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Taking 'Citizen Koch' to the Public: Filmmakers Deal and Lessin Reflect on a Post-PBS Year

By Nayantara Roy

The documentary Citizen Koch is finally in theaters, and has had a distribution journey as relevant as its central theme: the question of media integrity caught in the nexus between extreme wealth and political agenda. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin take a hard look at the 2010 Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission ruling from the US Supreme Court, which asserted that corporations had the same First Amendment rights as individuals, that spending money was a form of free speech, and that government could not restrict political campaign contributions. The film warns against the encroachment of media and democracy by big spenders, focusing among others, on conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch.

Police guarding a conservative fundraisier and poltical strategy meeting attend by the Koch brothers. Courtesy of Variance Films/Elsewhere Films

Up until April 2013, the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which provides significant funding for independent documentaries for public television and produces the acclaimed PBS series Independent Lens, had expressed support for Deal and Lessin's examination of deep-pocketed donors and their impact on the electoral process in the US. At the time, the film was titled Citizen Corp.

In November 2012, Alex Gibney's Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream aired on Independent Lens. The film examines the issue on income inequality in America, and focuses on 740 Park Avenue, home for a large concentration of billionaires, including David Koch. Rumor spread that the film had raised hackles at WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York, where Koch was a benefactor and board member. According to a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, WNET President Neal Shapiro threatened to stop airing ITVS programs, including Independent Lens, in the future. Koch himself withdrew a potential seven-figure gift, and resigned from the board in May 2013. In the meantime Citizen Koch premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, but a few months later, in April, ITVS decided to back out of support for the film. Lessin and Deal were on their own as far as finishing and distributing the film was concerned.

In a statement at the time, ITVS claimed that the withdrawal was based on editorial differences. Lessin and Deal are firm on the stance that their film was dropped because David Koch serves as a trustee of PBS station WGBH in Boston. Their decision to regroup and put Citizen Koch on track again, however, was clear. "ITVS reneged on our funding agreement and broadcast partnership because WNET was cultivating a seven-figure donation from David Koch," Lessin asserts. "That left us with a $150,000 funding gap and massive debts, just as our big-ticket finishing costs were coming due. Nearly 3,500 small-dollar donors across the country stepped up and made their voices heard through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Many of our backers told us they were public television viewers who felt betrayed by the actions of ITVS."

Lessin and Deal make it clear that they care about their film's fate, but also about their "documentary profession and the integrity of public media." They took their story to Mayer at The New Yorker and gave her records of conversations in which ITVS officials were flatly against the new title and evolving focus of the film. Mayer reported that the combination of pressure from WNET and the fear of PBS finding itself embroiled in a scandal prompted ITVS to terminate the progressively rocky relationship with Citizen Koch. Mayer also claims that in the absence of federal funding for public broadcasting, affiliates such as WNET are dependent on wealthy patrons for support. (For the complete New Yorker article, which was published in May 2013, click here.)

But Lessin and Deal are far from being out of luck. They say they have been embraced by the independent film community, and by the largesse of strangers and colleagues alike. Their crowdfunding campaign certainly testifies to the same, coming in at a current figure of $169,522. "Friends, colleagues and our many institutional partners shared the campaign with their networks, and we reached out to everyone we had ever met, and the campaign gained momentum," Deal recalls. "We initially were seeking half of the lost funds but were astonished at the outpouring of support, and we ended up meeting our initial funding goal in three days, and then doubling that within 30 days. Along the way, we received guidance and moral support from the folks at Kickstarter, from other filmmakers successfully crowdfunded, from funders like Creative Capital, and from Sundance Artists Services."

The journey has certainly been a challenging one, perhaps the hardest one for any documentary filmmaker to take. Public broadcast remains the lottery for documentary film. "Citizen Koch lost the largest viewing audience in the country for documentary films," Lessin maintains. "But we didn't have to compromise the editorial integrity of the film in order to placate David Koch. We spurred a conversation about the influence of high-dollar donors and conservative operatives on public television, underscoring the importance of public financing for public media. We spoke out because we want things to change; we want our revered public institutions to operate free from this type of political pressure. Any progress in that direction is a silver lining."

Protestors fill the rotunda in the Wisconsin State Capital in reponse to Governor Scott Walker's proposed anti-union bill. Courtesy of Variance Films/Elsewhere Films

The film moves steadily ahead, and while not shy about their losses, Deal and Lessin are optimistic about the road ahead. "In addition to becoming experts in self-distribution and funding, we've also partnered with independent distributor Variance Films, who brings the creativity and expertise to the Citizen Koch release as it has with releases by Spike Lee, John Sayles and most recently Dave Grohl," Lessin explains. "Variance is doing more than booking theaters; the team there is providing in-house marketing, group sales, social media management, promotions and materials coordination." On the possibility of any further political backlash, they are not so sure. "Only time will tell," says Deal. To other documentary filmmakers, he warns, "Work collaboratively, transparently and in integrity. And before you begin, make sure there are no financial conflicts of interest involving your subjects and your distributor."

Lessin and Deal state that their film is about "the 1 percent" versus "the rest of us." On reworking the film in the context of the constantly shifting tides of its subject matter, they say that "dealing with material that is so of the moment, we had to make a few factual updates—such as the Kochs' net worth. When we began, they were worth $50 billion dollars collectively, then $68 billion, and by the time we made our DCP, it was up to $100 billion. A month later, they are up to $105 billion, but the film is, as they say, in the can."

Lessin and Deal have done more than picked up the pieces and started over without the prestigious PBS by their side. "Citizen Koch will have screened in more than 150 theaters across the country by summer's end," says Lessin. "That has exceeded our expectations for the theatrical run already. We hope that audiences will continue to be moved to dialogue and to action. And we hope that groups in the money and politics, environmental, labor, corporate accountability and voter engagement movements will continue to use Citizen Koch to reach new audiences and engage more Americans in the battle to reclaim our democracy."

Deal adds, "Hopefully the takeaway for public television executives is, Don't mess with the public trust. When they allow private interests to influence programming and funding decisions, the public will take notice and take action."

Carl Deal (left) and Tia Lessin. Photo: Jeff Vespa/WIREImage. Courtesy of Variance Films/Elsewhere Films

Citizen Koch, which opened June 6 in New York, opens June 27 in Los Angeles and other cities, and will roll out across the country through the summer. For more information, click here.

Nayantara Roy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who will begin pursuing a business degree this fall, at Columbia University.