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Documentary Producers Find Some Silver Linings Despite COVID Surge

By Anthony Kaufman

From Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoots' 'A Concerto Is a Conversation,' funded in part by Chicago Media Project in partnership with New York Times Op-Docs.

Can there be upsides in a global pandemic?

COVID-19 has decimated huge swaths of the entertainment industry and led to massive unemployment, food insecurity and debt, but some documentary filmmakers have, surprisingly, seen opportunities. With studio moviemaking lurching forward in fits and starts, and indie fiction films struggling to cope with the extra challenges of pandemic-related costs and cast scheduling, a number of nonfiction projects and producers have remained surprisingly busy, or even benefited over the last several months.

“It’s been very active,” says Julie Goldman, the Oscar-nominated producer of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail and Life, Animated, citing five different projects in various stages of production under her Motto Pictures banner, including those with HBO, MTV and Universal Music Group. “It was hard at first when everything shut down and no one wanted to commit to anything, but once it was evident that were able to continue to go into production, it gave others more confidence to come to us.”

“Because I’m an established filmmaker,” echoes Stanley Nelson, producer and director of Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool as well as upcoming projects for Netflix, Showtime, PBS and MTV Studios, “we’ve done incredibly well in generating new projects during this time.”

Likewise, Story Syndicate’s Dan Cogan, producer of Oscar-winner Icarus, is completing new projects with both major streaming and network companies, along with another broadcaster that’s relatively new to documentary. “We set up our first nonfiction limited series project with them in April,” he says. “Part of the excitement is that it’s something that we can make right now, as opposed to all the other productions that have been shut down. We’re lucky because we work on much smaller sets and much smaller crews, so it’s easier to control for COVID safety and stay in production.”

For Cogan and others, the pandemic itself has also provided ample source material for documentary storytellers, specifically chronicling stories and people and their experience of the disease. “Nonfiction tends to react very quickly to what’s happening in the outside world,” he notes.

Several producers also noted the unique ways that documentary filmmakers have been able to tell their stories, relying more on archival and audio-driven forms, or using remote camera set-ups and extra-long lenses to capture subjects. On one recent shoot, Cogan recalls that individual crew-members drove out to locations in Mercedes Sprinter Vans, with beds, bathrooms and kitchens, enabling them to social-distance throughout production.

In addition to streamers and broadcasters, Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, a prominent sales agent and executive producer, notes that private equity is also on the lookout for nonfiction content—but Braun emphasizes they’re pursuing projects “with a marque director or commercial prospects,” such as docs focusing on celebrities.

At Impact Partners, which has up to five films currently in various stages of production, including Alexandria Bombach’s Indigo Girls documentary, Executive Director Jenny Raskin agrees that equity investors have remained consistently engaged over the pandemic.

But she’s skeptical that funding opportunities are expanding for nonfiction. “I think the pandemic has benefited the kinds of docs that were already benefiting from increased interest among streamers,” she says, also citing famous-people portraits or true crime. “I’m not sure those films that are more challenging or focusing on social issues or pushing artistic boundaries will benefit.”

Charlotte Cook, Field of Vision’s executive producer, is also worried that philanthropic funding remains in shorter supply as major donor organizations have diverted their support to pandemic relief. “We’re all hoping that’s able to come back soon, as it’s such a key part of doc funding, especially for development,” she says. Cook is also concerned about the consequences of major media companies holding back the release of their films, and what that could mean for potential sales of completed documentaries.

According to Cinetic Media sales agent Jason Ishikawa, the marketplace for finished documentaries remains “imperiled,” because theaters remain closed and broadcasters’ slates are filled with their own content. Several other documentary producers also said they’ve noticed a slowdown in buyers making deals for finished films.

As Endeavor Content documentary veteran Kevin Iwashina says, “Are streamers commissioning documentaries now to launch on their platforms during COVID? Yes. Will the commissions by streamers impact their need to acquire independently financed documentary features? Yes.” 

If more established documentary producers and companies are busier right now but the industry as a whole has slowed down, Kartemquin Films' Director of Film Strategy Tim Horsburgh is concerned about “further stratification” in the marketplace. As he explains, “When it’s hard to break through the noise, it’s easy for commissioning editors to say, Who has won an Oscar already? Let’s call that filmmaker.’”

Meanwhile, emerging directors, Horburgh says, “will be forced to leave the field if they can’t gain experience, so we’re trying to figure out how best to address that.” One thing Kartemquin has done is set up an online market of sorts—called the KTQ Collaborative Focus—where companies and decision-makers will meet with their filmmakers virtually. “Nearly everyone we asked—Neon, Netflix, The New York Times, Hulu—has said ‘yes,’” says Horsburgh, which gives him hope.

“It’s not just the privileged few,” argues producer and financing/distribution consultant Brian Newman, who also works with several brands on their creative marketing projects. Newman notes specifically an increase in the funding and production of short documentaries, because they’re less reliant on festivals and distributors than features, and clients can launch them on their own channels. While some companies impacted by the pandemic have pulled back, others, such as clothing and sporting goods company REI have shifted to backing BIPOC-directed films and subjects. While no projects have been announced yet, Newman says, “The money is there.”

Indeed, with the pandemic raising alarms about racial and social inequities in the US, there has also been recent movement in the documentary space to support filmmakers of color. “I have seen positive shifts, but I don’t think it’s enough,” says Monika Navarro, Senior Director of Artist Programs at Firelight Media. Noting Firelight’s Fellows “have more leverage and social capital in the industry right now,” she’s currently seeing their filmmakers in advanced stages of grants as well as an increase in funding nonfiction shorts by BIPOC filmmakers. “I have seen an increase in digital shorts with a quick turnaround,” she says, citing Latino Public Broadcasting’s “Latinos Are Essential” initiative and their own FRONTLINE/Firelight Investigative Journalism Fellowship.

But Firelight Media founder Stanley Nelson speaks of a potential divide among more recognized BIPOC filmmakers and those just starting out. “Every Black filmmaker who has had a film at Sundance is working right now, because they’re seen as known entities,” he says. “But for other filmmakers, it’s a struggle to initiative new projects. Even before COVID, we talked about ‘the golden age of documentary’—but the golden age for who?”

Still, there have been some positive signs for emerging filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. Over the summer, in response to “the dual pandemics of racism and COVID-19,” as Iyabo Boyd, director of Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM), said at the time, the collective was able to raise nearly $300,000 in a GoFundMe campaign to help sustain the organization and support its members; by mid-November, BGDM was able to launch two new grants, awarding $10,000 each to seven different filmmakers.

Another group, CMP (Chicago Media Project), also recently formed an annual fund of $100,000 specifically targeted at financing short films by BIPOC filmmakers that “grew directly out of George Floyd and the summer’s racial reckoning,” says CMP co-founder and CEO Paula Froehle. By financing shorts, Froehle feels they can make a more immediate impact, seeing it as a way for both “funding and visibility.” Working in partnership with New York Times Op-Docs, the fund has yielded its first completed film, A Concerto Is a Conversation, directed by composer-filmmaker Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, which premiered on the New York Times site in late November.

While the summer’s protests and continuing discussions of racial equity “moved the needle,” says Stanley Nelson, “the conversation we’re having now among African American filmmakers is how much the needle has moved, and how long is it going to stay moved? Because now there’s no more Black Lives Matter on the daily news, so we’re trying to take advantage of, and I’m urging all African American filmmakers to take advantage—while the moment lasts.”

Anthony Kaufman is a film journalist and festival programmer. He has written for The New York TimesLos Angeles TimesChicago Tribune and Variety, and is a regular contributor to Filmmaker Magazine. He is also currently a senior programmer at the Chicago International Film Festival and Doc10.