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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, December 1995

By Peter Stuart

To paraphrase Prospero from The Tempest, "My revels now are ended."  After two years, I am stepping down as president of the  IDA.  A commitment  to produce a group of television documentaries will require my full attention.

I found  my duties as president a very fulfilling experience.  Among other things, I was able to meet a wide cross-section of documentary filmmakers, assist others in obtaining funds for projects, and, best of all, help to establish a permanent documentary archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

During these years, however, I noticed a further deterioration in the opportunities for the  independent documentarian.  I thought about this the other day, when I was making a VHS copy of a film I produced years ago called George Plimpton and the Philharmonic.  This was a documentary following the adventures of Plimpton as he experienced the ordeal of learning  how to play a bass drum under the baton of Leonard  Bernstein.  There was an NBC peacock  logo at the beginning of the  tape, and I realized that this program had been televised in primetime on the NBC network-something I am convinced would be im possible today.

Conservative politicians, in their assault on funding for PBS, claim that the 500- channel future will enable the arts (I guess that includes documentary  filmmakers) to find new venues with privately owned stations.  I got a preview of that brave new world at the 2nd  International Documentary Congress in October.  A panel consisting of several  representatives of various cable channels outlined the conditions for getting funding:

  1. Control of the final product belongs to the channel.
  2. There are little or no back-end monies for the creator.
  3. Their programming is demographically driven.
  4. Many of the hour-long programs have a budget of approximately $75,000 to $100,000.

Now, obviously, there are exceptions to these terms, but from the experiences that have been  related to me by friends and colleagues, conditions like this are prevalent and nightmarish.  As for the independently made documentary, cuts in government funding are certainly going to make raising money much more difficult.

Well, nobody ever said it would be easy. I think that the documentary was, is, and always will  be an endangered species.  In that respect it has a similarity to jazz.  Both have relatively limited audiences who are hip enough to appreciate the medium, but neither jazz nor the documentary will ever lay claim to mass support. Fortunately, that doesn't stop filmmakers  from pursuing dreams that money can buy. For example, in the last two weeks two more proposals were submitted for our fiscal sponsorship program, one regarding the attitudes toward menstruation around the world, the other dealing with the Latino rock underground.  In fact, I am entering the sponsorship program with one of my own projects, a two-hour documentary based on the book Case Closed, which will be a rebuttal to that devious delirium  of deception, JFK.

In this constricting documentary world there is, more than ever, a need  for an organization like the IDA.  The venture, started 13 years ago by Linda Buzzell and a small group of filmmakers, has steadily grown in size and stature over the years.

On December 20, our newly elected directors will join  the IDA board, and our new president will be chosen.  To them all, my very best wishes and an assurance of my continued support.