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New Doc Leader at Participant: Diane Weyermann

By Tamara Krinsky

Diane Weyermann was recently appointed to the newly created position of Executive Vice President of Documentary Production at Participant Productions ( Good Night and Good Luck; Murderball; The World According to Sesame Street ). Weyermann comes to Participant from the Sundance Institute, where she was director of the Documentary Film Program. Prior to Sundance, Weyermann developed and directed the Soros Documentary Fund (SDF) of the Open Society Institute, which supported international documentary films and videos dealing with contemporary human rights issues, social justice, civil liberties and freedom of expression. Documentary caught up with Weyermann as she was beginning her new job as Participant, and asked her a few questions about where she's been and her new gig.

What did you experience at Sundance that will most inform you in your new position at Participant Productions?

Diane Weyermann: Sundance is an extraordinary place and I feel privileged to have been part of the Institute for the past four and a half years. I benefited greatly from working in such a creative and supportive environment, and from my amazing colleagues whose commitment and leadership in their fields is truly inspiring.

What were some of the highlights of both your time with the Sundance Institute Documentary Program and the Open Society Institute?

There are so many. I could certainly point to the launching of specific programs at both institutions. At OSI, we launched the Soros Documentary Fund back in 1996. Next year it celebrates its 10th anniversary and to date over 300 amazing films from around the world have been completed. And at Sundance, I'd say the launching of the Documentary Labs--Edit and Storytelling, and the Documentary Composer's Lab. Being able to give creative support at these crucial stages is immensely important, and the extraordinary added-benefit of building community through the labs.

Sundance has always been a huge supporter of documentaries, with its commitment to nonfiction growing over the last several years as new doc programming sections have been added to the festival and new initiatives have become part of the institute. As you leave Sundance behind, where do you see both the festival and the institute heading in the doc world?

The commitment to documentary has been there for years and is as strong as ever. There is no question that both the Documentary Program and the festival will continue to forge new ground in this evolving field. I am excited about the prospects of future initiatives and look forward to being involved and supporting their vision in whatever way possible.

You've been in the unusual position of having been able to fund a large number of projects. What is it that makes you spark to a project?

I look for a unique passionate voice, integrity and a creative approach to the story. And of course the storytelling must be compelling, illuminating and engaging and resonate with audiences.

In some ways, Participant's mission seems very similar to that of both the Sundance and Soros funds; however, where Soros and Sundance were nonprofit organizations, Participant is making films for the commercial marketplace. How do you anticipate that this will affect your work and the choices you make about which projects to either develop or acquire?

The basic work is the same. Be it Soros, or Sundance, or now Participant Productions, the challenge is to identify and support high-quality, compelling documentaries, dealing with crucial issues confronting our present and our future that will resonate with audiences. The capacity to support purely creative, artistic work that might not reach a significant audience is limited, but certainly not impossible.

If documentaries are to survive in the theatrical marketplace, we have to find a way to produce and distribute them so that they will generate a profit. I've always believed there is an audience for compelling stories and powerful films, be they fiction or docs; the key is to identify that work early on, support it, and then get it out to the most significant audience possible.

If you could pass along one piece of advice to filmmakers about applying for the Sundance Fund or coming to Participant with a project, what would it be? Is there a mistake you see made over and over again?

Please go to the websites and read the specific submission requirements. It's surprising how often we receive funding requests for projects that do not fit the mandate. Please research before submitting, and if you apply be sure you include the materials required. You can always e-mail or call if you're not sure whether your project is appropriate, but the website is the best starting point.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.