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Filmmakers to Ignite Change at GETTING REAL 2014

By Tom White

Over the past 20 years, documentary-centric festivals, markets, forums and seminars have proliferated around the world, as have programs in higher education, online portals and list-servs, and salons and ad hoc confabs. Like every art form, documentary has evolved into an industry, animated by an interdependent community of filmmakers, gatekeepers, thought leaders, educators and supporters.

But industry is the operative word here—not necessarily a pejorative, mind you, but it is the non-filmmakers who have been the loudest voices at these convening mechanisms; those who create the product—the filmmakers—are often the least heard. And while many of these festivals and markets are designed to bring the community together to talk about the pressing issues and the future of the industry, it is often the non-filmmakers who populate the stage, while the filmmakers comprise the audience. Not exactly a symbiotic state of affairs—although certainly not a dystopian one either.

But a shakeout, or at least a rethinking, is in order.

Enter the IDA, which came on the scene some 30 years ago to help serve a need for a collective voice. And now, in the form of the GETTING REAL Documentary Film Conference happening from September 30 to October 2, at host venue and presenting partner the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, IDA is aiming to rattle the confab firmament with a simple, yet profound idea: a filmmaker-to-filmmaker event, centered around three major subjects: art, impact and career.  

We spoke with Michael Lumpkin, IDA's executive director, and Ken Jacobson, IDA's director of educational programs and strategic partnerships, about the roots of this project, its goals and objectives and its desired outcomes.   


Michael, what was the genesis of the idea for the conference? What was the need out there?

Michael Lumpkin: When I first came to IDA five and a half years ago—and for the first couple of years—immersing myself in the documentary community and attending a lot of film festivals and conferences in the documentary world, it became clear to me that at most of those convenings, what was happening was filmmakers in the audiences and mostly non-filmmakers on panels talking about either what they could offer filmmakers or how to help filmmakers. But mostly it was about filmmakers getting money, so getting in the room with people who control the purse strings for documentary funding seemed to be the primary motivation for filmmakers to be at these gatherings.

That's not to say that isn't critically important for filmmakers; it is. Issues would come up, but there wasn't follow-through; there wasn't a lot of taking issues and working on them further, and a lot of the same questions, problems, issues popped up year after year. At one conference I was attending, a filmmaker I know said to me, "This is great, but it would really be helpful if filmmakers could just get together themselves and work on issues facing the community." So that's how it started-from years of thinking that there needed to be a different kind of gathering for documentary filmmakers to discuss, eventually work on, and also solve some big issues facing the documentary community.


Ken, when you came on last September and brought your experience in developing educational programs and forging partnerships, what was your first impression of the conference? Where did you see it going?

Ken Jacobson: Actually, I heard about the conference as a potential even before I started and, frankly, I saw it as a tremendously positive thing with a huge upside, for reasons Michael stated. I had never heard of anything like this happening before. It seemed vital and exciting and needed. I relished the opportunity to be involved with it. I felt that certainly there would always be a strong educational component to it, but that it would go beyond just education to hopefully helping address some key issues and potentially resolve them in ways that hadn't been done before.


And over the past nine months since Ken came on, you both have spoken to a lot of major stakeholders in San Francisco, LA, DC and New York. What has been the prevailing reaction to your project, and how does that help fortify, going forward, the process of developing the conference?

ML: It's been overwhelmingly positive. When we talk to people about it, the reactions are usually, "This is exciting...This is different...This is urgently needed." And actually, another motivation was having Alyce Myatt, who was then head of the Media Arts Department at the National Endowment for the Arts, come up to me at one of those conferences and say, "Documentary filmmakers need to get together and figure this stuff out." Which eventually led to the NEA being a major supporter of the conference. Because it is different, and in a lot of ways new and unique, it takes a lot of explaining; you have to talk to people about it—what our goals are, what we're trying to do. Once people understand that, they get really excited about it.


How has the mission changed or expanded as a result of getting the feedback out there? How have the objective and goals changed—or have they?

KL: I don't think that the overall objectives or main goals have changed. We've refined them over time largely as a result of these conversations we've had with people and thinking about how we could make this an "unprecedented event." And how can we think about outcomes associated with the conversations that are going to happen at the conference, and who is doing work in these key areas already that we want to bring into the conference and help strengthen their work and build on it after the conference is over?


When you first announced this at Sundance, you had developed three main ideas: art, impact and especially career. How did you arrive at a consensus that those would be the driving ideas of the conference, and how have those expanded?

ML: We arrived at those three broad areas relatively early on, but it was in developing the goals of the conference and taking a very deep dive into what are the major issues. Being something new for us and for the documentary community, it's been an ongoing process of numerous conversations that inform what we're doing. And also, we're faced with three days, and the physical limitations of what we're doing and determining what we can do and how much we can do. And as Ken said, we're very focused on outcomes, and we've developed a set of quick tests we apply to ideas for the conference. We have our ongoing Doc U program, which does a lot of stuff similar to what you might see in a conference. One of our tests is: "If that can be a Doc U, it shouldn't be in the conference." We don't want this to be a concentrated three-day Doc U session.

Going back to the three areas, those were developed early, and as we worked on it more and more and talked to more people and dug deep into the issues, we discovered that the three areas are very connected. You can have something start out, it could be about impact, but when you start digging into it, it also has huge implications on career and even art. So, there are going to be sessions that cover all three or two of those topics.

KJ: Also, our co-producer and partner throughout the planning process, the Academy, is equally behind the three major topics. So, making sure that we were all on the same page as far as that goes is important. How the two organizations are focusing their attention is different, but we're unified on the commitment to the major topics.


You said you didn't want the conference to be a three-day Doc U. How are you rethinking how to deliver this? How are these topics going to be addressed and discussed? It's a filmmaker-driven conversation; how is that going to be created and presented?

I think the devil's in the details. We're looking for small but significant ways to design each session so that it's not a typical panel discussion. Rather than have a panel of four or five people sitting around a table facing the audience, we came up with this format that we're calling a roundtable, a big gathering of primarily filmmakers—and in some cases, exclusively filmmakers—who will address a certain topic, such as our career roundtable. It's going to be highly moderated, so that the end result is a wide-ranging but also very focused conversation that hits on several key points that relate back to the overall theme of career for filmmakers and what filmmakers' experiences are, what their challenges have been and continue to be, what obstacles they're running up against—always with an eye towards, "Okay, what should be the outcomes, not only of this discussion but of this issue?" And so, often one session will lead into another; we may have a breakout session that follows something like a roundtable in which a smaller forum—both in terms of the presenters and in terms of the audience—will take that issue to the next step.


I want to talk about impact. As you said, it's been a major subject for a long time, and I think another key issue with respect to impact is measuring it, assessing the double bottom line and the algorithms thereof. Is that going to be part of the discussion?

KJ: We've certainly talked about that, and we're figuring out how to specifically incorporate that into the conference.

ML: I think in general what we want to do at the conference, and especially with impact, is that we're seeing that it's a major aspect of documentary filmmaking now. It's the way you get money. There's money out there for it. There's this kind of new industry of people in the impact space, people and companies that are there to provide services to documentary filmmakers, mostly for a price. It's business. People are in the business of impact. So our goal is to try to give filmmakers a better understanding of what's going on in the impact space in documentary filmmaking so they can make better choices and better decisions as they're going out and trying to make their films and do what they want to do with their films.

KJ: And I think this relates to another issue with the conference, a sort of subtext: using the conference as a vehicle for listening—filmmakers listening to what people in the industry have to say, whether they're funders or people who are measuring impact, or, on the flipside, funders and people in the impact space listening to the concerns that filmmakers have and creating formats and sessions that will not devolve into whining sessions. They would be real discussions, where the issues are brought forward and discussed. Then a process is possibly identified for tackling issues that arise.

ML: I've had to check myself constantly as we're working on ideas and developing content for the conference. We've billed it as "the filmmaker-to-filmmaker conference" intentionally to emphasize that difference from other gatherings. Numerous people in the documentary space who are not filmmakers—festival people, distributors, publicists—see what we're saying about the conference and they come to us saying they don't understand what their role is. And we do want others who work in the world to be there, like Ken said, because they need to hear what filmmakers are talking about. In putting this together, I have to constantly ask myself, "Where is the filmmaker in this session?" So we want to make sure that every discussion has the documentary filmmaker as a major player, and not just the industry talking to filmmakers.

KJ: We also want to make sure that the filmmakers represented as presenters are not all just the usual suspects you see presenting at other events, so that we do incorporate some new voices—whether as keynotes, presenters, participants in sessions—so we have a multi-generational representation and different levels of experience and prior exposure. We do want a dynamic cross-section of voices.


One issue that has concerned me and a number of filmmakers is that those documentaries that are not impact-driven are having a tough time getting funded. Is that going to be a subject that's further explored?

ML: It is. We're talking to most of the funders of documentary film about being part of the conference, and that is going to be discussed. In some way, we want to put out there at the conference: How did we get here with impact? How did this happen? Not that it's a bad thing, but this is what's happening right now in the documentary filmmaking world. There's so much emphasis on it. It drives a lot of the funding. Understanding where that came from, how it developed and why it developed is key to having a more balanced funding pool for documentary filmmakers, so that all different types of films can get funding and have a chance at funding. As we've been digging into that and talking to people about it, I think the story of impact and how that developed could offer a lot of really good models for other types of documentary filmmaking.

KJ: I think one of our keynote speakers will be addressing this issue, without saying too much more.


What was the thinking behind the selection of the keynote speakers? How much autonomy do they have in delivering their addresses, and how much is incorporated into the spirit of conference?

ML: How [filmmaker] Dawn Porter became a keynote speaker for our conference is a really great example of our process. We've had so many conversations with filmmakers and others as well, but Dawn was someone we wanted to talk to about the conference. We had no idea where the conversation was going, but we introduced the idea of the conference to her. We were talking about the issues and then it was just a conversation about what she sees as critical issues in the documentary filmmaking community. It's a result of our conversation with Dawn that we thought she would be a great person to do this at the conference.


I want to get to the outcomes question, but I wanted to get a sense of the audience too. The Academy is very strong on reaching out to younger people in terms of media arts literacy and other areas. How much will younger people be factored into this audience?

KJ: Another part of our evolving process is finding the target audience for the conference. We feel partly that what makes this unique is its emphasis on the mid-career filmmaker—people who self-identify as being committed to the documentary field and making it their primary work. So, that means that students are not our primary target audience for the conference. We definitely feel like the content will both trickle down to them and relate to them, but we can't be all things to all people. That's something that we heard from filmmakers and people in the field—if you keep it focused primarily on the mid-career filmmaker, that makes this important and unique.

ML: And I think it's also staying focused on the goals of the conference. It's critical who we have in the room. It's relatively small; our capacity is 300 people. The goals don't end with the last day of the conference. If you're not at the conference, it doesn't mean you're going to miss out on what's happening or the outcomes and impacts of the conference.

KJ: A number of our presenters are in academia, so they're teaching students every day and they're involved in designing the structure and content of sessions. So, we know that that content is going to get to students. We're certainly open to students being at the conference and we hope that they come.


And to circle back to outcomes: What are your hoped-for outcomes? Let's start with the documentary community first—and I want to get to IDA as well—what do you hope they get out of it? And how will you continue the spirit, as it were?

ML: The goal for the community is to make sure that filmmakers are part of these ongoing discussions. One thing we've observed putting it together is that all too often, when critical issues are discussed or new things are developed for documentary filmmakers, to benefit documentary filmmakers, there's not a lot of documentary filmmakers in those discussions. The other way I've looked at it is that there's a lot of self-sacrifice going on in the documentary filmmaking community. Documentary filmmakers are doing tremendous amounts of work and putting a lot into changing the world and having a positive impact on others. We're trying to turn a little of that back to the filmmaker; we want there to be a positive impact on filmmakers and the world that they're working in.


And how about for other key players in the community such as IDFA or Sheffield, Hot Docs, or AFI Docs? How will this conference impact them and what they do? Not to say that they'll follow this model, but what do you hope for in your relationship with those entities?

ML: I think they're all part of the outcomes we're looking for. In general, we want concrete outcomes coming out of every aspect of the conference. And certainly, IDA will be taking some of those on to do follow-through, but our hope is that other organizations will do that as well. There are organizations that are already working on critical issues in the documentary community, and several of those are being brought into the conference to introduce or discuss their work and then continue it after the conference. We're looking for those organizations to help, join forces or individually take on some of these issues. There's a lot of work being done already in many different aspects of career, impact and art, so our hope is that those organizations will continue the work.


Will there be another convening mechanism to present findings or as a kind of follow-up conference?

KJ: There will definitely be follow-up activities and programs. We don't exactly know what they are. Part of what they are will be determined by what happens at the conference, the survey data we get and the evaluations we make of people's experience at the conference. That will also probably go a long way toward determining when the next conference will be.

ML: We're not going into this with any anticipation of another one happening. We don't want to make that decision until we're on the other side of this one, and really know how successful it was. And then we'll be determining what the next steps are.


And then the outcomes for IDA itself—and this is obviously a real paradigm shifter, in terms of IDA's programmatic history—what would this mean for IDA and what it does going forward and how it delivers to the community?

ML: The conference actually came out of our long-term strategic plan. One of the goals of that was to ensure that over the long term, IDA is relevant to documentary filmmakers, that we're doing the right work and we're responding to the needs of the documentary filmmaking community. The conference is one way that we will ensure that we're doing that. Yes, I think it's going to shift our relationship with the filmmaking community.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.