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The Golden Age: IDA Grows Along with the Documentary

By Betsy McLane

First IDA Award Winners, 1985

It might be argued that the 1990s was a Golden Age for documentaries. Certainly, the number of worldwide television distribution outlets, and hence the quantity of films and the size of the audiences they reached, multiplied exponentially. It was a decade when lightweight portable camera and sound technology became truly affordable for thousands of individuals, and nonlinear editing systems brought the power of a cut to anyone with a home computer. The number and popularity of film festivals and markets devoted to documentary expanded, and the prominence of documentaries within general festivals increased. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the dismantling of the world’s most pervasive documentary propaganda machine and the opening of vast libraries of unseen footage. The consolidation of the European Union offered new funding and production opportunities for documentarians there. A few theatrically exhibited documentaries engendered fervent critical debate as they crossed over into the dialogue of mainstream popular culture. Large format (IMAX) films continued to be dominated by the documentary form, and broke nonfiction box office records. Under-represented populations both within the US and outside achieved more access to both funding and exhibition. Living legends of the documentary continued to produce, teach and be honored for remaining faithful to their principles. The decade even began with the remarkable phenomenon of millions of Americans, who never before considered themselves documentary fans, spellbound for hours by The Civil War.

This rosy view of the documentary in the 1990s can be countered by another, more grim assessment. The money available per hour for most television documentary, never great, dropped dramatically as quantity pushed at quality. Sixteen millimeter film seemed in danger of disappearing as an origination format, and with the concomitant ease of video came a wide disregard for the importance of the image, let alone the sound quality of documentary. The ease and availability of equipment created opportunities for relatively unskilled makers to enter the field, in some cases driving out established producers by undercutting their prices. Public funding for media in the United States all but vanished as content scandals tightened governments’ artistic control. Film projection became increasingly rare as an exhibition medium for documentaries, even as the promises of home video sales and the prospects of Internet distribution failed to generate any significant capital. The existence of the documentary in the Academy Awards competition was seriously threatened, twice, although its importance to mainstream Hollywood was ultimately reinforced. The traditions and the ethical debates surrounding documentary, and cinema vérité in particular, devolved into the popularity of reality programming and the mass production of shows like Pets That Kill.

Through all of this, and more, the IDA emerged as a stanchion of the international documentary community. My goal for the organization throughout the 1990s was to create a sense of connection, a central source of information and support for everyone concerned with documentary, whether in Los Angeles, North America, or anywhere in the world. This is the philosophy that guided my years as executive director, and although it at times ran counter to what some felt should be the role of IDA, I would like to think that the Association served as an important beacon in the lives and work of many documentarians.

The following are some abridged highlights, as I saw them, of the role played by IDA in that shifting documentary decade.

When I began as a part-time, paid employee of IDA in 1991at $18,000 a year (I was a Board member at the time), the previous executive director had quit abruptly, less than two months before the Annual Awards Gala. The organization was $40,000 in debt and creditors were threatening, there was one employee and one computer sitting in about 200 square feet of office space at the Robertson Production Center, and a thick layer of dust covered everything. The immediate lesson to be learned was that I couldn’t do this job alone—except for the cleaning: I literally vacuumed and scrubbed for years there. Fortunately, there was a wonderful group of dedicated people at hand, headed by President Jon Wilkman, and an emergency finance committee with past presidents Harrison Engle and Chuck Workman. Jon and Nancy Wilkman kept the publication of International Documentary alive through their own enormous unpaid efforts. I was able to persuade a former student, Tom Gianakopoulos, to come work with me, and with the board, we set about trying to do an awards gala. It was dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It was complete chaos.

Despite the efforts of everyone, especially board members Brenda Reiswerg and Kerry Neal, no one was quite sure what was happening. Harrison and Marilyn Engle somehow made the show go on, but my fondest memory was of legendary producer Norman Lear, who presented the Career Achievement Award to Bill Moyers. Mr. Lear sat at the head table throughout the evening with a white cloth napkin on his head; apparently, cold air was blowing from a vent directly above him. What was interesting in a larger perspective was that seated with Mr. Moyers and Mr. Lear was Ken Burns, who was receiving an IDA Award for The Civil War. Ken had just begun to redefine public television documentary with this multi-part series; Mr. Moyers had started his own nonfiction production company for PBS in 1986; and Mr. Lear, of course, had shaken the foundations of network sitcoms with All in the Family. This caliber of meeting of the minds became, for me, the IDA’s most important role.

Through the years, there were many memorable Gala moments, but perhaps most revealing among them was Ted Turner’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Career Achievement Award. Following a poetic 15-minute introduction from Pat Mitchell, Mr. Turner took the stage and, in his own gusto-packed style, acknowledged in a speech of only three sentences that he felt it was an appropriate award: “We made a film about how dolphins were endangered, and look: dolphins are now protected. We made a film about wolves, and look: the wolf population has made a comeback. Now, we made a film about the Holocaust, and look: no more Holocaust.”

A key way in which IDA forged links among diverse documentarians was the production, in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of three International Documentary Congresses—in 1992, 1995 and 1998. By 1992, the truly global nature of documentary funding, production and distribution was apparent. A problem faced by many documentarians, especially those inside the US, was a lack of knowledge of how these mechanisms worked in other countries. The IDCs addressed this situation at a time when no other American organization did. Funded by some public monies, consulate support, trustee contributions (especially Eastman Kodak and Devillier Donegan), sister organizations like the DGA and WGAW, corporate sponsorship, and the donation by AMPAS of its facilities, fabulously hardworking staff and Academy members, the IDCs were especially important in ensuring generational continuity in the field, with written documentation, archival and film restoration work and face-to-face interaction.

Another key trend for documentary in the 1990s was change in the status of stock footage. In many ways this mirrored the conglomeratization of business in general and the ironic repurposing of images throughout culture. What had once been a business with many mom-and-pop type shops became increasingly consolidated. Partly, this was because the new outlets—cable and satellite channels and digitization for the Internet—demanded huge quantities of images, leading to higher prices and profit margins for large conglomerates. Trustees like ABCNewsVideoArchive became very active in supporting IDA. The shift was also partly because cultural institutions began to fully recognize the importance of preservation of our moving image heritage. Since 1990, the Library of Congress National Film Registry has continuously highlighted documentaries in its 25 film treasures selected each year, and IDA, since 1985, has given the Preservation and Scholarship Award, instituted by Harrison Engle, acknowledging the special importance of preservation for the whole field of nonfiction film.

IDA consolidated its commitment to preservation and restoration of film in 1994 by establishing a working documentary archive with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Spearheaded by Board member Tom Neff and then-AMPAS Archivist Michael Friend, the Archive flourishes today. It houses thousands of videotapes in a library available for scholarly study, and it will accept videotape donations from any IDA member to add to this collection. The archive has also engaged in true documentary film restoration, most notably acquiring the entire collection of Robert Drew’s film and video work and restoring the Drew Associates classic Primary. The opening of the IDA/Academy Archive at the Margaret Herrick Library was graced by the presence of Steven Spielberg, who was later awarded the Amicus Award for his Shoah project. This archive will soon move to new headquarters in Hollywood and be able to service its documentary users to an even greater extent.

In the 1990s, IDA engaged in a myriad of other projects. The Outreach to Schools program grew significantly, and I orchestrated the largest-ever public grant to the Association to expand it; we were instrumental in helping found documentary film festivals in Beirut, Lebanon and Hot Springs, Arkansas; International Documentary magazine and the Membership Directory and Survival Guide, under the meticulous editorship of Tim Lyons, became world-class publications. The IDA Seminars took firm shape with particular support from Rich Samuels and Barbara Gregson. We tried an office in New York City, but could not manage to fund it properly. The Fiscal Sponsor program grew from a moribund concept to a vital part of the funding scene for documentarians under the management of Grace Ouchida (who, along with trustee Bram Roos, also spearheaded IDA’s involvement with NATPE) and later, Melissa Disharoon. Grace was also responsible, with Board member Mary Schaffer, for getting our first website up and running. We instituted the Mentor Award and initiated the “Summer Nights at the Ford” screenings. I founded the film festival DOCtober, from a concept by Mitchell Block, partly to present outreach screenings, partly to qualify documentaries for Academy Award® consideration, partly to get documentaries on the big screen. DOCtober increased HBO’s and Sheila Nevins’ support of IDA with the establishment of the “Frame by Frame” Festival in New York. IDA reported on and participated in the huge increases in activity in the field, at national and international events too numerous to mention.

As I believe history will validate, it really was a remarkable time for documentary. The IDA grew in scope, membership and budget in the 1990s—from 1,200 members and a budget of $240,000 when I began in 1991, to about 2,500 members and a budget of over $850,000 when I left in 2000. Many, many individuals were responsible for making this possible, especially the IDA Presidents and the Boards of Directors and Trustees. I was very lucky because I got to do work that mattered and that I love, with people I respect—and I got paid. I can imagine no better way to have spent the decade.