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Welcome to Docuwood! The State of Nonfiction Filmmaking in Washington, DC

By Lauren Cardillo

The Capitol building by day.

Call it "Docuwood," or Hollywood on the Potomac. The nation's capital is booming when it comes to documentaries. Take Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, Maryland, home to 14 channels. Close to the White House is the National Geographic Channel, the fastest growing network in the country. RealScreen Summit and Silverdocs have taken root here, too. PBS is a huge player, and the major fundersthe National Science Foundation (NSF), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)list the DC area as their headquarters. Add an ever-increasing number of production companies, filmmakers and college programs, and you have a town with lots of opportunity.

How did this growth happen? A little history first.

When Steve York of York Zimmerman moved here in 1972, DC "was an interesting place, especially for those just starting out. You could polish your skills by working on a wide variety of things." He edited and directed work for Bill Moyers and the late Charles Guggenheim. York says it was possible to be given "enormous amounts of responsibility at a young age."

Guggenheim, a four-time Oscar winner, arrived on the Potomac in 1965 to work with the United States Information Agency (USIA) and dip his toe in the waters of a new field, political media. He continued making documentaries, too. Eventually, they would number over 100. One of the reasons for staying in the District? "The documentary film community in Washington is unusual," explains his daughter, Grace Guggenheim, who runs the family business. "It is a very supportive environment. It works together like a family."

The work at that time existed mainly in a limited number of documentaries, sponsored films from government, industry and political groups, and news.

In the 1980s, one of the few documentary jobs in town could be found at National Geographic Explorer, the longest running doc series on cable today (it turns 20 this year). John Bredar, executive producer at National Geographic Television and Film, describes those days as "the lunatics running the asylum. It was kind of funny; the less experienced people were pitching all the stories. There just weren't a lot of people working in docs."

Discovery was just a little channel noticed by few when it was started in 1985 by John Hendricks. The only other network players in town were ABC, with Ted Koppel and Nightline, and CNN, with a documentary unit that hit the area in 1990. "It was much harder then," says John Ford, executive vice president of the National Geographic Channel, who previously was president of new media at Discovery Networks. "It was a much smaller network scene, and there was no money for original production."

"It's not even the same world," notes Molly Boyle of Maryland's 3 Roads Communications. "The technology and the economics have changed everything."

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Smith began making docs here in 1989 because he lived here, and all his contacts were here. Still, he "heard everything was in New York." But Smith was introduced to some key filmmakers like Sherry Jones and Foster Wiley. "Meeting them was very important to me," he says. Hedrick Smith Productions has since made more than 20 films, including several for Frontline, and has won an Emmy and a Columbia DuPont Award. He finds DC "a very rich place to operate."

The international evolution of docs began in the mid '90s with the advent of cheaper technology, the Internet, the changing economics of production and the expanding universe of cable and distribution outlets. But there were several key factors that were unique to Washington, DC. "Discovery and National Geographic were absolutely critical to the growth here," says Ford. International distribution became more common, new channels emerged, key funders were close by and more production players emerged.

"The stars just aligned right here," says Donald Thoms, vice president of production at Discovery Health. "There is a ton of work." The number of people in the business is significant, and "DC has a wealth of great talent."

"Washington is the place to do docs," explains Andreas Gutzheit of Storyhouse Productions. "You don't have to be in New York to have a business. DC is a cheaper, more reasonable place to produce. There are plenty of nonfiction resources here, too. You can find an expert for anything here in DC." And the proximity to New York, if you need to go there, is also appealing.

Peabody Award-winner Aviva Kempner adds, "It's a very vibrant community and you don't have to travel to meet people at CPB, NEH, NEA, NSF or others." And for the kind of films Kempner makes (The Partisans of Vilna, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg), "There is a big benefit from being near the National Archives and the Library of Congress."

Dalton Delan of the PBS station WETA likens the DC environment to a four-legged stool. The producers are one leg, the international community another, funders and distributors the third and contentthe rich history and politics of the areathe fourth. These qualities give DC a "rich and robust nature."

"There must be momentum and mass here," adds John Wilson, senior vice president of PBS. Since he arrived in DC in 1994, "You can rattle off the list of entities now in the market." Lots of independent filmmakers come to PBS, but the company tends to deal with the same producers for a limited amount of slots. And the competition for those filmmakers is now hotter than ever. Yet, "All the work in this corner of the world keeps everyone busy," Wilson notes.

The growth of documentary-making in DC has spurred a growth in production companies. JWM Productions has been in business since 1995. Last year was its best year to date, having produced close to 50 hours of programming, including Digging for the Truth for The History Channel. Jason Williams says the market is completely driven by National Geographic and Discovery. When JWM started, "PBS was the big player."

"Business is booming," exclaims Maryanne Culpepper, senior vice president at National Geographic Film and Television. "Factual programming is drawing people from all over, including New York and LA."

All those commissions bring a downside, though: not enough people to handle the work. "The degree of craft available in DC is exceptional," explains Williams, but there is a scarcity in experienced producers, editors, writers and show runners. York jokes that today a "producer is now an entry-level position." Phil Fairclough of Creative Differences, a new company in the neighborhood, says the problem is "finding good people who are not working." Culpepper agrees: "Our community can't grow fast enough. Our talent pool could easily double without any trouble."

And while independent docs are not as prevalent in DC as in New York, there is growth here, too. The husband and wife team of Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim won an audience award at Slamdance for their film Abduction. Kim originally came here to work at Discovery, but the couple soon found they could realize an indie project as well. "The indie scene is relatively small but if your film is good, you get the support," Sheridan explains.

This growth has fueled other ventures. "I suspect you couldn't have held a RealScreen Summit or a Silverdocs here 10 years ago," notes Wilson. With RealScreen magazine already on the market, "We thought doing an event specific to the documentary industry might be good idea," explains RealScreen Vice President Diane Rankin. Eight years ago, the first RealScreen Summit attracted 400 people; this year, more than 1,000 delegates from 21 countries attended.

"Our original idea was that the nexus of the industry was in DC, and growing," Rankin maintains. The RealScreen Summit is now the place to gather each winter to pitch shows to a cross-section of international distributors, attend a variety of panel discussions and just schmooze.

Silverdocs soon followed RealScreen into DC. "Silverdocs couldn't happen in any other city," explains Festival Director Patricia Finneran. Born out of partnership between the American Film Institute and Discovery, Silverdocs is staging its fourth edition this June. Approximately 100 films will be screened from a record number of submissions. "We have built this event as a destination for filmmakers, production executives and international distributors," says Finneran. This year more than 15,000 people are expected to attend the screenings, the international conference and the Charles Guggenheim Symposium, which honors Martin Scorsese.

Offering year-round support and programs are nonprofit organizations like Women in Film and Video (WIFV), International Television Association (ITVA) and CINE. The third largest chapter of WIFV is in DC. Started in 1979 by a handful of documentary filmmakers, the membership now numbers close to 1,200. Events often highlight topics relevant to producers: making budgets, entering film festivals or navigating the Discovery Networks. And WIVF's monthly documentary roundtable group meeting is the most popular in the organization.

The oldest nonprofit player in the DC area is CINE (full disclosure: this writer serves on the board of CINE). Formed in 1957, it was one of the first film competitions in the US. Its original goal was to promote American films overseas, behind the Iron Curtain. Previous winners of CINE Golden Eagles include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Ken Burns and Barbara Kopple. "Today, its goal remains to support filmmakers, and provide them with a place to be recognized," explains board member Mary Frost. CINE sponsors events during the year, and honors its CINE Golden Eagles winners at its annual gala. In 2006, Albert Maysles was celebrated for his body of work.

The newest addition to the fold is Docs in Progress. Just two years old, the bi-monthly showcase has featured screenings of more than 30 works-in-progress. According to co-founder and filmmaker Erica Ginsberg, the idea for the showcase was to provide people with a "reality check" on their works-in-progress. "People usually are feaful, but we're not like American Idol," she maintains. "We want to empower filmmakers, especially filmmakers in DC. The reality is, technology is getting cheaper, so everyone can do a film; that's good and bad."

If you want to learn how to make films, DC has a number of good programs at Howard, American and George Washington Universities. The Documentary Center at GW has grown from a five-week program to a six-month one. It is run by filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey, who recalls that the DC production scene was a "very closed environment" with very few points of entry when she started making films 20 years ago. "Today, we're in the era of 'do it yourself,'" she says, "yet the big projects are still few and far between."

American University's interest in documentary has increased as well. The Center for Social Media started in 2001 with the goal of "training the next generation of filmmakers interested in social docs," says Director Pat Aufderheide. When the program started, many docs were still done "more for love or money. Today that has absolutely changed," she adds. The change is reflected in the growth in enrollment, and in AU's hire in 2004 of renowned wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer to run the new Center for Environmental Filmmaking.

For all its advancements, DC has been found lacking in other areas. "What's lacking is leverage," offers Holly Stadler of Dreamcatcher Films, who has done projects for National Geographic and Discovery. "We have no union, no power to change what's in a contract." While IDA and various other groups court members in DC, there is no one local association that serves documentarians. "We haven't truly developed a professional community for filmmakers yet," laments Culpepper.

Other adverse factors are not unique to DC. Searching for money remains tough. Distributors want more for less. Despite the increased hours available, broadcasters are taking fewer risks. And, concludes Stadler, there are lots more opportunities but more people out there looking for jobs and willing to work for less.

As in other places, the few volume houses rule the market, while it remains difficult for small shops to get work. Networks just don't trust them as much, and they present cash flow concerns. Even some premiere businesses haven't survived here. You only have to look at the demises of Roland House and Devillier Donegan, and the failed expansion of Leopard Films from the UK.

Yet, if you want to get docs commissioned, "This is the place," exclaims Ford. His advice to a new company? Basing yourself here is a good idea because being local helps, and can get you more informal meetings with the networks. "This is still a small community," he maintains. "There is plenty of room for growth."

Getting started is no picnic, though. Tiger/Tigress' Chris Weber started knocking on doors for commissions in 2001, and it wasn't easy. But this past year, the company cleared more than 30 hours of programming, including the Discovery series Pop Nation.

Brainbox Productions began in 1998, and now employs 35 people, having diversified early on with Internet, corporate and government work. With the success of Driver X for Discovery and Small Spaces Big Style for HG TV, Brainbox is doing more production than ever, and likes Silver Spring just fine. "If we were in LA, we would be just a blip on the map," Brainbox's Nick Panagopulos notes. "Don't get caught up in the LA/NY game; you can do work anywhere."

For Phil Fairclough, launching Creative Differences in DC last December made the most sense. "An opportunity to be close to the Discovery family was too good to pass up," he says. The company will be churning out close to 40 hours this year, including the Discovery series Everything You Wanted To Know About... After working on natural history films for a good part of his career at Discovery, BBC and Granada, Fairclough decided to remain in DC because, "We saw a gap in the market."

Through a series of events, both planned and unforseen over the past decade, DC has indeed become the place for many documentary filmmakers. "The growth could have happened in NY or LA, but it happened here," concludes PBS' Wilson.

As Marilyn Weiner says, "It's not a sleepy town anymore."