July 29, 2015

From POV to IDA: A Conversation with Simon Kilmurry

Photo: Jason Robinette

Simon Kilmurry takes the helm this summer as IDA's new executive director, following 16 years at the venerable PBS series POV—the last nine years as executive producer, and seven years before that as chief operating officer of POV's parent company, American Documentary.

During Kilmurry's tenure, POV has received numerous accolades and has helped further the careers of such filmmakers as Marshall Curry, Laura Poitras, Natalia Almada, Jennifer Fox and a host of others. Kilmurry has also overseen a significant expansion in the digital space, not only with its dynamic website, but with such programs as POV Hackathon and the online series America Reframed.

The transition from POV, one of the feistier and more progressive players in the vast byzantine universe known as PBS, to IDA, a smaller entity that grew significantly in relevance and stature during the Michael Lumpkin era, poses a number of challenges and opportunities for Kilmurry. And then there's the transcontinental migration from New York to Los Angeles that a host of arts managers have undertaken before him: Tabitha Jackson, to the Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program; Michael Govan, to Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Ann Philbin, to the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

We talked to Kilmurry by phone as he was toggling between wrapping up his many projects at POV and preparing for his new adventure at IDA. He shared his thoughts about his once and future workplaces, what he brings from one to the other, and how he plans to manage IDA's potential. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

 

Looking back over your 16 years at POV, what are some of the projects or accomplishments of which you're especially proud?

You know, I've been asked this question a number of times over the past week or so, and it's a really hard one to answer. When I came to POV 16 years ago, it was a very different organization. I wasn't exactly a producer at that point, but nonetheless it was an organization that was focused on acquiring great films and broadcasting them, and then doing some terrific outreach work around the films. [We were at] the very beginnings of exploring the digital space, in those early, digital days.

As I look back at the organization and all the people I've worked with—from Ellen Schneider, Lisa Heller and Cara Mertes and then me taking on this role and the rest of the team—I see an enormous change within both the organization and the field. We are no longer just an acquisition series. It's a series that co-produces, that looks at the field more holistically in terms of beyond just the POV series; we've developed another series on the PBS WORLD channel.

We've really aggressively experimented in the digital space. We've significantly expanded the reach and impact of all of our community engagement and outreach work. It's a pretty big transformation organizationally, but it happened over a long period of time. So there are many points along the way that you could point to and say, “Well, this was a pivotal movement; and this was a pivotal moment.” But it's hard to pick out any specific one.

If I think of accomplishments for the organization, it was gratifying a couple of years ago to get the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. That was a transformative movement. That was a signal to us that we were on the right track, and also gave us resources to build a public workshop space here, which we used to work with filmmakers and make available for filmmakers and other organizations. It gave us a financial stability to secure the future of the organization.

And then I look at the list of films that have been on the series over the past 10 years, from The Oath, Laura Poitras' film, to Marshall Curry's work, to a whole range of international work that we were able to bring on to the series, from The Act of Killing to films like Stream of Life, which people wouldn't expect to see on public television.

And there's a whole range of emerging filmmakers who've had their first broadcasts on POV, and have gone on to become established producers, from Bernardo Ruiz to Stephanie Breal. I think that's one of the exciting things about the series: This mixture of better filmmakers, new voices, US stories and international stories that I think mirrors the growth and excitement around documentaries that we've seen develop over the past few years in particular.

Documentaries moved from this place on the cultural margins to something that is much more central. It's moved up the menu of people's choices in how they spend their time—whether it's for entertainment, news or whatever it might be.

Photo: Jason Robinette

While at POV, you've served a number of roles, not only as curator and producer, but also overseeing multi-platform programs like Hackathon and online programs like America Reframed, as well as a robust website and a strong slate of community and educational programs. How do you anticipate that these varied experiences will help in your role as executive director of IDA?

Well, one of the great pleasures of my job has been working with filmmakers, and not just when it comes to getting the films on POV, but in terms of how they can get their projects funded, distributed and seen beyond POV, both here in the US and internationally. Digital is a really interesting space; how can filmmakers embrace new forms of documentary storytelling and experiment with them?

I think it's that connection directly to the filmmaking community—and I'm not just talking directors or producers, but also editors, cinematographers, sound people and animation people. It's a broad community, and it also includes the industry, funders, television, online outlets and international outlets.

That networks built up in those spaces will be helpful in fulfilling IDA's mission of how it can best serve a robust and vibrant documentary culture.

 

This is a very complicated universe from which you're transitioning—not just POV, but PBS and its attendant array of stakeholders, both within the network and in Congress—to a considerably smaller entity at IDA. What do you foresee as the challenges of that transition?

I've been fortunate; by and large, my colleagues at PBS have been very supportive over the years. We have not shied away from taking on difficult content, taking on issues of gender identity or sexuality, issues of abortion—all those hot-button issues that were aflame during the culture wars and still today will spark up now and again.

But it's always been my philosophy that we should not do something because we're afraid of it, because we're afraid of the reaction. It's how you present those difficult issues in a sophisticated, nuanced and open way to allow a range of points of view to be able to engage with it. So, with Congress, Yes, it's always there as part of the public media world, but I'm glad to say it's not had an influence on programming choices.

In terms of transitioning from this complicated world, I think IDA is also in in a very complicated and transitional space. We have players who have come into the industry over the past few years who have a range of exciting ambitions—from Netflix and Amazon to CNN and Al Jazeera—all facing their own challenges, but also seeing the cultural value of documentary. What I hope to be able to do is dive into that. That will be a new world for me to a certain extent. I've not worked a great deal over the years with some of those commercial outlets, because I've been in the public media world. But I've certainly crossed paths and built relationships with them to a certain extent in my life on the documentary circuit.

I am going to be looking at building those relationships and seeing how those entities and new players in the business can be supporting filmmakers. And when I look at IDA, it's doing a lot of interesting stuff; there's a lot of incredible potential there. The bottom line to me is: How can we best serve the filmmaking community? And that is beyond a particular place—it's beyond Los Angeles—and I've been very pleased to see how IDA has been doing things like the preservation workshops in New York and the Doc U seminars in San Francisco. I want to have a much greater national presence. I want to spend a lot of time talking to filmmakers about what they feel that IDA should be focusing on.

I want to dig into some of the advocacy issues, and I've had some exposure to that over the years through work I did with Pat Aufderheide on the Fair Use changes. It's a different landscape and it will take me some time to get to know it, but fortunately I am pretty deeply steeped in the documentary world, so it's just going to be me sitting in a different seat and looking at it from a different angle, which should be refreshing.

 

POV and IDA were both launched in the '80s and are still thriving in their own ways. What are some of the key elements to keeping an arts organization alive and flourishing?

The bottom line is programmatic: What are the programs needed by the field that serve our various constituencies? And then from that, what are the various sources? It's like running any other business. What are the various sources of revenue that you need to carry out that work? What are the collaborations that you need to have in place with other partner organizations, with other people in the field, so that you're leveraging opportunities and both raising the visibility and the excellence of the work that IDA is doing and using that to support other people and other organizations in the field who are also doing great work.

From a purely nonprofit management standpoint, I don't see us that much differently from running any other small to mid-size company in that you need to look at the revenue and you need to look at the programmatic expenses and see where the points of leverage can be. So, I'll be digging into that as I get settled in. I've had some time to look at the some of the numbers. As a membership organization, we need to be looking at what the services are that our members need and what we can be providing that will encourage new members and encourage people to renew their memberships.

You're looking at trying to have as diversified a revenue base as possible, from corporate to foundation to individual giving, to membership to earned revenue, so that you don't become overly reliant on one particular source of revenue—which then can often skew your programming varieties.

Photo: Jason Robinette

You talked about where IDA might be going and where it needs to be going. The organization is coming off a productive and fruitful tenure under Michael Lumpkin. What do you feel are the biggest challenges that lie ahead in continuing IDA's growth and relevance?

I think Michael did a fantastic job. I remember meeting with him shortly after he took over, and we've obviously had a very good relationship in the six years he was there. He did a lot to both stabilize the organization and take those initial steps to making it a much more nationally relevant organization and less LA-centric. I give Michael enormous credit in doing that and I think that sets a good foundation for me. I think that was really kept with the GETTING REAL conference last fall, which unfortunately I couldn't attend because my father died. But all the reports I heard back from colleagues who were there—both in the PBS world and from independent producers—were unanimously positive. I think that was a big leap forward in exploring how an organization like IDA can be servicing the filmmaking community.

 

So, talk about the challenge in keeping that going and maintaining IDA's growth and relevance—and building from GETTING REAL and taking it to the next level.

There's no question it's going to be a challenge. It's going to be a hard act to follow, but we'll be looking at doing that again. I think the idea of doing a bi-annual conference is a very interesting one. I've been having preliminary conversations with other organizations in the field.

For me, there's going to an initial period of being in there working with the professional staff, hearing what their ideas are and then seeing what the resources are needed to fulfill them and making sure that those are aligned with the mission of the organization.

So I'm going to be spending a lot of time talking to the staff, but I think I need time in the seat. The hard thing about this transition at the moment is that I have a lot of projects to wrap up here, which I want to set in place for Chris White, who is taking over as executive producer. That by its nature has limited the amount of time I've been able to spend with the staff to begin to look at [questions like:] What are our six-month goals? What are our one-year goals? Where do we want to be doing things? Who do we want to be some of our key partners?

It's going to be important to do things in different parts of the county, for IDA to be visible in different parts of the country, so people know there's an organization that is out there ready to serve them.

 

You are not just changing jobs; you're changing cities. What will you miss most about New York?

You know, I've been here for 28 years; I came from Scotland straight to New York, and I've been here ever since. New York's an incredibly vibrant city. I ride the subway every day, and I often walk home from work. So there's definitely going to be a cultural adjustment, and I have an enormous and wonderful network of people here that I know and love. I know a lot of people in LA, but it's going to take me some time to get used to the new geography of learning a new city.

But I know a lot of people who've moved to LA, and almost everyone tells me it's become one of the most culturally exciting cities in the US. So I'm really excited to explore that. I'm excited to get away from this past February we had, which was horribly cold. In some ways, I'm excited to be starting a new position in a new place because everything's fresh, and I think that will give me a lot of good energy to get settled and take on a new challenge.

 

What is your take on the documentary community in Los Angeles—that is, organizations and universities like Sundance, IDA, Film Independent, USC and UCLA that help to keep such a community thriving and give the community a foundation and identity?

I think Sundance has been doing fantastic work, as has Film Independent. I think one of the things I really like about the documentary community—whether it is in New York, San Francisco, LA, Seattle or Chicago—is, at least in my experience, a willingness to collaborate and to support each other.

From what people have told me in Los Angeles, I think one of the challenges is that LA is such a geographically spread-out city. New York is much more concentrated and there are points of connection that are more easily made than perhaps in LA. So that'll be a challenge in trying to build that sense of community in a documentary space, in a geographic space, that is a little more spread out.

But I think overall the tendency of all these organizations is that when someone comes up with an idea, it's to figure out how to support each other.

 

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.

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