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What Did We Get from GETTING REAL?

By Peter Nicks

Peter Nicks

I love hanging out with other documentary filmmakers. It's way cheaper than therapy! Because let's "#GetReal": It's hard out here, y'all! But it's also an amazing time for nonfiction filmmakers. So hanging out at the GETTING REAL 2014 conference was a great way to re-charge and get inspired. It was a welcome break from the grind of raising money, researching the kaleidoscopic distribution landscape and arguing with my tween daughter that Nicki Minaj offers no redeeming cultural value whatsoever.

One thing stood out to me after seeing everyone together: There are a lot of people making documentary films these days. That's awesome! Lots of new friends! And they are a motley bunch motivated by a whole host of factors—love for cinema, activism, storytelling, poetry, innovation, muckraking. What is a little less clear is whether funding sources have grown as well. I think they have. Maybe someone out there can do a study on that…

The big debate seemed to be whether or not funders are becoming too focused on films that can demonstrate a measurable "impact" for societal good. I say "funders," but this also includes those brave souls seeking to invest in nonfiction, hoping for that elusive double bottom line. This is noble. And I applaud these diverse sources of support for nonfiction film.

And let's be honest: Social issue films that drive a specific change agenda have an established track record and funding infrastructure. And if you want to make your arty film about a tiny town in northern Michigan where they race snowmobiles, you're going to have to supplement your budget with a heart full of passion and maybe a few credit cards.

Thankfully, films like Northern Light (the aforementioned snowmobile movie) are still getting made. Because we are in the midst of creative nonfiction boom, there are all sorts of different kinds of documentaries that require different funding and distribution approaches. But the one thing that will not change is the difficulty in finding funding for your small, quirky, character-driven, art-house film. Unless that character is Nicki Minaj, you're gonna have to make a strong pitch to compete with the film about a revolutionary community activist fighting to save her city. But what was encouraging coming out of GETTING REAL was the emergence of a very real conversation about what defines impact. Maybe that small film can make a huge impact. Maybe funders can do more to support specific filmmakers, rather than proposals.

Filmmaker Jon Else—professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism—and I actually tried this several years ago with support from the Ford and MacArthur Foundations. We founded the Center for New Documentary and funded four filmmakers. No proposal required. Then 9/11 happened and the funding disappeared. Perhaps it is time to revisit the idea?

From panel to panel at GETTING REAL, this seemed to be the thing that filmmakers and funders are most focused on right now. Filmmakers seem to want more freedom to be creative, but feel beholden to funders who desire activist films that drive social change. The good news is that there seems to be room for both. While there is clearly a frustration among many filmmakers that they are being asked to show how their films will make an impact, I also sensed a growing recognition from funders that some films create impact in ways that can't be measured by traditional metrics. We need to continue to emphasize this point, because it is vital for the health and longevity of our careers. And we owe this to our audiences as well. Our audience certainly doesn't mind a passionate, well-crafted argument pushing a specific agenda. But they are also smarter than we realize and they know when they're being spoon-fed a cookie-cutter film. That's no way to make an impact. Time and again, I was reminded—both by the filmmakers I saw and the films that they've made—that a powerful, immersive story creates impact in immeasurable ways. It's the "immeasurable" that we can't lose sight of.

Metrics and impact studies can and should be used when appropriate, but not to the detriment of diverse storytelling. The documentary industry is incredibly dynamic right now. There are many types of genres being explored and some being invented before our very eyes. From The Act of Killing and Leviathan to How to Survive a Plague and Art and Craft, nonfiction cinema today reflects the broad and rich diversity of the human experience. This is exciting!


Pete Nicks is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker with 10 years of experience developing and producing character-driven social issue films.