Notes from the Reel World: The President's Column, Fall 2009
Who's going to pay for the documentaries of the future?
I don't mean "pay" in terms of paying audiences. Nor do I mean the payment of "blood, sweat and tears" by the subjects and their makers. Specifically, I mean funding sources. Who will underwrite the development and production of new and daring documentaries?
Digital outlets offer a myriad of distribution opportunities, but what they don't offer--yet--is a myriad of cash. They want films that are already finished, and, at the moment, don't support a model for generating substantial new content.
The DVD market is...well, imagine that your favorite restaurant's kitchen has been robbed. Where there was once a bountiful banquet, there are now only a few smears of yesterday's polenta.
And, increasingly, theatrical distributors and television outlets for so-called "traditional" documentaries would rather place their bets on a festival favorite than fund something in its early stages. They, too, would prefer to acquire (even if it means paying more--much more--than they would have in the development stage). With market shares and audience numbers dwindling as their physical overhead increases, who can blame them for betting on what they believe is a sure thing?
The saving graces of finishing funds, generous as they are, have sprung up in many corners, but again, they're geared toward...finishing.
So, let's recap: If the marketplace is taking fewer risks on developing projects, and the philanthropic efforts support films nearing completion, who's funding films that have a distance to go until they reach the finish line? If the desire is to acquire, and few funders endeavor to undertake the risks of production, how will anything new get made? Filmmakers are only eligible for finishing funds if they can start.
I call this the Disappearing Middle.
Ideas, concepts, people and access are available. Seeds of compelling stories are everywhere and they are vital--perhaps more vital than ever before in a corporate news climate. But very quickly, it becomes clear that there's a long and uncertain path between a little footage and a rough cut. It's that path--the marathon run of capturing, then telling, the story visually--that needs to be sustained to ensure the continued flow of compelling films from skilled storytellers. If not, who ultimately loses most in this equation? We do--the audience who will never get to see these projects.
Perhaps in a few years, the flow of festival-direct private equity-funded projects will dry up, and fresh ideas promising risky, and potentially fruitful, films will again seem viable. And one day, maybe the digital arena will support funding new content made for more than $30. But why should we have to "tap out" before we replenish this well? Why not look ahead now?
My hope is that those with the resources to nurture and support future docs think about this question and consider their models of funding in light of a potentially disappearing middle. If business concerns, grantors and patrons continue to be unable or unwilling to take more, even greater, risks on talent, subjects and ideas early on, they may eventually find themselves with a disappearing slate.