Career Opportunities: An Interview with GETTING REAL Keynote Speaker Dawn Porter
Dawn Porter had a couple of careers before she landed in documentary filmmaking-where she feels most at home. She was an attorney for BakerHostetler, where she learned the true meaning of rigorous thought and how to pay attention to detail. But she felt she was missing out on creative opportunities in that world, so she moved on to work in television, for ABC News and A&E Television Networks. There, her creativity flourished a bit more, and she was also able to learn a lot about the business of making media. "I learned that it doesn't matter if you have the most brilliant project in the world," she says. "If you can't deliver it on time and on budget, it won't be seen."
Porter took the mechanics of the business side of the entertainment industry and combined that with her skills as a lawyer to undertake two documentaries in the last three years—Gideon's Army and Spies of Mississippi. As a relatively new filmmaker, she may not seem like a prime candidate for keynote speaker at a conference aimed at mid-career filmmakers, but the leadership team behind the GETTING REAL Documentary Film Conference feels differently.
From Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army
"She's a really great example of our process," says Ken Jacobson, IDA's director of educational programs and strategic partnerships. "We've had many conversations with filmmakers, but when we introduced the idea of the conference to her, her vision of critical issues in the documentary filmmaking community really aligned with ours. We knew then and there that what Dawn said to us should be said to everyone attending the conference."
Porter believes it's an exciting time for documentary filmmaking; there have never been more opportunities for so many people to pick up a camera and begin making a film. However, she sees the democratization of funding as a double-edged sword, and the representation of women and minorities as an ongoing matter to be addressed. "Funding is always an issue when it comes to documentaries," she admits, "but the fact that the equipment has gotten better and less expensive has made the production playing field a bit more level. So many people can shoot and edit on their own—and that's where it gets tricky. When you're looking to get funding for projects, oftentimes there are unrealistic expectations. [Potential funders] look at a budget I've given them and exclaim that it's higher then they'd anticipated. That's because I pay everyone to do everything. A lot of filmmakers are doing multiple jobs with little or no pay to get their movies made. We all do that for these labors of love, but it's not a realistic or long-term business model."
From Dawn Porter's Spies of Mississippi. Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Porter feels that this first issue is inextricably related to the second: gender inequality in filmmaking. Even in documentary, where we see a much better gender representation than in narrative filmmaking, there is still a discrepancy as to who is making a big-budget film.
However, Porter cautions using the word "issues" when discussing these topics, as it connotes "problems." She prefers the term "opportunities," adding, "There really are opportunities out there, including more avenues for widespread distribution and entering foreign markets. I think people are excited about Netflix as a distributor, about Pivot as a network channel, and I think the next five years are going to be really interesting for us. There are many more players in the market, which means more opportunity for some films that might never have been able to see the light of day. What we need to do is make sure that talented filmmakers, who are willing to work hard, are getting enough work to get the experience they need to capably handle the big projects. It's in everyone's interest to figure out how we can fund, finance and make the best films we can."
Porter's enthusiasm about the opportunities she sees in the industry directly reflects her enthusiasm about the conference. What tends to happen with filmmakers, distributors and broadcasters is that they are all having conversations about the business, projects and making a sustainable career—but they're happening in small groups. "If you happen to be at a particular festival and at a session that's been organized, or even at the bar later on, you'll get to have these conversations," she notes. "This conference is very democratically opening those conversations up to anybody who's available and willing to attend."
And not that Porter feels the more cloistered conversations aren't helpful; rather, they are limited to a select group of films and filmmakers, excluding voices that represent particular regions, groups or genres.
Regarding whether a pay-to-play conference might exclude some voices as well, Porter understands this concern. "This an investment in yourself," she counters, "and in your business and in your longevity. I think this cost is quite reasonable, given what I hope people will be able to take away from it. And it's not a little bit of money; I understand that and know that people have to make sacrifices to attend, but this is a big effort, and I think just as we would invest in a scouting trip, or a network meeting, we should invest in getting ourselves together to learn and connect."
This leads back to the emphasis Porter wants to put on educating those involved in documentary filmmaking that making films costs money. To expect passionate, dedicated and talented filmmakers to work for nothing is an unfair and unhelpful assumption.
"It's also helpful for people to know that even the most successful documentary filmmakers still struggle," she adds. "It might be easier for those people to get meetings, but I think if you asked Alex Gibney, he'd say that he's always trying to find the best avenue for funding, the best avenue for distribution. Even if you're very successful, you still have to be mindful and understand all these different aspects of the business, and you still have to keep them balanced. There are very few people I know, if any, who just go off and make their film in a cave in the dark and go on to have a successful exhibition without significant help."
Ultimately, Porter believes that there is a good ecosystem in place in the documentary community. It's not just filmmakers, but also private funders, and executives from foundations, broadcasters and outreach organizations, all of whom Porter wants to identify what they think their best practice is.
"This may be one of the first conferences dedicated solely to discussing the issues affecting documentary filmmakers," Porter concludes. "It's unique that it's not associated with a festival, and it's all about contemporary issues. We need to share that information so we can all do better for all of us, and I think this conference will provide that platform."
Register today for GETTING REAL, an unprecedented 3-day national conference for documentary filmmakers that will take place in Los Angeles from September 30 - October 2, 2014.
Valentina I. Valentini is a freelance journalist and producer based in Los Angeles. She contributes to Variety, IndieWire.com, Vulture.com, ICG Magazine, British Cinematographer, HDVideoPro and more.