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A Second Life: Commercial Archivists Guide Filmmakers to Hidden Treasures

By Jane Dubzinski

Photo from the U.S. National Archives, licensed under CC by 1.0

Over the past few years, the documentary form has seen a creative sea change in depictions of history: how it's rendered, what it represents and how it changes our perceptions of time. Films like What Happened Miss Simone?, I Am Not Your Negro, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and LA 92 are just a few examples of documentaries that have transformed how we engage the past and how we consider history, history-makers and icons.

With a plethora of archival and stock footage available to license, archivists play a crucial role in the documentary production process. Like seasoned miners panning for gold, archivists guide filmmakers and research teams through the grueling tasks of curating content to support and enhance the narrative.

"We try to give documentary filmmakers the tools to tell the story they want to tell," says Anthony Perrone, director at ABCNEWS VideoSource. "It's important to us, and our crew here is very much tied into the people who come through. If they come along with a great story to tell, we try to facilitate the best we can. We're so proud to just be a part of that, even a small part, in any little way."

For CNN Collection, the network's content-licensing arm, every staff member is incredibly well-versed in the organization's entire collection of archived assets. But it's the company's licensing consultants who do the heavy lifting. Once a footage request comes in, these individuals work directly with customers to find just the right pieces of content to suit the needs of the film. And with about 4.3 million assets on hand, the consultants are astounding in their ability to pinpoint a number of workable options. Bobby Dicks, senior director of licensing at CNN Collection, explains, "When clients reach out for footage of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers, for example, we may say, 'Okay, there's that, but how about the towers falling? How about the aftermath or the clean-up?' We're going to find out the story they’re trying to tell and really work with them to provide the content that will help them even more."

There is one caveat, however, when it comes to sealing partnerships between footage sources and filmmakers: Most organizations—ABCNEWS VideoSource and CNN Collection included—only transact with customers planning to use footage for commercial purposes. This means people can't just request archive content for their personal collections; instead, filmmakers have to be prepared with a solid outline showcasing commercial intent.

If you are vetted as a legitimate prospect, cost is certainly something to consider. According to Dicks, asset pricing for CNN Collection runs the gamut. "We really price on how the content is being used," he maintains. "A licensing fee for something going on the Internet is not going to be the same as something that's going to be used across all media. And footage for a feature film is probably going to be a lot more expensive than a piece of content for a presentation."

ABC News VideoSource bases its costs on services rendered. If a customer works directly with a team of licensing agents who build a curated list of asset options, the company will then calculate fees based on the scale of the project. But if the customer chooses to go the simpler route, he or she can visit the ABCNEWS VideoSource website and screen as many clips as needed. After perusing the collection, the filmmaker can request specific content, and staff will provide master footage. Though less expensive than the more involved method, this too is priced according to services and content.

But as filmmakers and emerging talent continue to keep an eye on the bottom line, companies like Pond5 offer a welcome alternative to the highly competitive licensing market. Founded in 2006, Pond5 describes itself as a global media marketplace, providing artists from around the world the opportunity to not just access top-quality stock footage, but to contribute content of their own. For a platform boasting an international audience of media producers and brands, Pond5 could be considered the great equalizer for both buyers and sellers of stock footage.

"Pond5 started very simply when the price of video cameras fell to where they were accessible to mere mortals, not just to people with money," says CEO Jason Teichman. "The founder of the company basically created a website where he could upload his clips, and then he realized there was strength in numbers. He invited his friends to upload their clips, and thus, the business was born."

On a daily basis, the company uploads close to 10,000 video clips to the Pond5 communal marketplace where customers can peruse its massive collection of various stock footage available for licensing. There's hardly any stipulation to what kind of content can be uploaded, though Teichman does make sure every piece is vetted for copyright credentials and release agreements. Currently, the company does business with over 50,000 contributors from around the world.

"Anyone can contribute content," Teichman says. "We just want to make sure it meets our quality minimums and standards and that the person contributing the work has the copyright to it."

Every other week, Pond5 reaches out to its massive network of producers and requests specific material. Most of the time, this requires just a simple sweep of the hard drive, since contributors often lose track of the footage they already own. If they do come up short, they can always shoot something quickly and upload it to the marketplace. Also, per Pond5's business strategy, contributors are allowed to price their own assets, with a little guidance, of course.

"What we're trying to do is offer creators, filmmakers and media-makers an opportunity to monetize the media that stay on the cutting room floor," Teichman says. "Or we give them an opportunity to give their existing footage a second life and tell the stories they’ve already created."

Pond5 is equally dedicated to its consumer audience, and Teichman clears up the misconception that less expensive means sub-par product. "Just because using stock footage is cheaper than using historical archives doesn't mean customers are sacrificing quality," he asserts. "What it allows them to do is determine where they can spend their budget. Do they want to spend their money on talent? Do they want to spend the budget on location? Oftentimes, when customers leverage content like ours, the overall production quality can improve."

Where you find your footage and what you pay for it are key factors in the long journey of telling a compelling story in the best way possible. And archive and stock footage houses like ABC News VideoSource, CNN Collection, Pond5 and a host of others, large and small, professional and personal, can help you find the way to enliven your narrative with a rich range of images, from the iconic to the obscure.

"I think everyone at CNN Collection places a special value on independent filmmakers because a lot of them are young," says Dicks. "A lot of them are new to the business, and I think those are our next stars. They're the next big directors, and they're going to make some really spectacular movies."

Jane Dubzinski is a Boston-based writer who has written for several publications, including Documentary and Cinematography, plus the occasional witty Tweet.