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Pioneer Award: Cinereach - The Holistic Heart of Indie Filmmaking

By Katie Murphy

The Cinereach staff. Courtesy of Cinereach

Since its founding in 2006, Cinereach has grown from a foundation formed to support independent filmmakers through grants, to an award-winning funder and producer dedicated to the support of filmmakers, films, producers and organizations. To learn more about the evolution, culture and unique qualities of Cinereach, this year’s IDA Pioneer Award honoree, Documentary spoke with six members of the Cinereach team: Phil Engelhorn, founder and executive director; Natalie Difford, head of filmmaker development; Leah Giblin, head of grants; Sara Kiener, head of distribution strategies; Caroline Kaplan, director of film and creative programs, and Candice McFarlane, director of marketing and brand strategy. As Engelhorn explains, "l am so honored that Cinereach isn’t one vision; it's what we all are bringing to it."

DOCUMENTARY: How has Cinereach evolved from its original mission?

PHIL ENGELHORN: I think a constant is an excitement and curiosity about what artists are grappling with culturally, and seeing culture as complex and multifaceted. We have always been excited about how artists are approaching their work and how they are trying to understand the world in different ways; that, I think, is one thing that has been an anchor to us. We've evolved to not just do documentaries. We do fiction films; we've always given grants, and now we also support in different financial ways so we can collaborate better with different partners; and we've started the fellowship program. We've evolved over the years to respond to how artists and filmmakers are working differently. We’ve stepped up how we’re interacting in the distribution space. Our team has evolved as Cinereach has grown and evolved, and it’s really what everyone here is bringing to the table that’s let Cinereach morph and be nimble, adapt and pivot into different spaces.

D: How would you describe the culture and the values at Cinereach?

LEAH GIBLIN: A real love for the specific qualities, as varied as they might be, that film brings to a cultural discourse. We're all film lovers. That's a key tenant of what it is to be at Cinereach—to see what makes film specific to its contribution to culture, but also what can we contribute in the work that we do to expand the possibility of film and its form. To make sure that it’s always actively being found; to not rest upon one idea of what nonfiction is capable of doing, but rather to see it as alive and electric.

PE: And being up for the surprise of the art journey. We're working on a film right now where the filmmaker went into making this film with an incredible vision, and it's so fascinating now to see what the material is going to lend itself to becoming. Being up for that ride and not having this predisposed idea of, "This has to be this thing, and this has to be the impact." We don’t know what it's going to do. We have to be up for that adventure.

NATALIE DIFFORD: In thinking about the celebration of form or taking risks with our filmmakers, what comes with that internally as well as externally is a certain kindness and generosity within as we embrace the cultures and identities we're engaging with our filmmakers. We have to think about what that is for us, too, in order to be able to do the work, so there's an acceptance of the ever-growing nature and need to listen and adapt how we're thinking about the structure internally in order to be able to take the risks that we do externally. 

CAROLINE KAPLAN: We also co-produce and sometimes co-invest, and we want to be good partners. We want to work with all different kinds of producers, and organizations, and filmmakers, and we want to keep evolving ourselves to be the best partners we can be. That means different things depending on the situation, but really thinking about what that means in an everyday way as we venture into new relationships.

SARA KIENER: We've touched on this, but thinking about the potential of every artist and every film that we engage with and making as much space and support for that filmmaker and that film to achieve everything it can be. In my role and my department, with distribution and thinking about audiences, that potential goes past the completed film into thinking about who this film is for and how can we reach them; how can we break down barriers of access to those films?—because that's the next stage. So looking at the potential is a big factor here, both internally and externally.

D: What sets Cinereach apart as a funder and a producer?

LG: The fact that we are a funder and a producer is unusual in and of itself—to be able to stimulate the growth of so many different films and filmmakers in different ways and levels of involvement, we're really lucky to be able to do so and at this great depth. And in the same way that we don’t necessarily see as many clear lines between what it is to support a film by way of a grant program or a fellowship or as an original production, similarly we're not trying to categorize the types of films that we're working with; we see them all as contributing to the greater discourse around our culture. For us, it's really important to place nonfiction alongside fiction and recognize the construction adherent to both forms so that you have things that are also reflexively looking at what it means to make films, and that can sometimes come to bear in a hybridized form. So it's a lot of exchange and looking to dissolve what would otherwise seem to make things separate from each other.

ND: Something that really defines and distinguishes us is never being willing to rest on what we are doing, and bringing to every meeting: What could we be doing? Celebrating our successes, but always asking, What support is needed now? Where are there gaps in the industry we want to be answering to? How can we bespoke our interaction with filmmakers to do something that’s intuitive, respectful and thinking forward to what nonfiction film could be?

CK: We have an ability to pivot very quickly, and we're very adaptive so we can expand fairly quickly. We could say, "We've realized what we haven't done is really focused on the development of the script portion," and suddenly we've created an area to do that, we've carved out some budget money, and we've focused on that effort. With our distribution and audience strategies, that was a missing component; it felt like we needed to start talking to audience more. We were able to fairly quickly usher in a whole new division of this organization, which has been extremely valuable to all of us and I think to the field and our community. There are so many incredible organizations that do similar work, or different work, and we feel excited to sometimes work with them or help support something specific they’re doing that we wouldn’t be as good at or we don’t have the bandwidth for, (a) so that they can do the work they do for their communities, and (b) so that we can take that knowledge back and use it in the work we’re doing. We feel like we have a lucky ability to work many different ways and across the field in that respect.

D: What qualities do you look for in a film? In a filmmaker? In a colleague?

SK: Across the board, on all three of those—what kind of films, what kind of filmmakers and what kind of colleagues—it's a curiosity. That's what keeps our departments able to evolve and adapt, and it allows us to respond to filmmakers bringing new questions and new explorations to us.

CANDICE MCFARLANE: What's really interesting about Cinereach is it's very much a collective effort. As the team evolves and diversity evolves—in terms of perspective and every other version of what diversity means—that's reflected in projects and in people, internally and externally. I think people want to work with people that are enjoyable to work with. That doesn’t mean you think the same things, that doesn't mean you come from the same place, but it does mean there's a certain approach to how you work with other people, and that I think it's fair to say there’s a certain value in that here. We really do work closely together; there's a foundation, and there's also a production company, and for many reasons you might think that those are extremely separate. But because of the nature of the people we support, the people who work here, and the kinds of projects, it allows us to really be fluid, and that benefits everything we do and hopefully everyone we touch.

CK: To what Candice said, we do all come from different backgrounds: some of us are producers, some of us come more from foundational backgrounds, and some of us have our own expertise in a specific field. I think we're all just genuinely excited every day to work together to help bring out the best in what a filmmaker is striving for. We're a fairly small organization, but we do a lot and we work together very closely—sometimes in clear teams and sometimes in more ad hoc teams. We all bring a passion to it, and we like sharing what we know and learning what others know so that we can gain more experience in the different aspects of our work, and together as one holistic team help a filmmaker amplify what they're doing—from inception, to early experimentation and innovation, through production best practices, all the way through post and then ultimately into the world. I think we see ourselves as a holistic heart that all beats toward something in a really excited way.

Katie Bieze Murphy earned her bachelor's degree in Literature with certificates in Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital from Duke University. She earned her master's degree in Film and Video from American University. She currently resides in Washington, DC.