August 28, 2013

The Mertes Era: Outgoing Sundance Doc Program Head Reflects on Her Tenure, Looks Ahead to Ford Foundation

As director of the Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program and Fund (DFP), Cara Mertes oversaw the organization's largest initiative, and worked tirelessly to expand its funding sources and reach. In September, she joins the Ford Foundation as director of its JustFilms program.

During her seven-year tenure at Sundance, she expanded and strengthened the DFP's partnerships, linking up with the Skoll Foundation, Good Pitch/Channel Four/BRITDOC Foundation, TED, the Hilton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. Additionally, she focused on international initiatives, such as the Skoll Foundation-backed Stories of Change.

Documentary spoke with Mertes in Utah, between sessions at her final lab at Sundance. (For an article about the 2013 Creative Producing Lab: Documentary, click here.)

Documentary: What's changed during your tenure?

Cara Mertes: When I came here, there were two labs that dealt with four films each, and  maybe 10 to 12 artists. Seven years later, there are six labs and fellows opportunities that work with 100-plus artists over the course of any given year. Fund granting is now about $1.5 million per year, plus funding for special opportunities that develops every year.

We've grown the fund program and labs and we now have about 50 films that we fund every year; since production goes over several years, we might have 60 to 70 in some of production or distribution.


D: There are now grants to continue work initiated at the labs. How did that evolve?

CM: At the labs, we realized we were doing such a great job of retooling and redirecting that [filmmakers] needed a little help to get on that path. There's a 100 percent completion rate coming out of the labs, and they generally have a good festival premiere, whether it's Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, True/False...These films really find homes.


D: What are your hopes for your successor?

CM: My goal in talking with Keri [Putnam, Sundance Institute's executive director] is, we would keep everything on the table. I've developed a whole wing of creative partnerships that didn't exist before. The program is now a fund, extended artist support and labs, and a whole suite of extended creative partnerships that are generally international in scope. All of those are very much defined by opportunity, my commitment to increasing resources to the field, and natural allies.

A lot of those components have been developed because I want to see documentary grow in a certain way around the world. Some [documentaries] have been brought to us, and increasingly foundations are coming in and want to have a special fund; they are all interested in nonfiction and so we kind of house them. If they're tending to be more cross-Institute, we'll pull from New Frontier and from the feature film program, but because the program is doc-heavy,  they'll live in the DFP. Those approaches will continue to come in and it will be up to the new person to either continue to evolve those partnerships, and those international labs-or he or she might say, "We really want to grow the fund right now; we want to focus on the labs right now." It really depends on their vision of the documentary world and what it needs, and what Sundance is most appropriate for launching.

Sundance is really good for certain things but not really built to be other things. For instance, I became much more of a producer/executive producer here than I intended to, but that's my background. But Sundance is not built to be a producing entity at all. I've been holding that at bay because there have been constant requests to have us get involved at the level.


D: What will you be doing at the Ford Foundation?

CM: I'm going to be a funder for the first time; I have a $10 million portfolio. So I'll be giving away $10 million a year. I have to give it away. And I've been told in no uncertain terms that it's harder than I might think.


D: How does one apply?

CM: There's a whole Ford Foundation application process I'll be looking at. It's a really great initiative that's only three years old. So it's a perfect time to take a look at it and work with the foundation and field stakeholders, many of whom I work with now, and say, "Now what?"


D: So the funds are distributed to institutions and filmmakers?

CM: Yes, both. That's how they came to know me, as there are three organizations that receive $1 million a year: ITVS, Tribeca and Sundance. And they launched a $50 million commitment at Sundance three years ago. Those commitments will stay intact, and the rest of the $7 million goes to a combination of institutions and films. I'll start granting in 2014.


D: After working in New York for 20 years, and LA for the last seven, what are your thoughts on the East and West Coast documentary communities?

CM: When I came out seven years ago, there was a strong and growing community in LA, and seven years later it has grown a tremendous amount. I think the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences], of which I'm now a member, has made documentary a priority and it's a very active branch. It's galvanized a lot of documentary filmmakers who live in the LA area. San Francisco and LA combined is a really big community; New York/Boston is where most documentary is done, second is San Francisco, third is Chicago. [Documentary is] finding a lot of practitioners: editors, distributors, people attached to the independent community. It's becoming a very vibrant space to be. We have corporate sponsors interested in nonfiction and its power. There's a lot of activity and interest now.

Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based writer.

For an interview with Mertes when she first started at Sundance in 2006,  click here.