What do you think is the first thing aspiring filmmakers want to talk about when they take workshops on producing documentaries? The process of self-discovery? How the observer affects the subject matter? The influence of the internet on editing style? Of course not. They want to talk about the money and how to get it. And why shouldn’t they? People start films with pocket change, but they can’t finish them without big piles of dough. The question is, how does the pursuit of funding affect what we end up seeing on the screen?
When I first started chasing serious funding for documentaries, I heard a story about a filmmaker who had been trying for years to produce a major series on the history of labor organizing. Although she had dug up some seed money for development, not one major foundation or government agency was willing to back production. Why? This was the age of Reagan and neocons and the feds didn’t want to see a celebration of unions on television. The private foundations didn’t have the resources to fund it and knew that without the NEH and the NEA there would never be enough in the kitty to make the series a reality. It never got made.
Not surprisingly, the source of funding has a huge impact on public art. The Medici commissioned Michelangelo, and, presumably, had something to say about what he put on chapel and basilica walls. Our most iconic structures, from the Chrysler Building in New York City to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, were designed by architects working under the thumbs of clients with powerful agendas. Witness the changes to the designs for the new World Trade Center; Daniel Libeskind’s original proposals are almost unrecognizable now. So it goes with documentary film. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
The National Endowment for the Humanities and the state humanities councils, such as Mass Humanities, have been calling the tune for major Public Television documentaries for almost four decades. Here’s how its works for us. Because the major source of funding is in the humanities we gear our interests in that direction. Although I may be interested in labor unions, or the Puerto Rican independence movement or the anti-bike path backlash in my little town, I know that there is not adequate money available for those ideas. But I do know, for example, that there is money available from the NEH for the We The People, initiative to improve the teaching, studying and understanding of American history and culture. Two of our recent films, American Masters John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature and Through Deaf Eyes, received funding under that initiative. The writing and research for these films was so difficult and time consuming that we had to raise funds just to pay for the grant preparation. There’s no point in doing this kind of work on subjects that don’t interest the Endowment and, as a result, many exciting and challenging programs do not even get proposed.
Some years ago we produced The Peoples Plague: Tuberculosis in America, a two-part film about the greatest killer of all time. We did get some early state humanities funding, but the NEH turned us down four times. Then the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a health initiative and all of a sudden our topic was hot. After we scored a major grant from them the NEH came on board. So in this case we had an idea that interested few foundations, but over time the funding fashion changed, and we were positioned to take advantage of it. Time from conception to completion of the film: eight years.
If were lucky enough to get humanities funding we have great leeway in producing the film, as long as we stick to the subject matter. Ross McElwee famously violated this trust when he transformed his proposed film on Sherman’s March into a personal narrative about his love life in the southern USA. His subtitle said it all: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South during an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. The film made McElwee famous, although I have no idea if the foundations that funded him ever asked for their money back.
Clearly McElwee was more interested in his autobiography than the real Sherman’s March, but he had to get the money first. That’s the dilemma for most career documentary filmmakers. I use the word career here deliberately because changing technology allows aspiring filmmakers to complete films with relatively inexpensive equipment. But those cheap cameras and computers don’t necessarily lead to a career that pays the quotidian bills of the average middle-class striver. For that one needs high-end funding. To get the funding, one must satisfy the biases and agenda of the funders, not the filmmaker.
Humanities foundation money for film has been drying up for years. NEH media grants are ten percent of what they used to be and many state councils won’t fund media at all. The Independent Television Service (ITVS) funds one per cent of the films proposed and the budgets are low. HBO funds only a handful of high end films a year and the Sundance Channel contributes only a portion of a film’s budget. The competition for production funding is intense, especially because everyone and their mother can pick up a camera and start a film. However, if you want to get your film funded and completed, you have to propose a film that the funders want to see made and that the broadcasters want to show. Otherwise, break up your rough cut into ten-minute segments and post it on YouTube. Nobody watches television anymore anyway.