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Wearing The Producer's Hat: Doc Panels Talk Funding and Marketing at FIND Forum

By Tom White

In a mad flurry of falltime activities, Film Independent's Film Forum dominated the Columbus Day weekend docket in Los Angeles with three days of conversations, networking and screenings. Equally impressive was the Film Forum binder, highlighted by case studies of 28 films, including 11 docs, about how the filmmakers made, funded, launched and marketed their work. The case studies were produced by Film Independent's Film Education Department.

First up of the two documentary panels on Saturday was The Doc Is In, which was, in effect, a conglomerate of living case studies, in which the filmmakers shared experiences about funding and distribution, relationships with subjects, festivals, etc. Filmmaker/blogger AJ Schnack moderated, and the panelists included Richard Abramowitz, president of Abramorama Entertainment, which is handling both Anvil! The Story of Anvil and We Live in Public; Laura Gabbert, director, No Impact Man; Scott Kennedy, director, The Garden; and Matt Tynauer, director, Valentino: The Last Emperor.

Valentino, which grossed over $1.7 million at the box office this year, was freighted with backstory, and Tynauer regaled the panel and audience with tales from the trenches-gilded trenches, given that Valentino was the diva-in-chief. Needless to say, access to and cooperation from Valentino and his longtime partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, was a challenge, as were financing, legal issues and marketing. "How do you sell a doc about two aging homosexuals that's not La Cage Aux Folles: The Vérité Film?" Tynauer quipped.

Following premieres in Venice and Toronto, Tynauer and his team fielded bids for North American distribution-but at less than what they felt acceptable. They went the self-distribution route through Truly Indie, and with the help of Valentino's initial participation in promoting the film, free full-page ads in Conde Nast publications (thanks to a convoluted, but renumerative deal with Samsung), Oprah's endorsement and general word-of-mouth, the film enjoyed an impressive box office run.

A panel of four men and one woman sitting on a stage, in conversation
"The Doc Is In" Panel at Film Independent's Filmmaker Forum. Left to right: AJ Schnack, Laura Gabbert, Matt Tynauer, Richard Abramowitz, Scott Kennedy. Courtesy of Film Independent

Sacha Gervasi, director of Anvil!, also turned down distribution offers-because he wanted to be more involved with the process than distributors would have allowed, according to Abramowitz, who secured VH1 as a partner early on. "VH1 had a brand that needed reinvigoration," he noted. With the participation of Anvil the band throughout the festival and theatrical run-as well as a big push in conjunction with the recent DVD release and the upcoming Oscars season--the film has successfully found its core audience. "If you can hit your core audience, everything else is gravy," Abramowitz maintained. But you have to have a real strategy in reaching that audience, he said. "It's almost irresponsible to not include a distribution line item in your budget. Find a producer to figure out the market and the end user, so you can do your job as a filmmaker."

Both No Impact Man and The Garden were distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures and received partial funding from Impact Partners. With Gabbert's film, one of the protagonists, Colin Beaver, was also writing a book about his and his family's one-year quest to minimize their carbon footprint, so the timing between the release of both book and film dovetailed, with publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux keying its promotional campaign in tune with the film's release.

But Beaver himself was not sold on the film, given that Gabbert, like Tyrnauer, wanted to focus on the dynamics of a marriage, which, in turn, impacted her dealings with her subjects. "It is kind of a co-dependent relationship," Gabbert admitted. "I feel that more than half of my job as director is talking to my subjects--constant phone calls and e-mails, talking and massaging and understanding and debating." What's more, Gabbert had a shared final cut agreement with her subjects. "This was the only way we could get the contract signed with Colin...We didn't have a contract signed until nine months into the shooting." In the end, though, given that her subjects were writers themselves, they slowly understood the value of final cut. "They really got that there had to be these ups and downs, and we had to tell a dramatic story full of conflict," said Gabbert. It helped, perhaps, that Gabbert had known her subjects for a long time beforehand, so they knew she wouldn't do anything to hurt them. "I always say, Documentaries are only as good as the relationships that allow them to be made, so I felt that we would get through it. But it was incredibly anxiety-provoking along the way."

While most of the films represented on the panel had an extensive pre-production period, Scott Kennedy went right into production on The Garden as soon as he heard about the largest community garden in the US and the legal fight over its future. "The story was happening immediately, and I was capturing it as it was happening," Kennedy said. As with most docs, the initial phases of production were self-financed. With a 12-minute trailer, he went to the IFP Market , and showed his footage to Sara Bernstein of HBO. At a subsequent meeting with HBO, Sheila Nevins remarked, "It doesn't have Oscar potential unless the garden is destroyed." Well, they don't call her The Doyenne of Docs for nothing: The garden was destroyed, and The Garden received an Oscar nomination. In between, funding from the Katahdin Foundation and Impact Partners helped Kennedy finish the film.


Two men and two women standing in front of a step and repeat
The "Money for Docs" panelists at Film Independent's Filmmaker Forum. Left to right: Luis Ortiz, Latino Public Broadcasting; Sara Bernstein, HBO; Claire Aguilar, ITVS; John Lightfoot, California Council for the Humanities. Courtesy of Film Independent 

Funding was the subject of Money for Docs, moderated by John Lightfoot of the California Council for the Humanities, and featuring Claire Aquilar of ITVS; Sara Bernstein of HBO; and Luis Ortiz of Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB).

The economy has, surprisingly, not had as drastic an impact on the funders as one would expect. LPB actually has more money to disburse, and for HBO, while not affected in a major way, the economy has "forced us to look at the market and at our own strategies," according to Bernstein. She noted that given the downward trend of the theatrical market, "It's our mandate to provide product for HBO subscribers."

All three panelists looked favorably on social issue docs, with ITVS welcoming those projects that inspire dialogue and debate, and HBO looking for microcosmic stories in which social issues are implicit. "We try to not be overtly political," Bernstein explained. "We let the people in the film speak for themselves and in that way highlight the issues." She cited Rebecca Cammissa's Which Way Home, about children who try to immigrate illegally to the US from Mexico and Guatemala, as an example of a project that can provoke a national discussion on immigration. Ortiz encouraged work that took on familiar social issues like immigration, but with a fresh, new angle. LPB also looks for stories about some aspect of Latino culture that hasn't been explored.

Both Aquilar and Ortiz discussed the PBS guidelines, specifically its mandate of objectivity and balance. This mandate also applies to funding sources: If the mission of funder is such that it might hold sway over the direction of the film, and perhaps use the film to further an agenda, PBS will hold that project up to closer scrutiny.

As far as approaching ITVS, LPB and HBO for funding, Aguilar explained that ITVS' primary model is a broadcasting license agreement, but they also commission and field pitches. Once you are successful in getting through the ITVS door, Aguilar also emphasized the business of relationships--you're going to be in a partnership with ITVS for at least two years. "It comes down to who are you going to be in partnership with,  and so much of that is about not only what the project is, but how you present the project and what is the filmmaker's stake in it."

For ITVS' finishing fund open call, the project should be in production, and you stand a better chance if your project is at the rough cut or slightly more advanced stage. For LPB, the emphasis is on the proposal or treatment in the first round, while for the second round, Ortiz encouraged the audience to include a sample of a really strong 10-minute scene and to provide a good set-up. Since HBO receives 100 films a week for 40 slots in a given year, on the other hand, you need to have some footage when you first approach the cabler. HBO funds films in a variety of ways--completion funding, acquisitions, or in-house commissions.

In addition to completion funding, both ITVS and LPB support outreach efforts. ITVS in particular, makes outreach an integral component of Independent Lens, its flagship series on PBS, through pre-broadcast community screenings, in partnership with NGOs and nonprofits, and through online social networking capabilities. While HBO doesn't have as extensive an outreach program and refrains from targeting political organizations in concert with a given broadcast, "We realize that the film doesn't end with the HBO broadcast," Bernstein said. "We like to work with interested organizations that would potentially find a wider audience for getting those issues across. We have an outreach person on staff who works with the filmmakers to make sure that the widest interested audience outside of, and in some cases, along with the HBO subscribers."

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.