los Angeles, which bought the show. In addition, through an organization called American Program Services, Off the Wall! was screened by satellite for PBS stations across the country. Many of them picked up the show, and I have since found a private organization to contact stations in cities not covered by the PBS arrangement. I also made an arrangement with Direct Cinema Limited to distribute the film in nontheatrical venues. I hope I will get my investment back and in the process a lot of Americans will feel empowered to do something about eradicating graffiti.

Looking back, I realize I must have been a bit loony to dash into a project like that. What really were the chances that anyone would buy an independent half­ hour program about eradicating graffiti ? After all the angst, this type of gratis production is something I will absolutely never do again... unless I come up with an idea that I just have to film.

This column will be arriving during our month-long screening series "In and Out of the Cold, 1945-1995: Documenting 50 Years of Change" and just before the start of the Second International Documentary Congress. Again, I hope that many of you will partake of our gargantuan documentary feast and also join us for our 11th Annual IDA Awards gala on October 27.

In addition, we are preparing two super seminars in Los Angeles. The first, on November 11, will be conducted by IDA board member Mitchell Block. It's an advanced two-day session covering the marketing and distribution of films, videos, and CD-ROMs to both educational and home users. On November 18, in conjunction with Eastman Kodak, we will present a technical seminar examining the film stocks, cameras (including Hi8 and digital video), and sound and lighting equipment now available on the market. It will feature a lot of hands-on demonstrations. Finally, on behalf of the IDA, on December 21 will be giving a seminar in association with the Documentary Center at Columbia University in New York, dealing with the creation and production of reality programming.