Though facing increased competition from new players such as Netflix, CNN and ESPN, the power of U.S. broadcaster PBS for documentary filmmakers remains considerable.
On Saturday (January 24), a collection of major doc talent gathered for a Q&A session hosted by WNET & PBS, entitled ‘Docbusters: Your Creative Vision and the Power of the PBS Audience,’ to talk about their craft, the challenges they face, and what public broadcasting has meant for their careers.
Filmmakers on the panel included Rachel Grady (Detropia), Aaron Woolf (King Corn), Stanley Nelson (pictured above, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) and Julie Goldman (3½ Minutes, The Best of Enemies).
Below are some of the key questions asked, and the filmmakers’ responses:
Why is PBS an optimal choice for your projects?
Woolf: I feel privileged working with PBS in a number of capacities. Sometimes, it comes with expectations and parameters. But if I had a choice between different outlets, my sense of civic spirited-ness means I want PBS to be great.
Nelson: Often times, they are like the last person in the bar and you have no choice but to go home with them.
Goldman: PBS is often the right partner – and for the right film, PBS is the most important place to be.
On the impact of theatrical distribution
Grady: There is no question that theatrical will get a film more press. For TV, you are competing with millions of hours. So theatrical is less competitive and it also gives things a different life.
Woolf: What filmmaker wouldn’t want to experience theatrical?
Goldman: Theatrical distribution has gotten complicated. You want to have as much flexibility as possible, but streaming has added another layer.
On whether some subject matter wouldn’t be right for PBS
Grady: For some things, I wouldn’t go to PBS first.
Wolfe: I’ve found that PBS is actually more likely to change its own perception. They will often say ‘work with us, you can do [different] kinds of things.’
Nelson: PBS doesn’t want to be PBS sometimes. They want to do something different.
Goldman: We wouldn’t bring something to them that would have to be blurred out. We have done films for which we have had battles to keep content in. It made us realize we had to be prepared.
Grady: We started making a film called Detroit Hustles Harder. But we discovered that wasn’t true. So it became Detropia. It was scary to tell our funders, but what made us brave was a) we trusted them; and b) we had final cut so we followed the truth.
Nelson: Funding depends on where you are in your career. Some organizations are about the projects – very straightforward. Some are about the filmmaker.
Goldman: Anywhere you are given a full amount, you are given less control.
On the idea that PBS, unlike other networks, has created a viewer community
Nelson: Some stations see themselves as part of PBS’s community. That can be good and bad. Some say we don’t want your film, as it will piss off the folks who watch us.
Goldman: PBS is in my blood. From the time I saw the first episode of Sesame Street. What else can you say?