Five Questions with Susan Kaplan, Founder, DocuClub
By Tom White
Way back in the analog days, in 1993, DocuClub was launched in New York as a means for filmmakers—emerging and established alike—to get together and share their works-in-progress, give and receive feedback, and make the kind of connections that sustain communities. DocuClub attracted enough attention from the New York doc community to establish itself as a membership organization and attract sponsors like HBO and A&E, as well as partnering organizations like IFP, IDA, Third World Newsreel and Arts Engine. As for screening venues, DocuClub grew accordingly, starting out in the offices of the Four Oaks Foundation to eventually hosting works-in-progresses at the IFC Center. Among the many films that got their early viewings at DocuClub include Doug Block’s Home Page, Barbara Kopple’s Woodstock ’94, Josh Aronson’s Sound and Fury and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp.
Then, as DocuClub changed hands, venues and partners, the organization took a hiatus for a while. In the meantime, IDA was always looking to grow beyond its LA base and tap into the New York community in a meaningful way. DocuClub founder Susan Kaplan approached then-executive director Michael Lumpkin about a partnership. "It seemed like a natural fit for us," says Amy Halpin, IDA’s director of filmmaker services. "We had been looking for a way to establish a footprint and do more regular programming in New York. DocuClub had a loyal following and a longstanding reputation that we felt we could really build on."
"Most importantly, we knew it would be a valuable service to filmmakers," Halpin continues. "We had done a short-lived works-in-progress screening series a couple of years ago, where we screened some amazing films, including Rich Hill, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance a few months later. It's a tall order, but it would be great if we were able to generate the sense of community that the previous iterations of DocuClub did. I've had so many people tell me stories about how DocuClub really helped them. So it would be great to build on that tradition."
And so tonight, April 11, at 7:00 p.m., a tradition is revived, as IDA, DocuClub and DCTV present a work-in-progress screening of Derek Hallquist’s Denial, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and producers Aaron Woolf and Christopher St. John.
We spoke to Susan Kaplan by phone about the relaunch and about the impetus for launching DocuClub in the first place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We’re all very excited about the revival of DocuClub and IDA’s involvement in it. Talk about the impetus for founding DocuClub back in 1993? What were the needs out there and what were your goals?
From 1989 to 2003, I worked for Walter "Wally" Scheuer's foundation, The Four Oaks. He was a businesss man who loved classical music and the arts, particularly documentaries. He had great success with many of his films that he executive-produced with director/editor Allen Miller. Their best known films were the Academy Award-winning From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China and the Academy Award-nominated Small Wonders, which I produced.
While I was at the foundation, I pitched the idea of DocuClub to Wally. I was directing and producing a film, as were many of my friends, and we were all looking for ways to feel less isolated. Often the journey of making a film can feel like working in a bubble, only getting feedback from people who know your project. So I thought it would be a good idea to, on a regular basis, have filmmakers come together, share their stories while in production, and get feedback. Wally loved the idea.
The screening series was called In-the-Works. And I invited about ten filmmakers to come to an organizational meeting. And from there, DocuClub was birthed.
Wally let us borrow a projector, a screen and folding chairs. We offered wine and popcorn at each screening. The first DocuClub had about 30 filmmakers giving feedback to a selected work-in-progress. It was extremely helpful to hear from a group of your peers giving constructive feedback before locking picture. After each screening, we sponsored a networking party. There was an excitement at those screenings that was felt by everyone.
As the group grew, we were constantly thinking of new services to offer filmmaers, while also perfecting the programs we were running. Eventually we invited representives from film organizations to sit on an advisroy board, give feedback on our ideas and make sure none of our programs overlapped.
Our mission was specific; we wanted to continue to perfect our growing model. Our other programs incuded an idea workshop for pitching projects to get initital funding; networking meetings with industry professionals; and making sure that every film submitted got feedback even if they were not selected to screen at the monthly series. We eventually added a completed film series, offereing a venue to launch finished films.
From September through June, filmmakers knew there was a place to go where they were going to either take part in some exciting project, or meet some really interesting people. As the world was becoming more focused on online communication, we celebrated and promoted human interaction. At all of our screenings, we made sure to remind people to meet someone new before leaving for the evening. A lot of film marriages were made over the years.
As we grew. our venues were constantly changing. After becoming a membership organization we moved to MoMA, then to Makor; we finally found our home at the IFC Center.
DocuClub had many managers. The one person who worked closely with me throughout it all was Sarie Horowitz. She was instrumental in DocuClub's success. Over the course of running the organization, Suzanne Shultz, Liz Ogilvie, David Nugent and Mary Kerr each brought their own personal charm and expertise in helping it grow and become a more effective group.
After many years and with two small children, I made the decision with Sarie to find another home for our group. In 2008, DocuClub found a perfect landing ground with Arts Engine. They successfully ran the series until they folded in 2012. When the rights were reverted back to me, I remembered having conversations with past IDA executive directors, where they expressed an interest in wanting more of a New York presence, so I ran it by the then executive director, Michael Lumpkin, who loved the idea.
And then, when Simon [Kilmurry] came on, he was the perfect person, because he knew the whole scene here. He embraced DocuClub and made sure to find the right venue to successfully launch DocuClub New York.
As you’re relaunching DocuClub, what are the fundamental differences in mission and purpose today in 2016, versus when you first started out in 1993?
That's an interesting question, because the first thing that comes to mind is, I think it's needed more now than ever before.
As we rely more on technology, there's a void that needs to be filled. It might take a while to build the excitement and the energy around DocuClub again. But I think once filmmakers walk into the room and experience a session and it ignites them, they'll want to keep coming back.
The beauty about DocuClub back then, which is what I hope for with IDA's DocuClub, is that we had very experienced filmmakers and first-time filmmakers in a room giving and asking for feedback. And that was humbling to watch. The need is there for everybody. It's important to get your film seen before you lock picture--and what better way than on a big screen with an audience of your peers?
The documentary form over the past 20 years has evolved tremendously both as an art form and as a force for change. And the tools of the trade have become more accessible. Has it been a challenge for DocuClub to keep up with that evolution?
You know, it's still a story. And everyone needs feedback no matter what story they are trying to tell. The DocuClub audiences are comprised of directors, producers, camera, sound, post-production folks and lovers of the form. It can be challenging for filmmakers to hear critical feedback, but based on my experience with the group over the years, it is an invaluable service for the creative team before they finish their film.
Talk about the selection process over the years. Did you have a selection committee?
We did. We had a list of filmmakers and editors who would screen films when there were too many submissions. We always tried to find the balance between first-time filmmakers and more experienced filmmakers. But as I mentioned before, every film submitted got feedback. It just seemed fair to do that.
What are your hopes for the future in serving the documentary community in this fashion?
Community. Offering people a place to share their stories in a safe and supportive environment. Selfishly, I am thrilled that the IDA is taking DocuClub and bringing it back to New York, and DCTV is the perfect venue. I look forward to reconnecting with old friends and meeting new filmmakers.
I am sure we will hear much more from the IDA about DocuClub and other new and exciting programs in the coming months.
DocuClub’s success and positive reception over the years has everything to do with the independent filmmaking community in New York. They value community and care deeply about the process and want films to be the best and most effective stories they can possibly be.
Editor’s Note: IDA will be starting LA screenings of works-in-progress in the months to come, with the aim of alternating months between New York and Los Angeles. In addition, IDA will be announcing an open call for DocuClub over the next month. Also, this interview has been modified to accommodate factual clarifications that Susan Kaplan submitted to us via email.