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Money Changes Everything--or Does It?: Considering Whether Documentaries Should Pay for Play

By Lisa Leeman

"When 'Hoop Dreams' exploded the way it did," recalls co-producer/director Gordon Quinn, "we did everything we could to make an equitable situation."

Assignment: Write an article on whether or not documentary filmmakers should pay their subjects. Dilemma: What's to discuss?

Conventional wisdom in journalism says don't pay. Never. Ever. Veteran docmaker Jon Else, also the director of the documentary program at University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, maintains, "Paying people to talk to you poisons what they tell you. Would you trust a New York Times article if you knew the reporter had paid the subject to talk?" Paying compromises the subjects, and colors their intentions-so the thinking goes. Subjects may end up telling us what they think we want to hear (often an issue, whether or not subjects are paid); they may perform for us; and payment might directly affect the outcome of the reality we are hoping to capture.

And yet....the reality of documentary filmmaking is not as simple as conventional wisdom. What documentary filmmaker has not grappled with whether or not to compensate a subject in some way-for their cooperation, for their time, for their materials, for their dinner? With reality television becoming omnipresent, and more and more docs enjoying successful theatrical releases, the public's perception of nonfiction films seems to be changing: from hopelessly nonprofit noble efforts to yet another opportunity to make a buck in America's media landscape...

Documentary and journalism may be cousins, but most documentarians are quick to make a distinction between their work and that of journalists. "We don't do what they do," observes Gordon Quinn (Hoop Dreams, The New Americans). "We don't disappear as soon as the 'hot moment' is over. Often when we walk in after journalists, it's very difficult to get people to trust us. And it's important to us to communicate to people what our overall vision is for the movie."

Quinn assumes that his docs won't make money, so compensation is not much of an issue when starting a film. "We're very clear with people in the beginning. We say that there isn't going to be any money. And if they have any questions, or if they've heard of Hoop Dreams, we talk about it. But I don't want people participating in the film for money. We'd never pay anyone to let us into their lives. It's not the relationship we want with the people in our films."

While journalists have stringent rules limiting interactions with subjects, doc filmmakers often spend long periods of time with their subjects, and end up forming real relationships with them. The oft-cited example from Hoop Dreams is when the crew arrived at basketball player Arthur Agee's house after his family's electricity had been turned off for lack of payment. The crew shot the scene, then cobbled together the money to help the family get the power turned back on. "When I train people, I tell them that just because you're a doc filmmaker doesn't mean you're not a person," Quinn notes.

"Of course we affect the outcome," Quinn continues. "But we don't affect the outcome that much. If you do it skillfully, you can just incorporate it into the film, so [audiences] do understand. We wouldn't intervene just because we wanted the story to come out a certain way. We're aware that certain things we do may affect the subjects; it's the same with journalists. There's no way to remain pure."

In Nick Broomfield's Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, we see and hear several references to subjects being paid. "Where's my green?" Madame Alex asks Broomfield in one scene; in another she tells him he's already gotten his $2,500 worth. And in a pithy comment on police complicity, an interview with former LA Police Chief Daryl Gates begins with a pan across $50 bills and a release form as it is being signed, with the camera finally pulling out to reveal Gates pocketing the money.

In Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's 101 Rent Boys, we see an off-screen filmmaker give each hustler a $50 bill. "It felt completely appropriate to the subject-they were hustlers and we were like johns, and we'd pay for their time like any other john," explains Barbato. "It also felt respectful. We wanted them to reveal themselves, for about an hour or so, as much as they'd spend turning a trick, so we felt they should be compensated. And we felt it should be part of the film."

"As documentarians, we're part of the new school," Barbato maintains. "We're not as precious about things like that [paying subjects]. One way or another, lots of subjects of docs are being compensated. And lots of docmakers are very precious about it, act as though they're not even in the room. And aren't putting cash in their subjects' pockets, but are compensating them in so many different ways-flying them around the world to film festivals, filling their cupboards with food. We've been in scenarios where we haven't paid, and whenever we have paid the subject, it's been part of the film."

Barbato cites their doc Monica Lewinsky in Black and White, which opens with a card that states that Lewinsky had been compensated. Barbato admits that they got criticism for this, but defends the film. "That was a deal done between HBO and Monica; it wasn't in our budget. We had final cut, Monica didn't. She got compensation for her time, and we said so up front. I doubt very much it would have changed things one way or another."

"When some of the more precious filmmakers have been vocal about subjects being compensated, I find it baffling," Barbato continues. "They're making their living off subjects who need to be compensated. There are ways to do that that don't compromise the film you're making. One way is to include it in the film, to be up front about what you've done. Another way is to compensate someone after the fact, so it's not a deal-it's not, 'I will pay you to do this.' It's more like, 'Thank you very much for your time, I'd like to do this for you' It gets very complicated when you're documenting people who aren't well off. When you make the choice to enter that world, you're entering a very complex scenario. If I say, 'It's not right to give them money,' then...well, I think you could argue that's not right."

Many filmmakers spoke off the record about their ambivalence around the question of compensating subjects. One can make the case that we're making our living off our work (one hopes); we're building careers; we can leverage the current film for the next job. At the very least, we're getting creative satisfaction from our films. So who is to say that these people who open up their lives to us shouldn't be compensated in some way? But in what way, so that the film is not compromised? Or so that people are not tempted to participate in a documentary because of financial incentives, even against their better judgement?

Vanessa Roth (Taken In) has just co-directed Aging Out with Roger Weisberg (Why Can't We Be a Family Again?). The doc profiles three teenagers who "age out" of the foster care system and find themselves becoming parents and battling addiction and homelessness, but also finding their own resiliency and self-sufficiency. "The kids I worked with in Aging Out were so vulnerable, with no resources," Roth explains. "I asked these questions about how much to get involved every moment of filming with these kids."

Roth ran into a classic documentary dilemma when David, one of the subjects in the doc, called her toward the end of filming. "He was homeless, had no family. He'd been in jail, then he'd disappeared. I thought I wouldn't see him again, and then he called and left me a message, saying 'I want to tell you where I am, but what I really want is for you to give me money to go to Seattle.' He wanted to apply for a job on a fishing boat. It was a real dilemma for me-I knew I was his only resource, and it really was a chance for him to better his life. And a great ending for the movie. But it would step in and change the course of his life." Roth met up with David and found a way to balance his needs with her sense of propriety as both a filmmaker and a human being.

"I do think there's something you owe them," she continues. "They're giving me a film, and something for the greater good. Sometimes that has to come into account, some kind of moral obligation. Not to repay them, but to honor their commitment. I don't know if that's my social worker background." When asked what she thinks she owes her subjects, Roth replies unhesitatingly that she feels she owes them access to her. She made herself available to the kids at any hour, giving advice when asked, and providing resources and contacts she knew the kids needed. "Even more than money, these kids needed mentors. I helped how I could, when they asked."

Several filmmakers told me--off the record--that they are often asked for payment when doing broadcast celebrity profiles, especially in the UK. "It seemed almost like a standard thing when I was shooting in England," reports one surprised American filmmaker. Having made docs both in England and in the US, Vikram Jayanti (Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine) has had the opposite experience. "I find more Americans ask for an appearance fee; things are so commercialized in the US. In the UK, people are more educated about docs. I tend never to pay; it opens up a can of worms."

In addition, many filmmakers make a distinction between reality TV and independent, mission-driven docs. "Reality programming is different, since it is contrived from the start, and is driven entirely by short term return on investment," comments one seasoned docmaker. "The on-camera participants should share in the profit; they are actors."

There may be some guidelines on compensation while shooting a documentary, but filmmakers can find themselves in uncharted territory if they're lucky enough to have a successful theatrical run. With new attention to boffo box office for docs like Bowling for Columbine, Winged Migration, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans, will there be a change in the nature of the relationship between doc filmmakers and the people in their films?

When the makers of Hoop Dreams made a lucrative deal for theatrical distribution, they faced a situation most doc-makers can only dream of. "When Hoop Dreams exploded the way it did, we did everything we could to create an equitable situation," Quinn recalls. "We saw that the film was making a lot of money. We had releases that gave us everything we needed. But we felt we had to share this with the boys and the principals in the film." Quinn and co-producer/co-director Steve James devised a complex profit-sharing scheme in which the two main characters, Agee and William Gates, earned royalty shares equal to those of the filmmakers. Additional shares went to the boys' family members and other principals, based on a formula figured by screen time. "It was the right thing, and it was a lot of money," Quinn muses. "It didn't make things easier for us. All of us are still struggling, but I don't think any of us had any regrets."

Sean Welch, the producer of Spellbound, says he is not sure how much profit he and director Jeff Blitz will see. "No one asked us for money up front, nor did anyone approach us for compensation after the fact," he says. "Because we were first-time filmmakers, we took a very realistic approach when we started the film--we had no idea what would come of this film. But we told the families, and ourselves, that after we finished the film, there might be some organization or people out there who'd see the film and want to help these young scholars. And four years later, that seems to be happening."

Just as Documentary was going to press, it was learned that the producer/director of Être et Avoir (To Be and To Have) has not been so lucky. The most successful theatrical release of any French documentary, the film profiles a one-room school in rural France. The BBC website reports that the film's subject, schoolteacher Georges Lopez, has sued filmmaker Nicolas Philibert over the film's rights, demanding 250,000 Euros. The director's lawyer has said that Lopez gave his full consent to the making of the film, and turned down an initial offer of 37,500 Euros for his help in promoting the film.

Lopez touched audiences across Europe with his patience and skill as a schoolteacher. But rather than criticizing Philibert for not sharing profits with Lopez, the French press has attacked Lopez for trying to cash in on the film's success.

From reading the BBC report, the underlying basis of the lawsuit is both odd and possibly precedent-setting. Lopez's attorney told Le Monde that as his client's class was an original creation, the film was a creation based on another creation, and therefore by law a counterfeit. "Nicolas Philibert did not wish to reproduce Georges Lopez's lesson, but to portray him among his pupils," Philibert's attorney responded. If taken seriously, this lawsuit has ramifications far beyond the issue of compensating doc subjects; it addresses the very nature of copyright when filming reality unfolding. Stay tuned for an update of this remarkable case.

Perhaps Jon Else sums it up best: "When you introduce money into the discussion, it has a tendency to skew and pollute things. But the other concern I have is that when we start paying people, it means that the producers with the deepest pockets will get to make the films. I don't look forward to a world where the guy who shows up with $1,000 in his pocket gets the interview. We can argue the moral issues, but that's the real practical problem."


Lisa Leeman directs, produces and edits docs in Los Angeles, and teaches documentary producing at the University of Southern California. She has never paid a subject to be in a film, although she has paid for a lot of dinners.