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FIND Panel: The Documentary Marketplace

By Tamara Krinsky

On Saturday, September 27, 2008, I attended “The Documentary Marketplace” panel at Film Independent’s Filmmaker Forum, which was held in Los Angeles at the DGA. The panel was gracefully led by the always articulate Cara Mertes, Director of the Documentary Film Program at the Sundance Institute. Panelists included Sasha Alpert (Vice President, BMP Films), Jackie Glover (Vice President, Documentary Programming, HBO), John Lightfoot (Program Manager, California Documentary Project), Richard Saiz (Sr. Programming Manager, ITVS) and Courtney Sexton (Director of Documentary Production, Participant Productions).


The Documentary Marketplace panel at Film Independent's Film Forum. Left to right: Cara Mertes, Richard Saiz, Sasha Alpert, Jackie Glover, John Lightfoot, Courtney Sexton. Courtesy of Film Independent.

Mertes kicked off the panel with a promise to “do my best Jim Lehrer imitation” and get the panelists to engage in meaningful conversation with one another about the state of the documentary marketplace. She asked the group to dispel common myths about each of their companies and organizations, beginning with a few common misperceptions about Sundance. Many believe that Sundance is a for-profit organization with a lot of money, but this is not true. Additionally, she laid to rest the myth that you must have a celebrity in your film to get into the festival or receive funding.

Saiz tried to set the record straight about the ITVS rumors that the organization never funds anyone the first time they apply, and ITVS only funds minority producers. He confirmed that ITVS does have a general policy of bringing in diverse voices, but that the organization does not have an actual mandate to fund specific groups.

Alpert’s BMP Films, a division of reality production company Bunim/Murray (The Simple Life, The Real World) is relatively new to the doc scene. BMP made a splash with its first film, the Emmy Award-winning Autism: The Musical. Alpert was quick to point out that despite the company’s reality TV roots, not every film BMP makes requires people in a hot tub. At the other end of the spectrum, Lightfoot wanted filmmakers to know that even though the California Council for the Humanities has a mission to use the humanities to foster community, the California Documentary Project (which is administered by the Council) doesn’t just fund stodgy historical documentaries. They are extremely interested in documentaries that address contemporary issues regarding the state.

Most think that pitching material to HBO is next to impossible, but Glover touted the accessibility of HBO Documentary Films, which is the only department of HBO that can take unsolicited material. Getting your foot in the door is as simple as sending off an e-mail query to Glover or one of her colleagues. Sexton tried to set the record straight on the types of documentaries that spark interest for Participant. Often filmmakers think that the company is open to all documentaries because of its mandate to “create media that inspires and compels social change.” However, Participant also has a mandate to produce films that can succeed in the theatrical marketplace, and this narrows the scope of the type of films with which they become involved.

All of the panelists agreed that 2008 had been a tough year for documentaries in the theatrical marketplace. As a result, Participant is looking to cut down its initial slate of five theatrical films a year, and is exploring alternative distribution models. HBO’s policy regarding theatrical play for its projects has shifted back and forth over the years. While the channel’s preference is to have films premiere on the network first, ultimately, it depends on what’s right for each individual film. HBO Documentary Films is currently planning on holding firm on its slate of 12 documentaries per year. Lightfoot has reacted to the distribution crisis by trying to be much more strategic about funding, moving outside the traditional nonfiction arena and appealing to foundations that may not have previously funded films or looked to cinema to support their initiatives.

The application and/or pitch process can be grueling, and the panelists offered a few tips and tricks on how to best approach them. Saiz said that a common pitfall in ITVS proposals is when an applicant presents an interesting idea, but then cannot translate that into a dynamic documentary. He said, “This is the place where 99.9 percent of proposals falter.” He also said that applicants often mention in their ITVS proposals that they’d like their film to appear on HBO. It’s important to know that if you do indeed receive funding from the ITVS, the agreement includes an exclusive license with public television.

BMP Films receives about 200 proposals a year, and they like to see a reel, treatment and a budget. The company is looking for character-driven, emotional material. Explained Alpert, “We’re not looking for something about the economic collapse unless it’s about six specific individuals and how it has affected them.” Too often, people submit information about the history of their subject and omit how they would go about telling that story in their film. BMP only produces one or two projects a year, and is in the enviable position of not needing their documentaries to turn a huge profit – that’s what the company’s other productions liked Road Rules are for.

Glover said that for HBO, tape is key – she and her colleagues want to see who you are talking about as well as get a sense of a filmmaker’s technique. She said that HBO leans towards stories that serve as a microcosm for a larger issue, as well as filmmakers who have access to situations or subjects that no one else is seeing. She recommended staying away from projects that make heavy use of narration and sit-down interviews – HBO prefers documentaries with lots of vérité, where the story unfolds as the viewer is experiencing the film.

Sexton goes through approximately 30 proposals a month, many of which have a great deal of passion behind them, but very little structure. Because she sees so much repetition in topics, an innovative approach and access is key for a project to garner attention. She recommended that filmmakers put their best foot forward when approaching Participant, as most projects only get one chance for review.

Lightfoot said that the California Documentary Project puts a lot of emphasis on the written application, and suggested putting some creativity into it.

The panel took an interesting turn during a discussion about “good vs. bad money”, and how funding from one entity can affect further funding down the road. For example, The Education of Shelby Knox received some early funding from the Playboy Foundation, and later on that caused problems when ITVS decided to fund the project. ITVS receives its money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is funded through Congress, and can therefore be subject to shifting political winds. In this case, ITVS ultimately bought out the $5,000 that Playboy had given the project.

Just like Congress, individual investors can be mercurial. While it's fantastic to find a big private donor, all films go through dark times and Alpert warned that sometimes private funding can mysteriously dry up.

Despite the tough year that docs seem to be having at the box office, the panel expressed enthusiasm for emerging trends. Sexton said that people are extremely passionate right now and want to have a voice. “It’s not that the audience isn’t there; we just need to figure out how to find them.”

Lightfoot was excited about the creative possibilities of new media, and Glover believes that people have become savvier about filmmaking. With the tools currently available, anyone can pick up a camera, which means that stories can now be told from new perspectives. Alpert pointed to all of the confessional material on the Internet as an example of how willing people now are to put out very personal opinions, which is always good for documentaries.

Mertes expressed enthusiasm for the international reach of film. She said, “Cinema is becoming the international language of expression. People around the world want a way to express what’s happening to them.”

My colleague Tom White attended the "What's Up Doc?" panel at the Filmmaker Forum. For his write up of the event, click here.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.