Party of One

General Motors sponsorship is all about the American experience, corporate style. Over the past decade, GM has funded all of doc filmmaker Ken Burns' projects, including such PBS success stories as The Civil War, Baseball and Lewis & Clark: The Journey...
February 1, 1999

General Motors sponsorship is all about the American experience, corporate style. Over the past decade, GM has funded all of doc filmmaker Ken Burns’ projects, including such PBS success stories as The Civil War, Baseball and Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. Burns’ focus on topics near and dear to the hearts of Americans caught the attention of the corporate car-makers back in 1987 and the rest, as they say, is history.

GM is currently the sole corporate underwriter for all of Burns’ projects. The relationship began when Burns – founder of Walpole, U.S.-based Florentine Films – sold the car-making giant on his mammoth pbs project The Civil War (1990). From there, he went on to produce Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991), Baseball (1994), The West (1996), Thomas Jefferson (1997), Lewis & Clark (1997) and the recent two-part bio Frank Lloyd Wright (1998), all of which became ‘General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentations.’ In addition, GM later underwrote several of Burns’ earlier films, including The Statue of Liberty, The Congress and Thomas Hart Benton, for a Ken Burns Retrospective on PBS.

The all-American themes Burns tends to favor are a perfect fit with GM’s sponsorship mandate. The corporation currently underwrites productions that focus on only American themes and issues. Luana Floccuzio, GM’s director of advertising and corporate marketing, says she receives few proposals that fall in line with GM’s strategy. ‘We frequently get requests to do the history of Russia and that kind of thing, and that really is not a fit for where we are right now in the program,’ she says. ‘A core part of our strategy, in terms of supporting quality television, is to sponsor programs that share the American experience. Given the type of work Ken does – and does well – there’s a very good fit between his work and our strategy.’

In the works for Burns are two more bios: one on Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (founding members of the U.S. women’s movement), scheduled to air on PBS this fall; and one on Mark Twain, scheduled for fall 2001. He’s also currently in production on a multi-episodic piece about the origins and history of jazz, which is expected to air in fall 2000. GM’s commitment to the doc filmmaker is guaranteed at least until 2001 and, if recent talks go well, may continue through to 2015.

Floccuzio says GM’s sponsorship covers approximately 50% of Burns’ budget per project – not small change, considering the scope of the filmmaker’s visions. Mark Twain’s budget, for example, is US$1.7 million, while the budget for Jazz comes in at a whopping $13.5 million. The rest of the projects’ funding usually comes from a variety of foundations and organizations, such as the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.

In addition to underwriting Burns’ productions, GM pays for educational outreach programs related to each project. Thousands of public school teachers receive tools such as posters, manuals and study guides to be used in conjunction with the docs, courtesy of the corporation. gm also put up funds for companion websites to The West and Thomas Jefferson as part of the educational outreach.

The richly-funded Burns productions have proven to be shining lights in PBS’s roster. The Civil War won more than 40 film and television awards, including two Emmys, a Peabody, Grammy and DuPont/Columbia Award. And critics weren’t the only ones watching. The Civil War, Lewis & Clark and Baseball are the top three rated programs ever to air on PBS.

The Burns-GM relationship is enviable. As a corporate sponsor, gm coughs up the funds and then stays out of the way. The corporation receives recognition at the top and bottom of the programs, and that’s it.

Burns speaks highly of his sole corporate underwriter and has previously gone on the record about the arrangement: ‘It has been a wonderful, sympathetic and symbiotic relationship – a relationship that gives me freedom of range to risk, to be bold, to try new avenues. gm doesn’t tell me how to make films and I don’t tell them how to make cars.’

On the surface, GM’s generosity appears to know no bounds. Millions of dollars are regularly made available for sponsorship of documentary projects, far more money than many a private organization could ever afford to give. Burns just happens to be the lucky recipient at this time.

So how do other doc filmmakers get GM’s attention? They don’t, and therein lies the rub.

Although Floccuzio claims to receive and review ‘well over a hundred’ submissions from filmmakers each year, GM’s commitment to Burns effectively shuts down everyone else at the end of the day. Is it a case of limited dollars? Hard to imagine, considering GM’s annual revenues regularly measure in the hundred billions, though Floccuzio claims otherwise. ‘Given our budget restraints and what we have currently on the table, there is nothing else planned other than Ken’s work in the next couple of years,’ she says. ‘We can only do so much.’

Doc filmmakers shouldn’t give up hope for gm sponsorship though. The corporation has in the past, and may in the future, open its coffers to more recipients. Floccuzio says gm’s budget for sponsorship is not fixed and that the corporation is open to working with other filmmakers.

Applicants need to outline the basics: a strategy in terms of execution, potential sources of funds, their relationship with public television and their track record. And bear in mind GM’s mandate to ‘share the American experience’ when considering whether your idea will fly with this corporation. Other than that, GM does not have a set application procedure.

Someday the GM sponsorship coffers may be wide open to budding young filmmakers. In the short term, though, your best bet is to be named Ken Burns.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.