June 28, 2019

Essential Doc Reads: Week of June 24

Courtesy of Discovery Communications.

Essential Doc Reads is a weekly feature in which the IDA staff recommends recent pieces about the documentary form and its processes. Here we feature think pieces and important news items from around the Internet, and articles from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy!

Frederick Blichert from Realscreen reports on the backlash Discovery is facing from members of the production community over a new funding model for new, unscripted programming. Discovery implemented a system in which production companies pay producers for their content after it has been delivered to the network. 

For John Ford, general manager of nonfiction prodco trade association NPACT, the issue with the model depends on who the players are. "It depends on the size of the producer," he tells Realscreen. "A large-scale producer may be able to work the financing into its plan. A smaller shop may find that more challenging. I’m hearing a lot of concern from many of the small-to-mid size companies. Perhaps Discovery can adapt its plan accordingly."

At Sunny Side of the Doc, director Diego Buñuel revealed a plan from Netflix to commission original documentary series and features in each major European territory. Marie-Anges Bruneau from Realscreen explains the company’s search for limited series similar to Wild Wild Country, short-form episodic doc series and projects from female directors. 

"We work with the best in the industry but mostly with English or American directors," Buñuel said. "More Netflix subscribers are now based outside the US than in the US, and it will continue to grow. My goal is therefore to find great directors from Europe, introduce new voices and new ways to tell stories that is not the traditional Anglo-Saxon one. This is part of our local global global strategy."

Screen Daily’s Tim Dams discusses a Sunny Side of the Doc panel where European executives spoke about the future of documentaries in cinema. Many expressed concern for the future of theatrical releases of documentaries in an age where streaming platforms like Netflix grow in popularity and scope each year.

"Documentaries in cinema are going down, there are real problems," agreed Christiane Hinz, head of documentary at German broadcaster ARD/WDR. She added theatrical documentaries had a "slight chance" if the distributor makes an event out of the release. "It’s not like you can just put your film in the cinema – you really schedule an event around it. That works. But you can’t do it for every film."

At the fourth annual AT&T Shape expo, top tech companies showed off the latest virtual reality and high-tech immersive experiences that they believe will be the future of the entertainment industry. With impressive displays of the latest gadgets used in major studio films such as the new Lion King remake, Indie Wire’s Tyler Hersko notes the technology still has a long way to go until its full potential is reached. 

Unfortunately, no matter the kind of "reality" these exhibits promoted, they were all victims of the same issues that plague most virtual reality devices: The image quality is unacceptably poor and the headsets create physical discomfort that ranges from mildly irritating to just short of agonizing.

Katie Donnelly from Media Impact Funders, a membership organization that supports media funders, shares a compiled list form their database of six impact measurement tools and frameworks for media organizations and individual filmmakers with various needs, budgets and approaches. 

Doc Society’s comprehensive Impact Field Guide & Toolkit is the result of "collaborations, conversations, agreements and disagreements with incredibly smart film teams, funders and partners from all over the world." The toolkit—which includes a library of case studies for social issue documentarians—features modules to help filmmakers define their vision and strategy, budget, and plan for impact distribution, among others modules. PDF versions are available in multiple languages.

Chris O’Falt from Indie Wire asked short, documentary and scripted narrative directors from the 2019 BAM Cinema Fest how they make money to support themselves and their work when they aren’t filming. 

Kyle Myers-Haugh (Walker’s): I’m a recent college graduate. When not making films, I work a part-time retail job that I’ve held throughout college. Although part-time and retail, the job both pays well and affords me benefits like health insurance and paid-vacation. In the past, managers worked with my school schedule as I was finishing my undergraduate studies. The start of each shift was staggered in accordance with the end of each day’s classes. During the school year, most of my time was spent either at school or at work. I’m thankful for the job. It afforded me the opportunity to go back to school, to study my interests, and to obtain my bachelor’s degree. In the summer or two before I graduated, I used the block of time, usually devoted to classes but now newly free because of summer, to focus on the production of a documentary short. The short was a student production, with the school providing almost all of the equipment. There was no real cost except for batteries, and, because of the documentary mode, during filming, no crew except for myself. During that summer, I devoted whatever free or spare time I had to that film’s production. I edited the film in the fall between school and work.

Before Paris is Burning brought drag-ball culture to the big screen, there was The Queen. Richard Brody from The New Yorker discusses the 1969 documentary that highlights the behind-the-scenes organization and politics that made New York City drag pageants possible. 

It’s in hotel rooms, before the makeup and costuming for the pageant, that a group of contestants discuss some of the crucial matters that they confront in their lives outside the pageants. The subjects include relations with family members and neighbors, relations with lovers, the possibility of gender-reassignment surgery, and the threat of the draft. (The Vietnam War had begun.) Speaking of their appearances before draft boards, the queens cite a series of absurd interactions with officials that inevitably led to their being ruled ineligible for the military—yet one participant subsequently wrote to the President to request the chance to serve and, she says, received a response. "They couldn’t help me in the Army as of yet, but maybe one day they’ll see things right and I could get in," she says.

After receiving terrible reviews when it premiered in 1974, Jack Hazan’s doc A Bigger Splash, about painter David Hockney, has found redemption decades later. Hazan spoke with Indie Wire writer Jude Dry about his genre-bending film that is now hailed as a masterpiece of queer cinema and an early example of work that challenged the conventions of documentary filmmaking.

At that time, the gay thing just was not really accepted as it is today. Most people were against the gay life. Yes, we had trouble getting it past the censor even in France. The culture minister had to be brought in, and he said 'this isn’t pornography, you can’t ban this.' And so, it got a first showing commercially in Paris in three cinemas. Extraordinarily. And then in the UK we had to wait a year until 1975 and again, there was a censorship board here in the UK. They banned the film. They said this can’t be shown.

As Designated Survivor gears up for its fourth season on Netflix, Ian Sandwell from Digital Spy hopes it continues to incorporate interview footage from documentary filmmakers into the scripted narrative. Not only does this technique highlight these real-life issues the show tackles, but provides more emotional depth. 

In the third episode, Isabel (Elena Tovar) is tasked with talking to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company with the aim of bringing down the price of insulin. He's against the idea, naturally, but changes his mind after watching a video of a mother talking about her son who died because they couldn't afford the insulin. If this were a fabricated interview, it wouldn't have the impact it does knowing that it's a mother talking about the death of her son.

From the Archive, Summer 2018: "The Documentary Sustainability Movement: A Work in Progress"

Perhaps it is not surprising that in a community so deeply rooted in social issue activism and environmental concerns, the word "sustainability" would eventually become such a common-place term in the documentary field. Nor is it surprising, given the widespread disruptions in the marketplace wrought by digital platforms and other changes, that sustainability—both for filmmakers and for the broader documentary ecosystem—would become a critical issue for documentary practitioners and industry players. Filmmaker Maggie Bowman describes the conversations around sustainability "as a kind of awakening for the field as a whole over the last couple of years."

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