April 1, 1989

The 1988 IDA Awards

David L. Wolper

In November 1988 the IDA held its fourth annual awards luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. Eight awards were made to a varied group of filmmakers. 20 finalists in the documentary competition were picked from over 200 entries from 14 countries. Five awards of equal ranking were presented for Distinguished Documentary Achievement. Three special awards were given : one for a student documentary, one for preservation and scholarship and one for lifetime achievement. The awards luncheon is annually sponsored by Eastman Kodak.

Awards for Distinguished Documentary Achievement went to Bruce Weber for Broken Noses, Bill Couturie for Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, Nestor Almen­dros and Jorge Ulla for Nobody Listened, Errol Morris for The Thin Blue Line, and Renee Tajima and Christine Choy for Who Killed Vincent Chin?

David L. Wolper received the IDA's Career Achievement Award, created to honor an individual who has made a major and lasting contribution to the documentary form. Previous Career Achievement winners include Pare Lorentz(1985), Fred W. Friendly (1986), and Richard Lea­ cock(1987).

Jack Coogan, the director of the Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center in Claremont California, received the Preservation and Scholarship Award for his contribution to archival preservation and education.

Frank Marlow and Kevin Robinson of the University of California Los Angeles were awarded the David L. Wolper student documentary award for Magnetic, the story of a retarded man who looks after a laundromat in downtown LA.

David L. Wolper

David L. Wolper 's international reputation as a documentary producer and innovator in the television industry started early in his career with programs such as the Race for Space (1958). Although Wolper gathered his own support from advertisers, the networks would not alter its policy prohibiting the broadcast of independently produced documentaries. He arranged for 150 local stations, 'a fourth network' to carry the film. The Race for Space won numerous awards and was the first television program ever nominated for an Academy Award.

In the early 60's the Wolper Organization created such milestone documentary series and specials as Men In Crisis, The New March of Time, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Biography. Wolper also produced the first prime-time network series dealing with nature and wildlife, the national Geographic Specials. Today the series continues to be produced by WQED and aired by PBS. Wolper also created the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau specials, making Cousteau an international household name. Wolper was awarded his first Oscar (Best Documentary Feature) in 1971 for The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Mr. Wolper was not able to attend the ceremonies because of illness. Accepting the award on his behalf, was Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC, and President of GTG Entertainment. Tinker conceded that Wolper is "probably not the most modest man in the world, but it's also true that he has something to be immodest about." Wolper, whose company made over 300 documentaries, said in prepared remarks that ''If there is a Wolper trademark or tradition, and I believe there is, it 's that, in our films, we know how to catch our audience and how to keep it. This is important, because so many documentaries today are made without regard for audience. I have spent a large part of my life trying to convince others that this audience exists. It 's part of a documentary filmmaker's job to let the broadcasters and sponsors know about this audience." Citing his success in opening up new markets, notably syndicated television and theatrical, to documentaries, he added that, "I think we made the documentary a household word in America because we made it popular." Producer/filmmaker Mel Stuart, who first met Wolper in 1958, explained to the guests the unique achievement of Wolper Productions.

"From the very first Dave felt that documentaries had to be entertaining as well as informational if they were going to reach a large television audience. A great deal of effort was expended in creating a structure that somehow would give a sense of drama and tension to even the most mundane subject matter. Through the use of strong narrative storylines, music and effects, the Wolper Organization set out to make not just documentaries, but documentary movies. You could rely on David's unique and now legendary ability to persuade or motivate a sponsor or network executive to buy our film concepts. But first, Dave had to find a way around network news policy. They had a dictum, which has not changed very much over the years, that independent production companies cannot deal with public affairs, controversial themes or newsworthy personalities. David realized the if we couldn't deal with the present, we could turn to the past with series like Biography, and Hollywood and the stars, or specials like the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and the Making of the President. Later David found other ways to circumvent the net­ works with nature shows such as the Cousteau and the National Geographic series, then turned to reenactments of history with the Appointment with Destiny series. And always, there were specials dealing with non-newsworthy subjects­ scientists, artists, mountain climbers, financiers, and finally for good measure, dogs, cats and horses.

"Dave had the desire and the ability to attract and give an opportunity to a superb group of filmmakers many of whom are here today. His instincts in choosing creative personnel served him time and time again, as producers, directors, writers, editors were added to the growing company, all united by one aim-to make quality documentaries. Best of all, at Wolper Productions there was no hierarchy or ranking. At the creative level, you dealt directly with Dave on a give and take basis, there were no committees to oversee your work. If disagreements arose, if he couldn't convince you, you could convince him. Finally, when the moment came to screen the production for the networks or sponsors, there couldn't be a better man in your corner—handling network executives and sponsors was Dave's' special forte.

"During those years, Wolper Productions was a training ground, a pressure cooker, a place for experimentation, a film carnival... and a hell of a place to work. It ended in 1977 and we all moved on to other parts of the industry. Of the more than 300 films we made, not all were masterpieces. But during those years, a very talented group of filmmakers, led by David Wolper, created a huge body of work that, in the years to come, will continue to illuminate the history of our times." 

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