About a week following the IDA Getting Real, Documentary Film Conference 2014, I find myself continuing to reflect on a fairly charged experience. From the first session GETTING REAL About the Doc Career, to the last I attended, From Distribution to Sustainability: Four Doc Filmmaker Case Studies, frank participation by both panelists and audience, was what made this conference a much needed call to action for filmmakers and the industry at large. Thom Powers moderated the doc careers panel and opened by saying that when his students ask about sustainable professional lives as documentary filmmakers, he tells them that if he asked 50 doc filmmakers how they make a living, there would be 50 different answers. That pretty much was right on the money, as all panelists (huge panel) make their careers sustainable by balancing media making with other related work, such as teaching, commercial, work-for-hire as DP or editor, advertising, research, etc. Most love what they do, both filmmaking and otherwise, but all talked about sacrifice. Whether it was juggling a personal life/family by only working at odd hours and living off less sleep (i.e. Nina Gilden Seavey, a terrific panelist at multiple sessions) or accepting that a project will take much longer since it's impossible to work on it full time, it was confirmed that the life of an independent filmmaker isn't easy. Granted that it never really was, but once upon a time existed a clearer and realistic career path that was much less complicated.
Panelist Tina DiFeliciantonio is part of the newly formed Independent Documentary Sustainability Task Force, which is gathering data for a quantitative analysis of the industry. The Task Force is looking at how the music industry adjusted to the drastic change in their industry. Maybe independent filmmakers can learn from what musicians have already dealt with. DiFeliciantonio boldly pointed out what she called the elephant in the room, and that is, we participate in our own exploitation by exploiting those who work for us. Hard to hear, and easier said than done in terms of fixing the issues, when budgets are beyond thin, but how can we create a living wage for ourselves when we're not paying one to our colleagues?
There was much talk in general about the economy being unsupportive of artists and that there will only be challenges ahead in this arena. The Esther Robinson lead sessions, Indie Doc Sustainability, Part 2: Reflections and Q&A, as well as her, Creative Money Balance: A Hands-on Workshop on Career Sustainability and Personal Finance, she spoke repeatedly about the "global economic contraction" and that we, as artists, like any other profession, should always be prepared for possible economic downturn. In the Hands-on workshop, Robinson talked about becoming solvent and how multiple revenue streams can lead to solvency and a sustainable career as an artist. She made her case by pointing out that having diverse income sources is more financially stable in many ways and if one is efficient with their time, it can be done without sacrificing a personal life.
She encouraged everyone to ask themselves, Is there something in my life I can monetize? and suggested to also ask trusted people in one's personal network. Ask them, What do you think I excel at? See what people say. Can you get paid for doing something you're good at and enjoy, in addition to filmmaking? Robinson used herself as an example. She makes films, but has a couple of other forms of revenue, one of which is ArtHome, a nonprofit founded by Robinson, which helps artists become financially stable through it's programs and workshops. She reminded her audience that no one is better suited for financial solvency than filmmakers, who make something out of nothing for a living. Quite honestly, I got a lot of this workshop. In a way, it gave me permission to accept other work without feeling like I'm comprimising, but it also left me asking those above questions about long-term planning and time efficiency. Other questions to ask yourself: How do I make a lifetime of work? Do I do less over time? How do I not just make this project, but the next and the next? What will that look like and how will I do it? Think about creating a plan and then actually create it and follow it using tangible steps. And the most important point Robinson made was that we're all trying to make an awesome life for ourselves. As she put it so well, "You want to be the hottest person at the nursing home, who is still working. That is the gold standard." Amen to that.
Money Talks (and Listens) brought together many funders to not only talk about their funding process, but also to listen. They wanted to know how they can better support the documentarian. There was acknowledgment of government funding from the arts dwindling rapidly and of course that isn't news, but the optimistic side of that is that new foundations have begun to fill the gap and although there aren't nearly enough funds to cover all the worthy projects, there are options out there. A new (and hopefully lasting) trend for funders is to build relationships with filmmakers they fund, for the long haul. Funders don't just think about funding one project for one filmmaker, one time, but look at how they can support them in developing and growing their career.
A lot of good points were brought up in this discussion. Many specific questions were raised about foundations that also act as producers on funded projects and the details of those agreements. Debra Zimmerman of Women Make Movies (a panelist) said she thought it would be helpful if filmmakers could see the agreements before actually applying for a grant. This spurred a worthy conversation about transparency and efficiency. Zimmerman suggested creating Best Practices for the ways funders are to be credited on films. And funders are already working on standardizing grant submission requirements. This would be huge for media makers. Can you imagine a world with less time spent on editing grant statements, budget templates and recutting trailers to bring the TRT up or down, and more time actually cutting what will be the finished product?
Following this session, it was announced that the panelists were conducting a post session meeting to discuss the points that were brought up by attendees.
Not surprisingly, distribution was a dominant subject at the conference as well. From Distribution to Sustainability: Four Documentary Filmmaker Case Studies brought together four filmmakers to discuss their success with audience building and distribution strategies. All panelists openly shared their approach to finding and connecting with their audiences (both what has worked for them and hasn't), as well as budgets and revenue from their films. Jon Betz, filmmaker and distributor (Collective Eye), has built a niche audience with subject matter (and of course quality, well told stories) and is now distributing like-minded films by other documentarians (multiple revenue streams, my friends). Due to his general theme of environmental documentaries, he is able to transition audiences from one film to the next. Other filmmakers talked about creating a brand for themselves too, so audiences follow them and not just one of their documentaries. Paco de Onis said he and his filmmaking partner, Pamela Yates, literally give away their films. Their number one goal is to get their stories out to communities. He also reminded everyone that organizations (nonprofits) are great ways to find audiences. There's that partnership word again, but it's true. Nonprofits are great to collaborate with. It can be a win-win for both parties.
I must also mention two keynote speakers who were vastly different, but equally as powerful. Joe Bini replaced Tabitha Jackson, who wasn't able to attend, but requested Bini to take her place. Bini couldn't fill her shoes of course, but he certainly made his own mark. As the editor of Grizzly Man, what would you expect? He was quirky, hysterical and smart and put together a lovely ode to cinema. After a long day of the hardships of documentary career longevity, digital distribution numbers and financial sustainability, Bini's keynote was a welcome respite that reminded each of us why we all love what we do, despite the struggles. Dawn Porter reminded everyone that if we don't continue the struggle, the predominant white corporate male driven media will be the only ones telling stories. Without us, there will be no diversity behind and in front of the camera. Without diversity, our stories might even lack proper fact checking and worse yet, empathy.
When I headed toward LAX last Friday morning, my mind swirled with all this information and then some. What I came away with from a surprisingly emotionally stirred event (some attendees got very heated, which only testifies to how urgent some of these issues are) that there is a real desire by filmmakers to come together to help one another collectively. A need for transparency, not just by funders and distributors, but filmmaker to filmmaker, in order to realistically examine our landscape and find opportunity. If the conference is any indication, the independent documentary filmmaking community may be rebuilding itself. There are efforts being made beyond the conference to collaborate, gather data and take action. What that action will be remains to be seen in some cases, but there was activism in the air and not just for individual's projects, but the energy of coming together as artists for the greater good of the whole - to ensure there is a future documentary community. As someone who has been in the business for only about a decade or so, in my brief time I have already noticed how the business has changed from a mentorship driven practice to a somewhat individualistic industry in a relatively short period. I have been challenged by this change myself. We have been economically forced to become one-woman (or man) bands a lot of the time, and that has placed many of us in vacuums. We need collaboration (and I'm not just talking about how to find a co-producer, but filmmaker to filmmaker collaboration), so we're able to create new revenue streams together, but also return to keeping the industry's circle of life in motion. To do this we'll need to support one another, paying your associate producers and assistant editors, teaching them and bringing the hard workers and the talented to the next level on the next project.
To continue this conversation or add to these reflections, please comment on this post. For further action and to check out what others are talking about, I highly recommend The D-Word forum. Doug Block and his cohorts live blogged from the 3 day event and The D-Word was a conference supporter. The conference was meant to start a dialogue and continue it, and it needs your voice to keep the momentum and create change. There is a lot of opportunity to be harnessed. Some efforts are already in progress. Don't miss out on shaping it and taking part.