The Messy Truth behind a Day Job as a Documentarian
I was sitting at an IDA-produced summit on sustainability in February in Washington, DC. Dozens of seasoned filmmakers shared personal struggles about how they have survived in their careers as documentary filmmakers. I listened to people I deeply admire and respect candidly discuss potential action items to fix a financial model that many in the room agreed is broken. As a young filmmaker, I wondered what kind of contribution I could make to a big goal as elusive and abstract as sustainability. Then the topic of transparency came up repeatedly in conversation. It was striking to hear how many people operated alone and in the dark when it came to navigating the finances of our field. There seemed to be a basic lack of public data and dialogue.
The conversation motivated my brother Brandon and I to open up the books on our first feature-length documentary film, City of Trees. Over the course of five years, we had fiercely cobbled together $406,670 from non-traditional sources to fund our "low-budget" film. When it came to money, we had reached one conclusion: the math does not add up. In the interest of honestly addressing some of the financial realities facing our field, what follows is a nuanced portrait — a quantitative and qualitative audit — of our experiences funding our first film.
Back in the summer of 2010, my brother Brandon and I were two ambitious, idealistic guys in our 20s who wanted to make independent documentaries that told complex and ethical stories about real people. We did not just want to make a film; we wanted to try to figure out how to build a career making documentaries in our hometown, Washington, DC, a city we loved and cared about—that was not New York or LA. We also did not want to work alone. We were inspired by Kartemquin Film's collaborative model in Chicago and were obsessed with the idea of creating a sustained entity in DC focused on producing independent documentary films.
We had no idea what went into running a sustainable production company: We had no clue how to create a contract, write personnel policies, negotiate a lease, navigate insurance premiums, fix a copier or file taxes. Nonetheless, we each put $5,000 worth of savings into a new company bank account and filed the LLC papers to start Meridian Hill Pictures (MHP).
Within a month of starting MHP, we met Steve Coleman, the director of local nonprofit Washington Parks & People. The organization had just received a stimulus grant to create a green job training program called the DC Green Corps. They had two years to train over 100 District residents struggling with long-term unemployment. It was an ambitious undertaking with intense stakes. To us, the program offered a personal and authentic window into the way one community was attempting to recover from the recession. Especially given the sensitivities of the moment in everyone's lives, we were taken aback by the vulnerability with which people opened up to us and our camera.
Immediately, we got absorbed in the world of the program, and became fascinated with the hopes and struggles of program directors like Steve and trainees like Charles Holcomb. We admittedly had little understanding of what making a feature-length documentary would entail, nor did we have much concept of the time, money, talent, relationships and trust that would be required over the span of many years if we committed to following this story. But we could not walk away. The story was unfolding fast and we felt compelled to document it independently as it happened. We decided to do what we imagine many first-time filmmakers do: be present and document the story. Film now and pay the bills later.
Since we had no funding for the film itself, we determined that the only way we could quickly underwrite the film's costs would be through using our production company to produce short films commissioned by other organizations. We started using the money earned from these projects to build capacity to help subsidize time and production costs on City of Trees. We started MHP in late 2010 and earned a total of $16,120 from client films that year. In 2011, our first full year filing taxes, MHP had an operating budget of $96,830, with most earned income from commissioned projects. We used some of these funds to hire a filmmaker full-time—the incredible, multi-talented Ellie Walton—to serve as a director of photography on City of Trees, while she also shot and edited our client projects that paid for her work on the film. Since we could not afford a full crew, we created a paid intern program and hired two interns each semester to help with recording sound, logging footage, conducting research and managing the production office. We used what little funds remained from commissioned films to buy equipment and pay for operating costs like rent, insurance and office supplies.
In 2012, the story we were following intensified, particularly during the last six months of Washington Parks & People's stimulus grant, which became a central focus of the film. As interpersonal and community-level struggles became more pronounced, we realized we were witnessing a revealing window into the behind-the-scenes personal experiences of a nonprofit staff—and the community they served—navigating a painful but relatable moment. We felt that we couldn't abandon the people and the story, so we effectively took on two full-time jobs. We wrote dozens of client proposals and regularly worked evenings and weekends to maintain client deadlines, while intensely following the lives of the participants in City of Trees. That year, MHP's operating budget grew slightly to $125,735, but our expenses also kept on increasing at a greater rate. In an attempt to secure specific funds for City of Trees that would allow us greater ability to focus, we furiously wrote grant proposals to film funders to convey the significance of the story we were witnessing; all of these proposals were unsuccessful. The company's credit-card balances increased into the tens of thousands of dollars, and when we could not make payroll and pay our bills, we were fortunate to be in a position where we could go to family members for a $25,000 loan.
By late 2012, we decided to start looking outside the realm of traditional film funders. We attended grant-writing workshops and spent afternoons at the Foundation Center doing research on foundations with giving priorities that matched the film's themes. Kartemquin Films signed on as our nonprofit fiscal sponsor, and in mid 2013, we received our first grant—$10,000 from a local family foundation called the Bancroft Foundation. They did not have a website; the only way we learned about Bancroft was through a personal introduction. They had never funded a feature-length film, but the film's environmental themes resonated with their mission and they took a leap of faith on our project (the foundation made two subsequent $10,000 grants over the course of producing the film). Later that year, we received another $10,000 grant from the All Souls Unitarian Church in our neighborhood, which operated a fund supporting projects dealing with environmental justice in nearby communities. By the end of 2013, MHP's operating budget had grown to $217,883, most of which continued to come from commissioned films. The City of Trees grant funds we raised helped us to hire our first project-specific role—assistant editor Jennifer Quintana—to review, log and organize the 250+ hours of footage we had accumulated in the field, while we began the work to prepare for the long process of editing the feature.
Our advisors at Kartemquin helped us to forecast the actual time and costs that would be required to go through the edit, which we anticipated would take at least a year and cost at least $100,000 to cover an editor, a composer and all of the finishing work. Through the process of filming City of Trees, we had met several staff members at the USDA Forest Service who took an interest in the film. They were impressed by the potential of independent filmmakers to tell a story that dealt with the work and mission of their agency. In late 2013, the agency offered $60,000 in funding to support the editorial process to complete the film. Since USDA was a non-traditional funder, Kartemquin worked closely with us to establish a protective firewall around the film's editorial integrity. In late 2014, we ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised $60,539 from 503 backers. We also took out another $25,000 loan from family members. Collectively, the funds raised from these sources made it possible for us to hire editor Edwin Martinez, assistant editor Sara Fusco, composer Brian Satz, colorist Joe Malina, sound editor Elizabeth Fausak, designer Dan Sharkey, the post services at Wheelhouse Creative and several other core post-production crew.
By 2014, our yearly operating budget for our entire production company was $220,516, inclusive of the costs of producing the film. Within that budget, we were also employing four yearly salaried staff, approximately 20 freelance crew, and an average of 12 university students or recent graduates per year through the paid internship program we had created. In our eyes, we had tried to take all of the right steps to stand in the shadows of our role models at Kartemquin and create a small, "sustainable" film company in DC. In our hearts, we were proud of this accomplishment, but on paper the math didn't really add up. The equation was often contingent on asking people to work for below-market rates and long hours, which resulted in difficult relationships with our collaborators. Since we could not pay ourselves full salaries, we accrued personal debt in addition to the company's debt load. We started to wonder how people actually funded and finished independent documentaries.
Throughout this whole period, we got to know staff and leadership at the DC Office of Motion Picture & Television Development (aka DC Film Office). We became more involved in conversations with them and with other filmmakers about issues facing the independent documentary filmmaking community, such as the lack of support to incentivize companies to create salaried positions rather than project-based crew, and the lack of job training, internships, apprenticeships and mentorship opportunities for our field.
In particular, we were dismayed to learn that while DC had a film production rebate program like other states to spur filming locally, a film could only qualify if it spent at least $500,000 in the District. The structure of the program felt as though it was designed to attract big budget out-of-town projects to swoop in from Hollywood, rather than support and incentivize independent local filmmakers and companies who were helping to build the local creative economy through more modestly funded projects.
Rather than give up, we decided to dig in and get more vocal and involved with the DC Film Office. Along with several other local filmmakers, we testified at City Council multiple times. We started educating the Council about the economic impact of the local documentary filmmaking community. We helped the Council understand that documentary filmmakers know how to stretch a dollar for maximum impact. We argued that while our economic footprint may be small compared to large out-of-town productions, we create jobs that cannot be outsourced. We made a plea to the City Council that they had an opportunity and obligation to stimulate the local creative economy by making it easier for producers and production companies to make nonfiction movies in the District. We also reminded them that the city needed to do a better job supporting a diversity of DC-based talent from all backgrounds, so that documentary filmmaking would not only be open to people of relative privilege like ourselves.
Remarkably, our efforts began to pay off in small ways. In 2015, the City Council voted to adjust the requirements for the production rebate program, lowering the qualifying District spend from $500,000 to $250,000. Based on changes in the program structure, an eligible project could now qualify for up to a 35 percent cash rebate on its qualified production expenses. We did some initial back-of-the-napkin calculations and determined that City of Trees could qualify.
In the summer of 2015, as we geared up to premiere our film, we also started our application process for the revised Film Production Rebate Fund. The application required that we perform an external audit, which meant we had to front another $5,000 to hire an accounting firm to perform a detailed analysis of the film's income and expenses over the course of five years. We spent dozens of hours over several months that summer digging through five years of receipts, timesheets and pay stubs. We answered countless tough questions from the auditor about our bookkeeping practices. It was mind-numbing and grueling.
After tabulating all of our costs to produce City of Trees, we had spent a total of $406,670 on the film, between direct project-specific costs and a proportion of the company's time and resources that were spent making the film. We had raised a total of $160,539 in funds through non-film grants and contributions and $171,131 in earned income from MHP's commissioned films, and we had incurred $75,000 in debt between two loans and a line of credit. Of these funds, we had spent a total of $256,371 in the District—just $6,371 beyond the $250,000 requirement in order to qualify for the rebate.
The rebate application took almost six months to process, but in January 2017, we received a wire deposit from the DC City Government for $85,000. We went out for drinks that night to celebrate, then went to the bank the next morning to pay down a large part of standing debt from the film. The rebate was a remarkable lifeline that helped us to catch our breath, clean some of the slate and regroup as we prepared to embark on our next film. But amidst our relief, we were reminded that a one-time funding source could not be a panacea to address underlying issues over the long-term if we sought to build sustainable lifelong careers as filmmakers.
The conversations in DC ended on a sobering, but hopeful note. It was encouraging and inspiring to see people in our community come together and get more honest about the financial realities facing our field. Transparency about the hard truths, pain points and workarounds should not be cause for shame or embarrassment, but rather could be a gateway toward systemic and structural changes and a more equitable economic model. We can't fix what we don't know.
And the more we know, the better equipped we could be to not only protect the field at the national level in the fights to save CPB, NEA and NEH, but potentially also cultivate new local sources of support to bolster the field regionally. In this tenuous moment nationally, change on a local level may be where we have some of our greatest leverage. There are countless local arts councils, state film offices, public agencies, family foundations, and grassroots audiences in our backyards who could stand to become some of our best allies. But it may take speaking in new ways about the costs and benefits of our work, in social and financial terms that make sense.
Documentary films take a lot of time and money. We risk burning people out—and keeping people out—of the field if the financial model to build a career as a documentary filmmaker requires taking on debt, working for close to nothing, getting a second job or leaning on a safety net. We know how to take a hard look at issues facing other people and communities and tell stories that spur conversation and change. If we have the gumption to turn the lens on ourselves and tell more honest stories about the underlying financial issues facing the system we work within, we can start a different conversation about how to build a new sustainable, diverse and equitable age of documentary. It may seem daunting, but it may also be a necessity, if everyone trying to work in the field today—and the people who should be entering the field in the future—are to survive and thrive.
A PDF of the audit that MHP underwent for the DC Film Rebate Fund can be downloaded here.
Lance Kramer is the producer of City of Trees, producer of the web series The Messy Truth with Van Jones, and the co-founder of DC-based documentary production company Meridian Hill Pictures. He received the DC Mayor's Arts Award in 2014 and was recently selected to the Impact Partners Documentary Producers Fellowship for 2017.