June 1, 2002

IDA and AMPAS Forged Partnership in the Mid-90s

One of the fonder memories in my 40 years as a filmmaker is the time I spent in 1994 and 1995 as President of the International Documentary Association. Now, it wasn't all fun and games: The funding problems that plague so many nonprofit organizations were a source of constant pressure, and it was sometimes difficult to devote enough time to the various projects that needed attention while trying to put my own film commitments in order. Fortunately, Betsy McLane, our overworked executive director, was there to keep things under control.

What was important and so rewarding about my tenure as President was the opportunity to become involved in all the various activities that were forwarding the aims of the IDA, from setting up lecture series to re-shaping the budget forms for the Fiscal Sponsorship applications.

I particularly remember three episodes during my tenure, all of which involved the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with which IDA has enjoyed a strong partnership. The first event was IDA’s Second International Documentary Congress, on which we collaborated with the Academy. The Congress included a screening series curated by Robert Hawk, entitled “In and Out of the Cold: 1945-1995,” which looked at the Soviet-American relationship in the years after World War II; we screened over 100 films throughout Los Angeles.

The second project was the establishment of a permanent documentary archive at the Motion Picture Academy. Steven Spielberg came to the opening ceremony to offer a gift of the original documentary dealing with the life of Oscar Schindler. The third experience dealt with the Academy’s nomination process in the documentary categories. In 1995 the Academy's documentary committee rejected the critically acclaimed Hoop Dreams as a nominee. This was part of a series of strange decisions by the committee over the years. Among other films, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line didn't make the cut, and neither did Terry Zweigoff’s Crumb.

Years before these decisions, I had served on the Academy documentary nominating committee. I was surprised to find that many of the participating jurors were retired actors who had little knowledge of the intricacies of making a documentary, or of the genre in general.

The committee’s rejection of Hoop Dreams caused an uproar. During that time, a group of IDA members and I joined other filmmakers in the documentary community in an effort to persuade the Academy to alter the voting procedures. Soon after, the Academy effected the first of a series of changes in the nominating procedures for the documentary branch. Today it is a far more judicious selection process.

Seven years have passed since my term as IDA President. I am still making documentaries, but I am concerned about the future of the young filmmakers who are working in television—the source of so much employment for documentarians. On the one hand, there seems to be a good deal more opportunity, due to the surge in the number of cable networks producing documentaries. The working conditions, however, cannot compare to the “good old days” of the 1960s and 70s, when documentaries were actually aired in prime time on ABC, NBC and CBS, and a huge audience—often a 20 or 30 share of the viewers—actually saw the fruits of our labors. There were very few “notes” from aspiring 25-year-old executives, and no one inquired about the “architecture of the structure” of your film. And you first shot the documentary, then added a script—not vice versa, as is a common practice today, in the interest of economy.

One of the reality series I produced, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, had a budget of $750,000 per hour (believe it or not), and the directors and writers received fat residual checks. For a majority of today's young filmmakers, the situation is quite different. I am appalled at the budgets that so many documentarians have to work with—typically a range of $150,000 to $250,000 per hour. Granted, the cable audience is less than that of the network audience, so the budget has to be somewhat smaller, but not significantly smaller. But there is also far more interference with the end product, and the cable networks do not want to deal with guild members. To top it off, some of the cable stations have eliminated credits, and others may follow. Yes, there is a good deal more opportunity, but it has come at a price—little pay, loss of control, no back-end payments…. and now, possibly, no artistic credits. That's the brave new world of the television documentary.

However, I have a motto: Work is good, no work is bad. The gifted filmmakers will come up with a strong documentary, outfox the network executives, and steal enough from the budget to make a decent living. And it’s important that they do, because the world needs these chronicles of our times.

I was once asked about the relevance of the documentary, and my answer was this: If there were tapes available from television stations in Rome in 10 A.D, would you rather see a documentary about Christ or Caesar, or a Roman sitcom episode?

 

Mel Stuart has just produced a one-hour documentary, Still Perfect—20 Unforgettable Photographs, and is preparing a three-part series on living American poets..

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