Exposure Wider, but $$$ Elusive

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Tracy Tragos had a screenwriting degree in hand and was just starting to churn out spec scripts when a powerful urge drove her to make a documentary film. After making a chance discovery about her father, who died in Vietnam when she was 3 months old, Ms. Tragos bought a camcorder and began interviewing everyone who knew him.
The result was a one-hour film, Be Good, Smile Pretty. It played at Lincoln Center this month. This fall it will appear on the PBS series Independent Lens, a showcase for aspiring filmmakers like her.
And it cost her only two years of her life and $140,000.
Ms. Tragos was dropped by her agent, effectively stalling her writing career. But she isn’t concerned; her passion now is documentaries.
Welcome to the magic act known as documentary film, whose purveyors create quality, compelling product and make next to nothing, even when the TV rights are sold. How do they do it? And why? “They have to go into it for the love of making documentaries,” said Coby Atlas, co-chief program executive of PBS. “It’s a struggle to remain financially secure. Even filmmakers that you would think are secure, people aren’t writing them blank checks.”
In just the last year the amount of one-off original documentary product airing on TV has exploded:
* HBO has ramped up its orders of nonfiction film for its various anthology series, including American Undercover and Cinemax Reel Life.
* Sundance Channel’s DOCday devotes 12 hours of programming each Monday to documentaries.
* The up-and-coming Trio Channel began airing a one-hour doc every night under its 9 Sharp banner.
* The relaunched Discovery Times Channel, 50 percent owned by the New York Times, has added to the supply of original docs.
* Public television this year added Independent Lens to its POV franchise, creating a year-round schedule for independent documentary film.
But while the growing demand is allowing docmakers’ works to be more widely seen, it isn’t making them richer.
That’s not to say you can’t make a living as a full-time docmaker.
Just be prepared to pay the bills doing reality fare and formulaic nonfiction for cable. A few creative compromises, producers say, allow them to keep making uncompromising films.
Thom Powers and Meema Spadol produce documentaries through their company, Sugar Pictures. Most recently Mr. Powers looked at the always-contentious gun debate through different eyes. His film, Guns and Mothers, aired this month on PBS.
Like most docmakers, their resumes are patchworks of various assignments taken to keep the cash flow coming. Between films they’ve done work-for-hire at Sundance Channel and Egg: The Arts Show and for corporate clients.
“It helps to keep a low overhead and marry someone with health insurance,” Ms. Powers said. “Nobody said it would be easy trying to go against the grain.” Indeed, aside from a few legends of the craft-Fred Wiseman, Wim Wenders, Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles and others-much current documentary product on TV is coming from young, usually underfunded producers.
Lois Vossen, the co-curator for Independent Lens, estimated that of the 37 films her team chose for the 2003-04 season, fully half were from directors making either their first or second documentary. Many, like Ms. Tragos, were spurred by low-cost digital technology and personal passion.
But Ms. Vossen and others point to a disturbing trend. While the barrier to entry may have been lowered, the obstacles to finishing a film, and finishing well, are growing.
Libel coverage, required before broadcast, has skyrocketed since 9/11, said Ms. Vossen. The more controversial the topic, the pricier the insurance. Archival footage rates are also climbing for TV rights. And music that wasn’t licensed when the film was on the festival circuit must be paid for before airing.
“Filmmakers need to clear all rights in perpetuity because we know material is going to play out in all media for a long, long time,” said Cara Mertes, executive director of American Documentary, which produces POV. “Those costs are getting prohibitive. We have an increasing number of platforms and costs with each of those. That’s something people don’t talk about much on the production side.” Amazingly, many docmakers are so caught up in their work they pay little attention to budgets and planning. In the end, some simply don’t have the money to do a proper edit or publicity campaign.
Ms. Vossen recalled one producer who was stunned to learn that ITVS’s acquisition fee would come nowhere near meeting his out-of-pocket expenses, which he estimated to be $110,000.
Even seasoned docmakers can find costs spiraling unexpectedly. When Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras began filming the gentrification of a Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood, they grossly underestimated how much time they’d spend following their subjects.
“We drew up a budget that projected 15 days of shooting,” said Ms. Bryant. “It wasn’t until the 11th or 12th day that we realized we had to live there.” They spent 18 months in Columbus and another 21/2 years in production. The fruit of their labor, Flag Wars, airs next month on POV. It cost nearly $500,000 to make, and the filmmakers estimate that as much as 10 percent of that will be debt. In 1999 PBS gave them $28,000, which was all they had asked for.
“We never anticipated it would take four years,” Ms. Bryant said.
“We didn’t know where this story was going to take us.” This unpredictability stems in part from the public’s growing appetite for verite. With small digital cameras, filmmakers can observe their subjects unobtrusively. The results are often intimate and dramatic, but key scenes can take years to develop, and new story lines have a way of popping up over time.
For that reason, networks and producers alike are gravitating toward a safer control economy of docmaking. A common refrain heard among independents is that cable docs are becoming all-commissioned works with prescribed formulas.
Yet public television’s best-known nonfiction franchises, American Experience and Frontline, have for years subsisted almost entirely on works commissioned from outside producers. This hasn’t interfered with the quality of these shows, as evidenced by their shelves of Emmy and Peabody awards.
Frontline is developing a spinoff, Frontline/World, that takes a page from cable’s cost-conscious approach. World is a newsmagazine, as opposed to the single-topic Frontline. Its pieces are produced on tighter schedules and budgets. So far, executive editor Louis Wiley is encouraged by what he sees.
“We are using a group of video journalists who are able to move faster and for the most part are not as senior as other folks, so the costs are not as high,” said Mr. Wiley. “It’s attracting quite a bit of interest on the underwriting side. So I think this is an idea that is catching fire.” That said, Frontline prides itself on providing a haven for producers who arrive at its doorstep with hours of tape already shot. Earlier this year it aired a film on 10 Chinese families struggling to cope with that China’s push toward modernization.
Producer-director Sue Williams spent three years making it.
“God bless people who believe in something,” Mr. Wiley said. “You have to be willing sometimes to lay yourself on the line.”
That is a rallying cry that a remarkable number of documentary filmmakers still respond to.