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The Documentary Sustainability Movement: A Work in Progress

By Ken Jacobson

The Heartlandia summit on sustainability, a convening of Midwestern filmmakers—March 1, 2018 at University of Missouri School of Journalism. Photo: Steven Boghar
Perhaps it is not surprising that in a community so deeply rooted in social issue activism and environmental concerns, the word "sustainability" would eventually become such a common-place term in the documentary field. Nor is it surprising, given the widespread disruptions in the marketplace wrought by digital platforms and other changes, that sustainability—both for filmmakers and for the broader documentary ecosystem—would become a critical issue for documentary practitioners and industry players. Filmmaker Maggie Bowman describes the conversations around sustainability "as a kind of awakening for the field as a whole over the last couple of years."

For these reasons, no other theme at IDA's biennial Getting Real conferences has been as consistent, contentious or challenging as sustainability. At Getting Real 2018 (September 25 – 27 in Los Angeles), sustainability will once again be a major topic, and no doubt spark many animated conversations. In the wake of the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) recently announced and potentially game-changing Documentary Sustainability Project, which comes one year after the joint NEA/IDA State of the Field: A Report from the Documentary Sustainability Summit, it is a strategic moment to a look back at the sustainability movement in the documentary field in the US over the last several years, assess what progress has made so far, and anticipate where these efforts may be headed.

After interviews with more than 15 filmmakers, consultants and leaders of nonprofit film organizations and agencies, the collective sense is that the movement is still in its early stages, with much work left to be done. In spite of the obstacles standing in the way of significant progress, there are reasons to be optimistic; nonetheless, this overall optimism is tempered by the continuing crisis that drove the sustainability conversations in the first place—the struggle of working filmmakers to make a living.

The Documentary Sustainability Project

Giving a recent boost to the sustainability movement is the NEA's recent announcement that it is doubling down on its commitment to tackling sustainability issues through its new Documentary Sustainability Project. The project is "aimed at strengthening the documentary filmmaking field through knowledge exchange, cross-sector collaboration, and research ." The NEA expects to award one "Cooperative Agreement" of up to $100,000, contingent upon the availability of funds, to an organization (called a "Cooperator") that will administer the project. The agreement will begin on or after January 1, 2019, and may extend for up to 12 months; depending on the availability of agency funds and on the performance of the selected organization, the Cooperative Agreement is renewable. (In the spirit of full disclosure, IDA is submitting a proposal for this.)

How might this project be a game-changer? By, in effect, addressing the issue of the sustainability of the sustainability movement, the project will provide much needed resource support for a media arts organization to be able to carry on and activate the work that the NEA and its partners initiated with the Sustainability Summit held in Washington, DC in February 2017 and the subsequent State of the Field report issued six months later.

According to NEA Media Arts Director Jax Deluca, who initiated the project, the NEA felt the timing was right for such a cooperative agreement. " We're coming up on a year after the report," she says. "It seemed like a reasonable time to invest in a project that ensures the community has adequate resources to take on this work with priority." While the NEA has outlined guidelines for the project, the selected Cooperator will define the strategies that lead the field in taking on the action items and recommendations from the State of the Field report. The  NEA's role is to provide guidance and feedback, track progress and engage in oversight.

"Right now,  we're noticing that organizations are eager to take on this work," Deluca notes. "But they are doing it on a shoestring budget and are overstretching their already stretched staff because of limited resources ."

In order to keep this work in the foreground, provide continuity of conversations and accelerate progress, this new project will assist in building capacity for the entire field by requiring the Cooperator to provide a "central liaison to the documentary field who will develop a comprehensive work plan and manage the project activities ." Assuming the cooperative agreement goes forward and an organization is chosen to administer it, the sustainability work will be tasked to someone who is specifically paid to do that work and will be held accountable for carrying out the proposed project.

" We've invested in this so that an organization can hire someone to take on that work, and that is their job—to focus and organize and engage," Deluca maintains. "This will also hold people accountable and make sure that, as this work is going along,  it's getting reported back, that  there's a common thread, and that there are some actionable items that are happening ."

Besides calling for a central liaison, the guidelines also specify that the Cooperator will assemble a steering committee and a research working group to "identify action items, strengthen cross-sector collaborations, and advise on the dissemination of field research ." In addition, the Cooperator will create a centralized online resource of research and related materials of importance to the field. Taken together, these measures could mean that significant progress will be made on the measures recommended in the State of the Field report.

Signs of Real Progress

While the Documentary Sustainability Project is a positive development, the movement may be in need of a kickstart. What signs are there of real progress toward significant, measurable gains on sustainability? One clear trend is that filmmakers and film organizations are talking more about sustainability issues, which has impacted agenda-setting, resource allocation and organizational priorities.

The first step in this process began when filmmakers came together in small groups and started opening up with each other. Filmmaker Beth Levison described the beginnings of what became the Documentary Producers Alliance: "Six producers, including myself, were all in crisis. So, we got together as a bunch of colleagues to have dinner and talk it through. But as the dinner proceeded, we realized that the difficulties we were having were not a result of us being inadequate with what we do. We started to realize that there were real commonalities in our struggles and that maybe there was something larger going on ."

Simon Kilmurry, IDA's executive director, adds, "If you look at what happened at Getting Real, that’s created a space for filmmakers to have a platform to begin talking about this with less isolation, less of a feeling that they’re in this by themselves."

"I think that the nature of the conversation has changed," says filmmaker Lance Kramer. "There is more openness towards talking about the financial struggles that people are facing and the life challenges that people are facing, without shame.”

Following Getting Real 2016, IDA and NEA joined forces to host the Sustainability Summit in Washington, DC in February 2017. "We were hearing the similar conversations going on in different regions of the country and with different organizations," says NEA Media Arts Specialist Sarah Burford. "So being able to come together for the Sustainability Summit and find out that many in the field are encountering some of the same challenges was powerful.”

The summit created a model for more structured regional convenings, such as the Sustainability Roundtable at the Maine-based Camden International Film Festival/Points North Institute Forum last September, which brought together various New England stakeholders.

Tim Horsburgh of Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based film nonprofit, recalls, "I went to the conversations at Camden last September and saw that this was a regional group that was getting together and saying, 'How can we pool our collective interests in supporting this region? How can we do that, other than waiting for national organizations to spend more?’ And that was a lot of our impetus for then saying, 'We need to this in the Midwest,' which led to Heartlandia ."

The Heartlandia Summit, headed by Kartemquin and IDA and co-moderated by the NEA, convened at True/False in March. A cross-section of Midwest filmmakers, funders, exhibitors, documentary service organizations and broadcasters assembled for presentations and small group conversations around core sustainability issues.

In the weeks following Heartlandia, Kartemquin received inquiries from three other festivals with an interest in organizing similar convenings. Accordingly, the NEA developed the Convening Toolkit: Documentary Career Sustainability.

Caty Borum Chatoo

Caty Borum Chattoo, director of the American University-based Center for Media & Social Impact, sees the convenings as a positive sign that the community is motivated to take action on some of the core issues: "I think the number of intentional conversations that have happened at festivals and stand-alone convenings is remarkable. That is the sign of a field  that's coming together to say,  'It's not sufficient for us to know that only 22 percent of us can make a living; we have to figure out strategies to move forward.'”

Michael Bracy, co-founder of the Future of Music Coalition, who helped orchestrate the Sustainability Summit, echoes this point: "I give the documentary community a tremendous amount of credit in that many, many individuals and organizations are taking a leap of faith to say, 'We don’t know where this conversation goes, but we know we can’t ignore it anymore. We have to try to assert agency, instead of being passive.'"

The sustainability conversations are also having an impact on the inner workings and outward-facing programs of the documentary service organizations. To an increasing extent, the work of these organizations is now being seen through the lens of filmmaker sustainability. "Sustainability is now part of our daily lexicon," Kilmurry asserts. "As we’re thinking about programming the IDA Screening Series and other activities, it also comes into that conversation.”

At the Sundance Institute, Tabitha Jackson confirms that the Documentary Film Program she leads has recently undergone a strategic planning process in which issues around sustainability, as well as inclusion, were an important part of the discussions. As a result, there will be announcements forthcoming from Sundance regarding tangible measures in these areas.

"We are in the process of rolling out a new program model that addresses some of these sustainability issues head on ," says Joanna Lakatos, Kartemquin's director of development. These include new workshops, changes in curricula, and bringing national players in the industry to Chicago to work with filmmakers. Key to making this work possible has been the securing of unrestricted funding that has enabled Kartemquin to hire staff who can then think more intentionally about ways they work with filmmakers and the services they provide.

In addition, Kartemquin will be putting money directly in the hands of filmmakers, adding grants to some of their core programs, including the Diverse Voices in Docs program. "It’s not just about building a network," says Horsburgh. " It's also about the opportunity to get money to work on a project. To be frank, Kartemquin’s model used to be, 'Hey,  we're here to support you, but go ahead and raise all the money yourself; we'll give you some advice.’ Since 2015, however, a fundamental shift has been taking place, and now we are taking on the responsibilities as an institution so that filmmakers don’t have as much of a burden on themselves to raise money.” Also, in keeping with the spirit of Heartlandia, Kartemquin has been focusing on providing support to more artists from outside Chicago, but still with a regional specificity of the Midwest.

In New England, the Camden International Film Festival/Points North Institute is building on its 2017 Sustainability Roundtable. According to Executive/Artistic Director Ben Fowlie, "This year we're working closely with the LEF Foundation on providing New England-based filmmakers with opportunities to utilize the CIFF platform to push their films and their careers forward. These opportunities may include incorporation into our industry 1:1 Meetings and special Work-in-Progress screenings."

Another way that the sustainability movement may be making its presence felt is in the funding sector. Addressing the need for more research and development support, the State of the Field  report states, "Filmmakers are rarely funded to cover costs at this early stage of work, and limited opportunities exist for this type of capital, creating significant economic pressure and anxiety ."

This year, at least three new development funds have entered the picture—the A&E/Sundance Brave Storytellers Award, the IFP/HBO New True Stories Funding Initiative, and the SFFILM Catapult Development Fellowship. In addition, the first cohort of development grants for the IDA Enterprise Fund were awarded. While Sundance, Cinereach, Creative Capital and others have been supporting filmmakers' projects at the development stage for a number of years, there has been a recent uptick in funding opportunities available for early-stage work. Back in 2016, well before the report, two new funding opportunities— Sundance's Art of Nonfiction Fellowship and Chicken &  Egg's Breakthrough Filmmaker Award—were created to fund individual filmmakers, and are not tied to specific projects.

In addition, American Documentary, Inc., producers of POV, launched the Artist Emergency Fund aimed at providing financial assistance to filmmakers facing unexpected hardship. Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director of POV/American Documentary, describes it as the "first of its kind dedicated to nonfiction filmmakers. This type of grant program is common in other artistic disciplines, and it seemed time for filmmakers to have a safety net. This is a first step towards greater sustainability for professional filmmakers." The modest one-time grants of up to $1,000 are intended for those facing "unforeseen personal calamities, such as health issues, eviction or natural disasters."

Clearly, these individual funds are not, in and of themselves, going to change the equation for  filmmakers' sustainability, but they are indicative of a trend toward guiding more funding in the direction of where filmmakers' needs may be the greatest, and a sign that grant-making organizations are raising awareness of filmmaker sustainability issues with their funding partners.

In addition, there is an expanding network of fellowships and other resource-based programs that offer mentorship, training and other forms of professional development. More documentary service organizations are offering funding and, vice versa, more funders are offering services besides financial support alone.

The report itself can be seen as an achievement in several ways: first, it set a precedent whereby different voices coming together would form the basis for the report and its key findings, as opposed to a top-down process; second, it laid down a marker for possible future outcomes and created the bare outline of a process for achieving them; and third, it marked the beginning of public engagement between the documentary community and government actors.

"Putting the marker out there was really important ," says Bracy. "The report focuses on tangible tactics, strategies, actionable things. How do we link the short term, incremental, actionable activities in the hopes that these activities then lead to transformational change?  It's a challenge to the field and the community to make a choice to say, ‘Is the field willing to embrace this conceptually?'"

On the issue of public engagement, Deluca notes, "A large component of the report is about regularly educating the public sector and building better working relationships. If I  hadn't been engaged in that way, we probably would not have gotten so involved, so this is a real testament to that process. And, once the conversation comes here, it has potential to generate necessary infrastructure changes and reach wider networks, such as state arts agencies and regional art organizations."

"I look at the Sundance Doc Film Money Map, what the NEA is doing with its current Documentary Sustainability Project guidelines, what POV is doing in terms of a new emergency funding pot — these directly result from talking about this independent sustainability issue over the last two years," says Cynthia Lopez, co-organizer of the Sustainability Summit. "These are very specific strategies that have been accomplished."

The "Not Yet" Movement

In spite of the progress made on sustainability-related issues, there is still much that  hasn't yet been achieved. d e Some interviewees commented on what's been missing from the sustainability movement and what they would like to see happen.

"I think we are good at identifying the problems," says filmmaker Laura Nix. "I don’t think we’ve made that much progress in figuring out what the approach to solutions could look like."

"One thing that  I've been really concerned about is healthcare," filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez points out. "When I was at the Heartlandia panel, I asked about health care and that was something that they  hadn't talked about. I did have the Affordable Care Act when it first came out, but then this past year, premiums went up really high, and  it's actually going to be cheaper for me, if I do have to go to the emergency room, to just pay out of pocket."

Filmmaker Byron Hurt adds, "I think that more chances have to be given for filmmakers of color who may not be as developed, polished or experienced, but have a tremendous amount of potential and are rooted in the communities where these stories are being told, rather than providing funding to filmmakers who are not rooted in those communities and may not be able to tell the stories in as much of a nuanced and sophisticated and culturally competent way."

"There is no low hanging fruit," Bracy admits. "But the lowest would be developing a comprehensive, field-wide research agenda that is well-resourced. I would like to see an acceleration on the research side as soon as possible. The one issue that the field really needs to get its head around is net neutrality, which is basically going to dictate the future economics of the entire industry, particularly as it relates to independent creators."

"Something that we would like to develop is a more intentional database-type project that really examines and archives things like revenue made from a film and funding and really looks at it systematically over time," Chattoo adds. " That's a massive project, but if we were able to develop that, we would have a much, much deeper systematic understanding about what kinds of films make what kind of money.”

What actions and strategies are needed to make significant inroads toward greater sustainability? Better cross-sector and public-policy engagement, more sustained and coordinated leadership, and a scaling up of local models were among the strategies being advocated.

"There’s more work to be done bridging the documentary field with other sectors, including tech and other industries that have a lot of capital," says NEA Media Arts Specialist Sarah Burford. "If the field can engage in conversations with these sectors,  there's potential for collaboration and access to additional resources."

" There's a lot more work to do to organize filmmakers around these issues and make them feel like do have a path forward and that there is some hope of collective action," Nix maintains. "We need very structured, focused leadership on these issues. t What's exciting about the Documentary Producers Alliance is that  they're filmmaker-driven and they're saying, 'These are the issues facing documentary producers and this is how we want to address them.'"

"A number of us who reside in organizations need to figure out some kind of organizational, collaborative strategy to work together ," says Chattoo.

"Figuring out which organizations and individuals will step up into heightened leadership roles to accelerate regionally focused work across the US is a necessary next step," Deluca adds.

" It's fantastic that we have more funders and investors than we ever had in the space," Levison admits. "And yet, it seems as though on the business and investment side, this expansion has happened without us necessarily looking at what it means for the industry, for crediting and for filmmakers themselves. We have to look at the ecosystem of documentary filmmaking and how we can make this new financial interest work for filmmakers as well."

"Public sector engagement is the piece that we still need to work on," admits Cynthia Lopez, who headed the New York City Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting and was co-executive producer of the PBS series POV. "Not just internally with independent filmmakers, but with the public in general. How can we work together and form some kind of triangle—the industry on one side, government on the other side, and independent filmmakers on another side—so that we all get our fair share to make this triangle work?"

"It is really important for the field to step up its game in terms of how it relates to Washington policy," Bracy adds.

"We need to get strategic," says filmmaker Maggie Bowman, who chairs the DPA's Labor Rights and Economic Sustainability Committee. "Change in public policy is one way that, over a multiyear effort, we could change our field. We need to think about some of the solutions that have been addressed at the local level, and do a national assessment of all the opportunities that are out there and see if we can try to implement some of those on a national level."

"We need to invite some of these gatekeepers into the conversation in a way to hold them accountable—to say, What are you doing to lift the field?" Horsburgh asserts. "The gatekeepers are very open to this because they're smart; they get it."

"Nothing is going to change if it just remains a conversation," Hurt notes. "We have to translate the conversation to real tangible results.”
The most frustrating aspect of the sustainability movement may be the gulf that exists between the recognition that the movement is still in its early stages and the realization that filmmakers' livelihoods are in immediate jeopardy. "I think that we’re still in a research and discovery phase," Chattoo observes. "I know that’s particularly hard for day-to-day documentary filmmakers to hear, but I think we still don’t know precisely where the breakdowns are.”

When filmmakers speak about the need for affordable health care, the ability to make projects without going into the hole financially, or the need for more "filmmaker-friendly" contracts to be the norm, they are confronting them as present-day conditions that threaten their career survivability as independent filmmakers. "Every once in a while you talk to a filmmaker who made a film that, on the outside, looks really successful," says Nix. "And then you talk to that filmmaker, and find out they are in utter financial ruin."

At Heartlandia, filmmaker Ashley  O'Shea shared her experience of sleeping on a friend’s couch while making her film to save money, even though she was the recipient of numerous forms of institutional support. Deluca seemed to channel that story when asked where  she'd like to see the sustainability movement in ten  years' time: " I'd like to see an individual not have to live on a couch while receiving support from three different organizations, and still be able to make a decent living and have a family, if  that's what she chose to do."

If filmmakers who are engaged in this movement find it almost insurmountable to be both filmmakers and advocates, the alternative is not much of one either. "I think that the sustainability of the sustainability movement is barely sustainable," Levinson notes. "But we have to persist because the sustainability of our craft depends on it ."

GR '18: And So It Continues…

Where the movement goes next is one of the few known variables: Getting Real 2018 in Los Angeles. Levison describes Getting Real 2018 as the  DPA's "2.0 moment ." The conference represents the  group's opportunity to present itself to the community. In addition, they will be leading a session on crediting guidelines, a process which has been in the works for some time, involving untold hours of planning and consultations with key stakeholders. "We are hoping that there can be even greater consensus around the fact that we all need to buy into some new best practices ," says Levison. With more industry feedback and the benefit of conversations at Getting Real, DPA then plans to publish the guidelines.

Chattoo is also preparing for Getting Real, where she will present top-level highlights from the latest biennial State of the Documentary Field Survey, which will also be released jointly on the IDA and Center for Media & Social Impact websites. Nearly 700 participants completed the survey—a considerable increase from 2016. Additionally, Chattoo and her research team completed in-depth interviews with documentary producers in order to yield more nuanced portraits of issues facing the field, with a strong look at economics. The data, and  Chattoo's analysis, will no doubt fuel many private and public conversations at Getting Real and beyond.

Among the other sessions at Getting Real, a panel on regional sustainability models will explore how organizations such as Kartemquin, Camden/Points North Institute, Docs in Progress in Washington, DC, and Austin Film Society in Texas are taking the initiative to seek out funding opportunities and develop programs that benefit filmmakers’ sustainability.

In a sign that things have gone full circle in the foundation world, funders will assemble for a panel devoted to increased support at the research and development stage of filmmaking—a priority identified at the earlier Getting Real conferences and in numerous sustainability conversations.

What Lies Ahead?

Looking beyond Getting Real 2018, it is likely, especially in light of the NEA’s Documentary Sustainability Project, that there will be sustainability steering committees formed; convenings held; priorities set (especially in the area of future research studies); and more announcements made around regionally impactful programs and new funding opportunities. It is less clear what the future will hold when it comes to answering such key questions as:

  • Will funders join the NEA in providing support for the sustainability movement, including the substantial funds necessary to do the kind of large-scale research and data collection work that the State of the Field report calls for?

  • Will the sustainability movement succeed in engaging the for-profit sector of distributors, online platforms and others in substantive conversations around filmmaker and documentary system-wide sustainability?

  • Will filmmakers have access to affordable health care?

  • Will the documentary field succeed in supporting a broadly inclusive and diverse pool of filmmakers?

  • Will the documentary field take on the sustained organizing and advocacy work necessary to engage with both the private and public sectors around sustainability issues, and could this lead to an increase in funding?

  • To what extent will the future interests of filmmakers and public broadcasting align, and how much will each of those actors invest in the sustainability of the other?

  • Will filmmakers ever be able to earn a fair share of the revenue generated by their work?

With so many questions remaining to be answered and the enormous challenges ahead, is the documentary community feeling hopeful about the future? Tabitha Jackson of Sundance Institute and filmmaker Byron Hurt offer very different and equally evocative views:

"I think we need to build on those recommendations from the State of the Field report," Jackson maintains. "We need to be as imaginative as we possibly can as a field and find the ways in which we can experiment with new things, new models, new forms of storytelling, new ways of production, new ways of distribution. That’s the only way we’re gonna get out of this. And maybe it will lead to something unexpectedly beautiful and sustainable. That's the hope."

"I'm not as optimistic as I used to be," Hunt admits. "And that's because I've learned more about the business of filmmaking. I'm very aware of how challenging it is in this industry to live and thrive and grow as a filmmaker. I wish I were more optimistic. I want to be optimistic. But I'm starting to feel the weight of being an independent documentary filmmaker.”


Ken Jacobson, a Contributing Editor at Documentary magazine, is VR and documentary programmer at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and VR curator and Forum programmer at AFI DOCS Film Festival.