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Notes from the Reel World: The Executive Director's Column, Summer 2012

By Michael Lumpkin

Dear IDA Community,

The last few weeks have been turbulent times in the doc world—and busy ones at IDA.

The latest controversy erupted on March 12, when Current magazine revealed that audience numbers for the longtime documentary showcase series Independent Lens had plummeted by 42 percent. The drop was attributed to PBS' decision to move the series, along with POV, another long-running venue for independent documentaries, from their traditional Tuesday night slot to Thursday—a night reserved for local programming.

News of the steep drop in viewers convinced many, including the folks at Kartemquin Films in Chicago, that it was time to take action. They began circulating an online petition demanding that PBS move both Independent Lens and POV back to their original primetime schedule.

IDA immediately joined this effort, informing the documentary filmmaking community of the issues at hand and urging its members to sign on. WGA East, NALIP and Women Make Movies also spoke out. Filmmakers added their voices to the protest. A blog by Bill Moyers inspired a wave of PBS viewers to join in.

On March 23, PBS responded, announcing it would move POV and Independent Lens back to their original slot.

Meanwhile, declining numbers at PBS aren't the only things worrying filmmakers and their supporters at IDA these days.

In April, the National Endowment for the Arts cut its funding for nonfiction programming on PBS by nearly $1 million. POV's NEA grant plummeted from $250,000 to $100,000. Independent Lens' dropped from $170,000 to just $50,000. NEA explained it was merely responding to the times by redirecting funding from traditional media to Web and game-based projects that promised to reach a younger generation that prefers to consume content online and on mobile.

But makers of traditional documentaries—and their supporters here at IDA—were left wondering about the NEA's agenda when NEA Media Arts Director Alyce Myatt was quoted as saying that she no longer liked the term "documentary," and stated in a follow-up tweet that "My comment was 2 consider replacing 'documentary' with 'nonfiction.' Docs suggest specific form w/sm mkt potential." [sic]

We at IDA embrace documentaries in all formats and genres, and are committed to advocating for filmmakers. We'll be monitoring these developments, and speaking out to ensure that documentaries continue to get the funding and exposure they deserve.

And our advocacy efforts do yield results. Many of you have been following our efforts in support of Lee Storey, the Arizona-based attorney/filmmaker (Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story) who was audited by the IRS. Last year, US Tax Court Judge Diane Kroupa ruled that Storey couldn't claim the costs she had incurred in making her film as business expenses because documentary filmmaking was more a hobby than a job. IDA—working closely with attorney Michael Donaldson and others—spoke out against the ruling and filed amicus curiae briefs on Storey's behalf. On April 19, Judge Kroupa issued a final ruling in the case that effectively reversed her previous ruling and handed Storey (and all documentary filmmakers) a complete victory by declaring that making docs was indeed a legitimate vocation. Congratulations to Lee, and to everyone who cares about the future of documentary filmmaking.

Michael Lumpkin
Executive Director