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'American Masters' Susan Lacy: Curator of Artist Documentaries

By Pamela Yoder

Things are not always as they appear. And for documentary filmmakers, understanding the appetites and working styles of potential filmmaking partners is essential.

Among the most storied and respected of all of the documentary strands on US television, American Masters has carved a niche and created a genre of films for both American and world television audiences. The series is the creation of Susan Lacy, who has served as its executive producer since its summer 1986 premiere on PBS. When Lacy tells me how her idea was received back in 1984, it comes as a bit of a shock: "If this was such a good idea, it would have already happened," one PBS executive told her. "No one is going to watch documentaries about artists in primetime." 

For an accomplished academic with advanced degrees in American Studies, such a reaction fueled her fire. She's quick to point out that PBS' support for the series, which has garnered numerous awards, including nine Emmys and six Peabodys, has grown over the years and the current administration is an enthusiastic partner in keeping American Masters alive and well.

The American Masters canon of 130 profiles reads like an encyclopedia of American artistic royalty: Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Martha Graham, Ella Fitzgerald, Robert Capa, Paul Simon... The list goes on and on. But before you dash off a treatment of William Calder or P.T. Barnum, you should know that Lacy isn't really looking for pitches.

"I usually come up with the ideas," she explains. "Each season is a mix of topics that will grow the audience, support the stations, generate ratings, work for our funders and continue to grow and expand the brand. We spend a great deal of time figuring out who we should make films about and even more time securing the rights. And we work years in advance of broadcast. So it's really counterproductive for me to take pitches which we can't really do much with."

Lacy sees her process as more of a studio model. She picks the topics, commissions the script, hires the director and then works in conjunction with the filmmaker to choose the cinematographer, editor and associate producer and guide the process. This hands-on approach has given Lacy an extraordinary amount of control, and her mini-studio within Thirteen/WNET/New York has the same pressures of any independent production shop with overhead, risk capital and a tight budget.

While Lacy won't get into specifics about how funding for the series works, she offers a glimpse into the challenges of her position. "A season is eight films, ranging from $500,000 to $1 million apiece," she explains. "PBS puts in a portion of that, and underwriting and co-productions must cover the rest." Lacy says that over the history of the series, some seasons have broken even, others have not. Today, a limited appetite for American stories in the international market has trimmed co-production and put pressure on her overworked staff of four.

Says Lacy, "I start each year with a business plan. This is what we've got—these are the rights we've got; these are foundation-friendly; these are projects for co-productions and pre-sales. Hopefully it comes out even. I'm facing a deficit before I start."

American Masters has evolved remarkably from the curated documentary series that was its roots. Lacy is a filmmaker herself, having directed films on Leonard Bernstein (for which she received a DGA nomination), Lena Horne, Rod Serling and Joni Mitchell.

For Lacy the stereotype of an executive producer is hardly the role she wants for herself. "I'm not behind the desk taking pitches," she says. "We've got edit facilities here at WNET, and as often as not I'm in an edit room, looking at rough cuts, working with filmmakers. I'm very hands-on. It's everything from ‘I got this film and it's a disaster,' to ‘I've got to get this film ready in ten weeks,' to ‘The film is terrific and it's done.' And then there are clearance problems with clips." Lacy prides herself on the films but acknowledges that not all filmmakers are open to the intense involvement she has in her projects. She's in some ways an anachronism—a filmmaker's advocate who's a filmmaker herself.

Now, just imagine the boxed set DVD collection of American Masters on the shelves of every high school classroom in America. But sadly, that won't happen anytime soon, since the costs of clearing the rights for many of those films is prohibitive. "We clear as much as we can within our budget capabilities and many of our films do have home video/DVD releases," says Lacy. "But the distribution rights are scattered around."

So can new filmmakers get a project on the boards with Lacy? "I'll find you," says Lacy. "I'm always looking for new directorial talent, and I watch films to see if there are people we should be working with."

But before you flood her tiny staff with tapes, it's worth remembering the caliber of directors that make their way into Lacy's studio. "We're doing Bob Dylan for next season" Lacy says with an almost fan-like excitement. "And guess who's directing? Martin Scorsese."

Oh, that's right. It is called American Masters, after all.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at