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Changes at the IDA Helm: A Conversation with Kevin Iwashina and Brenda Robinson

By Tom White

At the 2018 IDA Documentary Awards, from left to right: Executive Director Simon Kilmurry, Board President Brenda Robinson, former Board President Kevin Iwashina, Board Member Aaron Saidman, Board Member Vinnie Malhotra
In this most tumultuous of years, 2020 is also shaping up to be a transformational year for IDA, lockdown notwithstanding. For one, there’s the much-anticipated digital rendition of Getting Real 2020 a month away, and the first of three Getting Real NOW conversation just having been launched. We also added five new staff members—Getting Real Programmers Stephanie Owens, Nat Ruiz Tofano and Christina D. King; Associate Communications Manager Sally Márquez; and Membership & Individual Giving Manager Veronica Monteyro. And last month, we witnessed a transition at the top of the IDA Board, with Brenda Robinson succeeding Kevin Iwashina as president.

Robinson, an entertainment attorney and executive producer for numerous documentary and feature film projects as well as scripted and unscripted television programming, has served on IDA’s Board since 2018—when Iwashina, senior associate at Endeavor Content, took the reigns as president, succeeding Marjan Safinia. Over the course of his nine-year tenure on the Board, Iwashina has witnessed a number of major milestones in IDA’s history, including the first Getting Real, in 2014, under former executive director Michael Lumpkin; the transition from Lumkin to current executive director Simon Kilmurry; and the launch of the Enterprise Documentary Fund. 

Documentary spoke with Robinson and Iwashina by Zoom last month about passing the baton, IDA’s growth in the community, and the challenges that lie ahead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: Kevin, you joined the IDA Board in 2011, around the midpoint of the [former executive director] Michael Lumpkin era. From the outside looking in, what did feel were the strengths of IDA? And what were the challenges that needed to be addressed?

KEVIN IWASHINA: Well, I think the strengths were firmly situated within the documentary filmmaking community. At that time the community of documentarians was a much different universe—smaller, a little more esoteric, and just by nature of the way that audiences were relating to documentaries, it was a very, very specialized category of content. One would argue, there were certain limitations as it related to entertainment content.

But when you really looked at the premium doc space, IDA was very firmly situated in there. The challenges were always going to be economic in the sense of, How do you fundraise in a category where it is very mission-driven? It was social impact back then, when you had PBS as one of your signature buyers; there was a certain kind of expectation that you had from films—educational, socially relevant, and with less of an expectation of being entertained.

So, because of the lack of commercial attention to the category, it was going to be marginalized, if not ghettoized, in certain instances. Those were going to be the challenges when I first stepped onto the board.

D: In your nine years on the board, including two as president, you’ve seen a lot of growth and substantive change in IDA—internally, as an organization, and externally, as a presence and a force in the documentary ecosystem. What would you pinpoint as some of the major accomplishments? What were some of the more difficult challenges that you saw?

KI: When I took over in 2011, there were some big market shifts that happened. Not to be super narcissistic, but 2011, 2012 was Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which I produced, which I think was a different kind of documentary. It was the first time that younger people really engaged with the medium. It was a young concept; it was a foodie concept. That was a newer ideology. 

We had a very character-driven narrative, and it was executed in a very modern way. I think that event helped to give a different relationship to documentary filmmaking. It didn’t feel so geriatric and educational; there was a vibrancy to it. And that, coupled with the success of [the film], was really propelled by what happened at the time; iTunes was a new way that people were watching movies. Netflix was new. There was a lot of digital consumption. So, where that documentary skewed, coupled with the types of people that were using this new medium, was this perfect storm, which really then positioned these platforms to be like a conduit to interesting content.

Now everyone’s talking documentary filmmaking like the new independent movie, which is what we saw happen a decade earlier. And then with Simon Kilmurry coming on board [in 2015], that was transformative. And then as you saw documentaries through the last decade become much more commercial, engaging and accessible by way of these digital platforms, it made for the perfect opportunity to then engage with different folks in the entertainment community to join.

You had Showtime, HBO, Netflix, all these entities were really looking for more commercial fare. In October of 2017, I joined Endeavor Content, and I think that gave a different profile to the organization, just by happenstance. I was invited to build out the nonfiction category at Endeavor Content, which, coupled with what’s going on in the documentary space, really gave a lift to the organization. 

So I think a lot of factors that were beyond conscious choices—like hiring Simon Kilmurry or inviting key board members to participate—have happened in the marketplace. That perfect storm of events allowed IDA to really have this moment.

When I say this moment, I'd say probably the last two or three years. I think one of them being [Board Vice President] James Costa, who was innovative in moving the awards to Paramount [Studios]. There were a lot of things that were decided within a certain window that really helped the organization to be rebranded—just what we were doing and who was associated with the organization.

D: Brenda, you came on board in 2018, when Kevin took the helm as Board President. You’re based in Chicago, where such organizations as Kartemquin Films have been instrumental in building Chicago and the Midwest region as a vital center for documentaries. That said, how did you regard IDA—its strengths and where it needed to be as an organization? What compelled you to join the board?

BRENDA ROBINSON: I will start by clarifying and confirming that I'm based in LA, but I split my time between Chicago and LA. I wanted to point that out because we have a lot of activity in the Midwest, which is where I'm from. Part of why I still maintain a presence there is because I specifically wanted to make the point that the industry exists and thrives in that market, outside of LA and beyond the coasts. 

There are resources here. There is a lot of talent here. And so, part of what I've tried to do is utilize what I've gathered from living on the coasts and inject some of that into the Chicago and Midwest market so that it creates accessibility. So, my impression of IDA was that it represents the definition of accessibility in this space; although it is in California, it’s obvious that the resources extend well beyond that.

Filmmakers really view IDA as the premier organization that provides a safe space for us to actually congregate, find resources and find our voices. So, my impression just in being involved, attending events before joining the board was that as documentary filmmaking organizations go, this is one that positions itself as a full-service organization. 

The purpose of IDA is not just to provide financing. It also exists to provide development, mentorship and elevation. And now as we evolve into this new moment, the organization has done an extraordinary job of evolving as the business model has changed in the documentary space, and even as the mandate continues to change. As organizations go, we have really put forth probably the strongest response to date on how we can make change in our industry and how we can activate the resources that we have to actually be impactful, and to help right social wrongs.

We've acknowledged in a very transparent way our role in this conversation and in the history, and have taken probably to date the most emphatic steps towards making sure that we continue to be on the right side of the law on these issues, and that we continue to be the main active voice in this space. 

D: You’ve served on the board for two years, and it’s been a very intense two years. What are some of the accomplishments, and difficult challenges, that you’ve seen?

BR: I've been involved in IDA in a formal capacity as a board member, but I've been involved in the documentary space for so much longer. I've taken that experience and it certainly has informed the work that I do here. In becoming more meaningfully involved in the organization, I have tried to raise awareness of the work that we do and the fact that we are an advocacy organization.

That again speaks to what differentiates us from other groups in this space; we are not only providing direct resources to filmmakers, and guidance and advice even beyond that, but we also are actively engaging in efforts to try to change policy in this industry. And it’s literally through our legal work; we have a team of people who are either on the board, or working on the outside as friends of the organization, who are actually paying attention to issues, to legal matters, to court cases that are directly impacting the filmmakers’ ability to get their stories told. And whether it’s dealing with the matter of visas, infringement on free speech, fair use questions, there are a number of legal issues that directly impact filmmakers.

Our organization takes the time to put the resources into addressing those issues. It’s in the form of filing amicus briefs, it’s providing seminars to educate people. The response that the organization had during the pandemic was extraordinary; we very quickly familiarized ourselves with all the programs and resources being made available to assist filmmakers right now in the moment, and we got that information out there as quickly as possible. 

IDA is constantly positioning itself as a voice of authority in this space. And I think that’s what the filmmakers see. This is an extraordinary moment that we find ourselves in now; it’s not that the incidents that sparked the greater emphasis on social justice—it’s not as though those incidents are new—it’s just now bringing more attention to things that obviously have existed for 20, 30, 40 years, but we just didn’t have the ability to document that.

I think it highlights just how heroic storytellers are and the importance of citizen journalism. If you think about the people whose cellphones have been able to capture these moments, they are themselves historians now. They're storytellers. IDA should be supporting peoples’ right to do that. Think about the future of the organization and where we hope to go: It’s to continue to expand on that idea that we exist to protect speech and the right to tell stories safely.

And this is why we acknowledge this in our annual awards with recognition such as Courage Under Fire or Truth to Power. The categories continue to grow, because we are evolving as an organization to say, “We should be capturing this.” 

IDA’s biggest strength is giving voice to issues that matter, and to people that matter. Our work will continue in earnest down that path, because we will always position ourselves as the organization that was meant to create this space to be heard.

D: Addressing the global reckoning on systemic racism, what would be the next steps for IDA and the community to address the issues that are being discussed?

BR: I've been advising a lot of people—nonprofits, corporations, government officials—on this question. What I appreciate is that in this moment, people turn to their trusted advisors, counselors, resources to say, “What can I do?” What I've pointed out about this moment is that the question that came out of a lot of people’s mouths was, “How do I respond? Let me get to work on writing a statement.” There is a distinction. The statement is important, and it’s the acknowledgment. But the response is the action. I think what’s different now is that people relied on a response in the past, and limited that response to words. And now we appreciate how important it is to actually put in place plans that actually mean something.

And so, what we hope to do as an organization is first recognize our place in this conversation—recognizing that we have an opportunity to be impactful, and beyond that we have a moral obligation to make ourselves a part of that solution. 

Step two is surrounding ourselves with the right people who have the best ideas for how to be supportive of these communities who are under siege. And that involves speaking with those communities. 

Allyship is important. And allies come in many forms. IDA is an ally, as an organization. Being an ally means being willing to act, and it goes beyond mere sympathy. It reflects a personal commitment to educating oneself on the life experiences of others, challenging one’s own discomfort and views, and actively and proactively being a resource to communities in need. There’s the next level of that, which is advocacy. There are allies and advocates. What practical steps are you taking to actually sustain this? So, you can introduce an idea, but now there’s work to be done that will actually enable us to sustain it. So, it’s being responsible to these communities. It’s expanding our programming to accommodate more voices.

That requires support funding, at a basic level. We have always stated that these values are important, and they are an important part of our mission. We recognize that there is a lot of work to be done, but we have been working hard to be at the table moving these conversations forward, and actually gathering up the resources and allocating them in a way that provides more opportunity. IDA has worked so hard to be very thoughtful about how it approaches supporting all communities, but especially communities who haven't historically been at the table. We have worked very hard to create programs that actually allow a voice to be sustained in this space.

The organization has been around for almost 40 years; it has evolved with the times. Part of why I came on is because of the impact that I saw it was having because of the leadership. I know that Simon coming on was transformative for this organization.

I was recruited by Kevin. I sit on a lot of boards; I'm involved in a lot of organizations and I’m trying to support so many groups. But it was because he was the face of the organization, it had that prestige for me, and also the credibility. And I said, OK, I know that these things matter to them because I see who’s leading the charge, and who is holding everyone accountable at each stage. And so, the fact that this organization has existed for so long, I feel honored to be part of a line of strong leaders of color who have been given the opportunity to impose our ideas and guide the thinking of the organization. I am proud and honored to be the first African-American President of the IDA Board of Directors.

And, I think we will be successful because of that work that was put in. So, although it was only two years of serving the IDA in a formal capacity as a board member, it was really 10-plus years of being close to its work and of getting a sense of what our values are, what we stand for, why we are so incredibly critical to this space, and why this work is so relevant to this industry.

D: What do you look forward to in your tenure?

BR: I'm very grateful that I can step in when we have a strong team in place, and that’s because of the work of people that came before me. Kevin worked so hard to assemble a board of thought leaders who could actually get things done in this industry, who had knowledge and who were respected, I had the blessing of walking in and being able to continue that work.

There was a lot of work in building out. I'll never forget something that actually was said at one of the first Jeffersonian dinners that I hosted for the organization soon after I joined. We had gathered a group of people representing different aspects of the industry, different viewpoints and different life experiences, and had a wonderful time just speaking about our love of documentary. Kevin’s closing remarks were, “Just looking around this room, I see how transformative this is.”

This is a game-changer for this organization, the fact that years ago we were in one position and now these are the rooms we’re in, these are the thought leaders at the table. That was the first time that I realized that the organization had evolved from one thing to another. 

What he was getting at is the fact that the organization has continued to grow, that it has continued to lean into innovation in the industry, and it has continued to evolve as models have changed. And that is why we've never been left behind in the conversation. So, that collection of people in the room was really representative of the future of the organization. It’s that we can gather the best and brightest to continue to help us do our work, and to elevate us in this community so that we can in turn continue to elevate those who come to us looking for those resources and looking for that support.

D: We have moved forward from being an LA-centric organization, which was the perception back then. [Former executive director] Michael Lumpkin, within the resources we had, helped to nationalize and even internationalize us, and I think Simon Kilmurry has taken us even further. How do we meet the challenge of serving a national and international documentary community?

BR: I think the reason we've been able to raise our profile is because of accessibility and the fact that we've worked hard and been very intentional in actions we've taken internally, such as making sure that when we were thinking about our programs and how we recognize people that we are actually casting a wide net and that we are considering the full breadth of quality that’s out there. 

What I hear consistently behind the scenes at IDA and just being in these meetings and juries and in the room, is that we've surrounded ourselves with a diverse group of people—not just diversity of ethnicity, but of life experience and perspective. And that frankly is the key to our success. It’s the fact that we open the door to all of those different viewpoints, including my own.

And together we’re contributing this world perspective that’s exposing the organization and people within it to these other ideas and to films, stories, material that help us continue to remain accessible to communities well outside of our immediate community. But also, there are specific things that have happened, that the IDA has done over the past years to make sure that it is seen more globally. 

It’s actually showing up in these markets, showing up in other geographic communities to actually make the point that we exist specifically to be a resource for you. So, whether that’s in the form of hosting gatherings in the Bay Area or New York, or going to festivals and making sure that we have a strong presence there. We aren't limiting our reach and our accessibility to this one area, or one sector of the community.

And we also place a lot of emphasis on creating community and making sure that when we’re in these spaces where everyone is invited to the table to find other people in the industry with whom you can connect and collaborate, and therefore providing a platform for more stories to reach bigger audiences.

KI: I think the single most important thing that changed the profile and the value that IDA brings to the works is technology. Once we were able to launch content on global platforms like Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube, there were no physical barriers to access; people found these stories.
Technology allowed the world to experience these stories and understand that although they may be in different languages, humanity travels. The human experience exists in all cultures. What becomes more interesting is we’re provoked to not to just look in the face of ourselves, but we're then challenged by the face of others. That’s the beauty of what technology has brought to us. 

D: We talked about collaboration; there are other like-minded organizations out there outside of the US, like DAE and DOC. How would you affect collaborations with these other entities, with the intention of maintaining a strong, robust documentary ecosystem?

BR: That is one of the things that drew me to IDA. The way this organization approaches its work is that they do see themselves as collaborators and not competitors. The way I see it, if everyone has a piece of the pie, everyone eats. It’s problematic to think that only one group or one set of voices can be in a conversation at one time. 

That is sort of the negative side of any industry: People feel that there's no room for more than one viewpoint, or for more than one voice to be in a conversation. That’s in fact why so many people are left out. This is what this current moment is trying to address. We have worked hard to make ourselves available to other organizations, and broken those barriers.

We also benefit from the work of other organizations that operate in the documentary space because it’s an opportunity for all of us to elevate the art form. In many ways, documentary, up until the last six or seven years, was seen as the forgotten child. And that impression has changed drastically. And it’s largely because of the people who are involved in this organization now who have worked very hard to be the face of this industry, and who have changed the perception of how we view documentary.

There are technical reasons for that—the style and form have changed, but it’s also the leadership, who have really transformed how the community views this space. 

But, it’s really attributed to the voices that have emerged and have said, This is the model; this is why it’s relevant. For me, supporting storytellers is a new form of protest. And having grown up in a civil rights family, I get the question all the time: What impact do you want to have? Or, Why are you not as visible as the rest of the family? I don't see you in the streets as much as I see you behind the scenes. 

And I say, Well, my form of protest is providing this platform for people to be seen and heard. And that’s what we can do through this nonfiction space. We’re on a truth mission. This is the way I'm getting my message out there. This is the way I'm being impactful and making change. 
I'm educating people and exposing people to these issues. So, there is the effect of marching in the streets and displaying your powerful message with pride, or marching into the boardroom and demanding your seat at the table. Both of these actions are needed to create opportunity. 

The greater the opportunity we have to expose people to truth, the greater the chances are that we can actually humanize groups that we don't know and understand. And so, through the power of nonfiction, we have made all of these different groups that exist very separately and yet are very alike; we've made them more accessible, one to the other. That’s why our field is relevant. This is why documentary matters, because it is the way to actually address these issues, to actually have an impact to effect change in a way that is sustainable and meaningful.

D: Kevin, as IDA is transitioning from you to Brenda, what advice would you pass on to her?

KI: Well, knowing Brenda, I would say, Don't put too much pressure on yourself. You're a natural leader. The great thing about IDA is that we’re driven by passion. So, just follow your passion, and I know, Brenda, where your values are. So, if you follow your passion, your values will guide you to the right place. 

The execution will be easier than you think, because you’ve got everything you need, which is a big heart, a strong moral center, and a diverse view of the world. 

BR: I wanted to close that quote by saying that I have everything I need because Kevin left it here for me. And I can't imagine what the experience would've been like if I had been following anyone else. He has positioned this organization to be successful, and for me to be successful, because he created a template of not just leadership but of mission. 

Every single board member feels this way about Kevin. We all feel that we are in a different place in the history of the organization because he really set the tone for what we are supposed to be doing, for how we’re supposed to be doing it, and really helping us understand what we stand for and what our obligations are in this space, to continue to be responsive and a resource for filmmakers.

Tom White is editor of Documentary.