Skip to main content

Notes from the Reel World: The Executive Director's Column, Summer 2011

By Michael Lumpkin

Dear IDA Community,

During the past two months, the documentary community has faced some significant challenges both in the United States and abroad.

In a US Tax Court trial held in Arizona on March 9, Judge Diane Kroupa made a statement that, if memorialized in a ruling, will have a devastating impact on independent documentary filmmakers across the US. Judge Kroupa questioned whether a documentary could be "for profit," since, by its nature, it is designed "to educate and expose," and she invited the parties to present case law on the issue.

Judge Kroupa's speculation came in a case in which the IRS argued that filmmaker Lee Storey could not deduct business expenses pertaining to her film Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up with People Story because the primary purpose of her film (and by inference all documentary films) is to educate and expose, not to make profit, and that therefore documentary filmmaking is a not-for-profit activity. The IRS believes that if the person has no intent to make a profit, then the activity is a "hobby." Therefore, they claim that Storey owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes and penalties for the business deductions she took.

The potential affirmation of Judge Kroupa's statement could have a serious impact on documentary filmmaking in America by creating federal case law precedent that could be used against filmmakers, bringing about audits and demands for back taxes. To support Storey, IDA has filed an amicus brief in the case, urging the US Tax Court to recognize that the production of a documentary film is, at its core, a "for profit" business such that business expenses are deductible for tax purposes.

By doing so we hope to ensure that all filmmakers receive the respect they deserve, and that the many sacrifices they make in the pursuit of their art and livelihood will not be made in vain.

While April was tax-filing month, it also brought news of the tragic deaths of two accomplished artists.

On April 4, Israeli actor, director, filmmaker and political activist Juliano Mer-Khamis was assassinated by a masked gunman in the Palestinian city of Jenin. In 2003, Mer-Khamis produced and directed, with Danniel Danniel, Arna's Children, an award-winning documentary about his mother's work to establish a children's theater group in Jenin.

Thirteen days later, the world was shocked by the death of photojournalist and documentary maker Tim Hetherington in North Africa, where he was covering the Libyan uprising against dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Hetherington's work as cameraman, co-producer and co-director (with Sebastian Junger) of last year's Oscar-nominated feature documentary Restrepo took audiences deep into the lives of a US Army unit in Afghanistan and underscored the power of documentary to bring current events and history to life with a depth and insight that a mere news report can never provide.

We at IDA wish to extend our condolences to Mer-Khamis' and Hetherington's families and friends for the tragic loss of these brave and committed individuals who put their lives on the line to tell a story that has to be told.


Michael Lumpkin
Executive Director