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Confronting Cable Companies: Can't Live with 'Em, Can't Work without 'Em

By Barbara Rick

The seed for an in-depth look at the relationship between cable companies and filmmakers came as the result of some startling words from a legend in documentary. Past IDA President Robert Guenette blasted the cable industry for treating today’s filmmakers like, as one IDA member put it, “tenant farmers.” “We toil, they own,” he said in his acceptance speech last December of the IDA’s Pioneer Award for Distinguished Lifetime Service to the Documentary Community. Guenette pointed to cable company policies—including low licensing fees, the demand for matching funds, and the claiming of ownership—as chronic problems impacting cable companies’ relationship with filmmakers.

Others see it differently.

Bruce Klein of Atlas Media Corp., whose corporate mission is to have a balanced split of half commissioned productions and half co-productions, says cable companies are fair, given the business limitations they face: “Delivering an audience night after night and making sure the arithmetic adds up in the end.”

According to Klein, “built-in commercial savvy” is the mark of successful production companies. “They can take off the filmmaker hat and put on the business hat and work with cable networks’ marketing, sales, promotional and affiliate needs,” Klein says, adding that the ability to understand and service those needs can make the difference between success and failure in working with the cable networks.

Moxie Firecracker Films’ Liz Garbus agrees. “There’s filmmaking and then there’s producing nonfiction programs for television. And I think those are two different art forms. You have to just know which project is which.” Garbus has worked with companies such as A&E and Lifetime, Court TV and HBO. “When you have that ‘special film,’ you can get unhappy if you have to put it in a box that is not right for that kind of project. That’s probably when you hear frustration from people. And it’s very important to find the right mentor at a particular network who can shepherd your project, can help lead the battle. That’s what happened with The Farm [Garbus’ and Jonathan Stack’s 1998 film about life in the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana].”

Many filmmakers agree that an advocate at the cable outfit one is dealing with is essential. For Peter Jones of Peter Jones Productions, Inc. in Los Angeles, that is CarolAnne Dolan at A&E Biography. “I would not be doing Biography were it not for my relationship with her. She allows us to do meaningful subjects and experiment. I adore the freedom that I’m given there.” Although it can be challenging to profitably navigate a given budget, Jones says, “Economics force you to be creative when telling a story. I will never bitch about the budget. Bad storytellers say, ‘if I had more money I could make it better.’ You work with what you have and make it work.”

Better budgets, creative flexibility and a greater respect for the art form are some of the reasons several filmmakers point to HBO as the dream team for documentary filmmakers. “With HBO it’s like I died and went to heaven as a filmmaker,” says Liz Garbus. “They understand that a film is more than a TV product that needs to get ratings, that a film has more than a singular life; it can have a film festival life, and an awards life. HBO gives filmmakers like me room to make a longer film and the chance to do a film that’s not necessarily going to please everybody.”

Veteran producer Andrew Solt, who primarily works with the major broadcast networks, notes an irony here. “There’s an inverse proportion between the amount paid and the amount of freedom one has to do the best work. The more they pay, the more respect and the better the working relationship with the network. There’s a truism that the lower the budget, the greater the interference [is] from the buyer.”

Klein has had similar experience. “Cable network executives tend to be fair to the extent that they have production experience. The ones with limited experience tend to be more challenging.” “According to Guenette, “What’s needed is a seminar attended by cable execs run by filmmakers from around the country making all kinds of movies to enlighten the executives as to what it takes to make a movie. I don’t think they know.” He would like to see IDA take a tougher line when it comes to filmmakers’ rights and livelihood.

Guenette recalls that years ago,one would make an hour documentary for the major networks for $450,000 to $700,000. “Now you’re making the same hour for $75,000 to $200,000 for cable, and your costs have gone up. One of the things that drives younger people out of the business is they get tired of asking their friends to work for nothing.”

Emmy and Grammy winner Solt says the cable deals have eroded over the years. “As costs go up, the budgets never do. You end up subsidizing programming. On an hourly basis, you’re probably below minimum wage.”

Steve Burns, senior vice president of production at the Discovery Channel, won’t discuss budget range amounts as part of his policy. Burns says cable networks would like to have larger budgets available for films, but “There’s a practical reality in order to stay in business.”

He says filmmakers provide 500-600 hours of product for his channel, and that the company works with 270 different production companies to fill that slate. As for Guenette’s reference to the idea of filmmaker as “tenant farmer,” Burns says he doesn’t think the filmmakers he works with would endorse that point of view. “The truth is that both the filmmakers and the networks need one another.

Gary Morgenstein, vice president of corporate communications for A&E Television networks--which includes A&E and The History Channel--echoes Burns’ feeling that the relationship between cable companies and filmmakers is a mutually rewarding one. “Biography has been a wonderful home for filmmakers,” Morgenstein says, adding that filmmakers providing content for The History Channel have the opportunity of being associated with a network that’s becoming a “brand icon.”

“We provide a number of outlets for documentary filmmakers,” says Morgenstein, noting that in addition to The History Channel, launched in 1995, and Biography, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in April, two new digital networks have been added.

Discovery’s Burns says that what’s working today between his company and filmmakers is the result: “worthwhile programming offering audiences diversity and quality.” He says he’s proud to work with the “best filmmakers in the word, and I just want them to keep making great films.”

But Discovery’s recently proposed policy to eliminate end-roll credits on broadcasts of newly commissioned documentaries has outraged and disappointed many filmmakers. Burns would not comment on the change, but filmmakers had plenty to say about it. Jones calls it “disgusting,” asking, “Did these programs just fall out of the documentary tree? All this does, to me, is create even more hack product. It’s the individual voice that’s interesting when you watch something. Discovery’s action is basically an admission that ‘We don’t care…we’re just filling a time slot with information, not knowledge.’”

“As a filmmaker, I think it stinks,” adds Klein. “But as someone who runs a business, I can understand why they’re doing it. If you take the last 30 seconds of a show and multiply it by the number of shows you have, you’re talking about a lot of lost revenue.”

John Ford, Discovery’s top executive in the US, said the proposal to diminish credits is intended to benefit viewers and content providers. “Reducing the number of viewers who turn away from our programs during the credit roll would benefit our production partners; the producer would have more people tuning in to the beginning of their film, and we would be able to invest more money into production.”

Doing away with credits was “the last straw” for Solt, who compared the action to “taking a pretty girl to the prom who then moves to another high school.” Solt says credits have historically been an important part of filmmakers’ non-financial compensation; particularly important for less-established filmmakers. Solt recently gave up a ten-hour deal with Travel Channel over the credits issue. He called the move “demeaning” and “demoralizing.”

“We decided it’s not in our best interest to start in on a deal where people don’t get credit,” Solt says. “The role of the independent producer has been minimalized, marginalized and eroded to the point where it’s questionable whether we want to do it. It’s harder and harder to rationalize.”

As for executives’ claims that they have to keep budgets low to stay in business, Guenette replies, “On the other hand, they don’t let us see their books, do they? You can’t take their cry of poverty seriously when they are spawning new channels all the time. Where are they getting the money? They can’t be doing that badly.” Adds Solt, “The value of Discovery has gone up seven times since we started working with them. Wish I could say the same for my business. Their business model is working for them. I salute them…but the heart of creativity is being stripped.”


Barbara Rick, president and founder of Out of The Blue Films, Inc., is a Peabody-and Emmy-winning filmmaker/journalist based in New York City. Her current project, In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of Conscience, is a co-production with legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles.