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'Southern Sustainability' at Full Frame's 9th Annual A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy

By Lauren Wissot

The "Southern Sustainability" panel at Full Frame's A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy. Left to right: Moderator Dana Merwin, IDA; Rachel Raney, UNC-TV; Eric Johnson, Trailblazer Studios; Naomi Walker, Southern Documentary Fund; Susan Ellis, Footpath Pictures. Courtesy of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

IDA’s own Dana Merwin, a native of south Georgia who, as Program Officer, administers the Enterprise Documentary Fund and the Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, moderated the “Southern Sustainability” panel at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, which ran from April 4-7; the panel featured the diverse foursome of Eric Johnson of the Raleigh-based Trailblazer Studios, Rachel Raney of UNC-TV, Susan Ellis of Raleigh-based Footpath Pictures, and Naomi Walker of the Durham-based Southern Documentary Fund (SDF). Sitting that Friday morning in the laidback lobby area of The Durham Hotel, Merwin thanked the caffeinated audience for coming out for such an early conversation (at 9:15, the day after Full Frame’s opening-night festivities), and then urged all in attendance to acknowledge their role as “stakeholders” in the discussion that was to follow.

There would be “no five-point solution for sustainability,” Merwin stressed, as this was an ongoing conversation (and one which IDA has been a part of since partnering with the NEA in 2016 and 2017). Referring to a study that revealed the importance of peer networks, Merwin opened with the question, “What is working?” And more specifically, she turned to Walker to inquire, “What is SDF doing?”

Walker was quick with a response, citing the Artists Convening, an annual get-together of industry professionals across the documentary field each summer for a weekend in Durham, with the goal of connecting Southern makers with one another. What the participants love the most, Walker stressed, is getting out of their silos and meeting each other face to face. Raney added that it’s also completely accessible and open to everyone—and very affordable. Which prompted Johnson to enthuse about the sense of community in Durham.

Merwin then asked about the changes in that community since the recent influx of artists. Raney emphasized wanting to build a community in the Research Triangle, rather than filmmakers being forced to leave for the coasts—thus, the more creative minds the better. Merwin expressed that that wasn’t the feeling in Austin, where she heard a slew of complaints during SXSW that the Californian invasion had brought with it a competitiveness that the locals rued. To which Johnson responded by theorizing that the strong community culture in Durham could serve as a bulwark against that tension. Ellis noted that she actually appreciated the talent and level of professionalism she saw coming in.

“But how do you make money?” Merwin then challenged the panel. Were corporate gigs a fulfilling option? Ellis responded that as a brand director at the Cary-NC-based data analytics company SAS, she saw plenty of creative opportunity within the capitalist structure. Not only are big brands making short films now, but the focus has shifted to emotion-driven storytelling as a way to break through all those quick ads. Johnson then discussed what he laments too often gets lost in conversations around sustainability—viewing it from a “quality-of-life standpoint.” He personally sees corporate gigs as “breaks,” respites from the intensity of making feature films.

Merwin followed up by specifically inquiring about Johnson’s “remote workflow.” The Sound and Engagement head of Trailblazer Studios has supplemented his in-house colleagues with freelancers who work from home. This, he explained, allows for him to hire folks who are taking care of kids, or are otherwise in need of some structural flexibility. Raney then chimed in that she too hires freelancers and digital producers at UNC-TV, stressing that PBS stations do indeed employ freelancers.

Merwin asked Raney how she has resurrected indie filmmaking with UNC-TV’s programming, having launched Reel South, which is now in its fourth season and is carried nationally. Raney spoke enthusiastically about premiering with Sam Pollard’s Two Trains Runnin’, and especially about the fact that UNC-TV pays licensing fees for 10-12 films annually, as well as showcases digital shorts. That said, the sustainability of PBS stations themselves is also a “tough nut to crack,” she conceded, which means she spends a good deal of time fundraising. She pointed out that although she was unable to afford licensing fees that first year, the surprise hit Reel South brought in the much-needed extra income. Merwin asked how the public itself can support Reel South and public television in general. In addition to following on all the social media networks, Raney suggested that writing a letter to your local station in support of independent work actually has a huge impact.

The conversation then turned to the loved and loathed streaming platforms. Walker noted that it’s the Wild West out there right now, and cited OVID.TV as an impressive grassroots collective that is trying to disrupt Netflix. She urged filmmakers to “rethink your definition of success,” since the “gatekeeping is so narrow.” She then gave a shout to Ricky Kelly’s Black Beach/White Beach, a doc that had changed her own perspective. The filmmakers knew their audience, knew who they wanted to reach—and thus had rethought success. She urged every media-maker to “be successful on your own terms.”

Johnson added that there are new platforms appearing every day, and that he values Full Frame and Reel South for providing “awareness.” He compared the current filmmaking landscape to the music industry: Anyone can make music these days, but just because you post it doesn’t mean people will find it. Raney noted that she has a 90-day streaming window requirement with Reel South, which allows her to be on equal footing with the corporate streaming services.

Merwin then inquired about corporate underwriting. Raney revealed that UNC-TV is doing a study on who they might market to, but that the “digital piece might be part of the solution,” since sponsorships in the digital space are becoming more common. Ellis brought up a filmmaker who did a piece on a cancer patient for Intel that got major hits. And when it came to a project on kids with disabilities, she’d found distribution through university programs as well.

Merwin then broached the dip in tax incentives in North Carolina, wondering if and how it was affecting the doc community. Johnson clarified that the key to sustainability in NC is community—and not separating nonfiction filmmaking from narrative. He then added that diversity is also crucial, and if the film community is hurting then the documentary community is hurting. But between Full Frame and the Southern Documentary Fund, they are all wholeheartedly committed to supporting one another.

Raney also pointed out that those incentives had never really been marketed to documentarians—as Hollywood had been the focus—so most makers never even knew about them in the first place. Walker then talked about the importance of sharing resources—and “letting go of the scarcity mindset.” That’s how one builds true community. She also reminded us that the great Albert Maysles, towards the end of his life, made his money doing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit videos, and even “shot the ‘Britney Spears in Mexico’ video.” In other words, sometimes sustainability can be stranger than fiction, too.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.