Documentary pays? Navigating the “anti-system” – part three

In the third and final part of our look at documentary financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers, realscreen explores the issue through the commissioning and distribution lens.
August 15, 2016

Realscreen‘s special report on doc financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers continues with a look at the issue through the commissioning and distribution lens. For part one of the report, click here, and for part two, click here.

In every generation, there’s a small group of doc makers for whom “sustainability” is more than a buzzword. They’re able to make that second documentary – then third, then fourth – and sustain lengthy, sometimes illustrious, careers.

But as realscreen previously explored, most doc makers working today fall outside of that elite circle. As the Center for Media & Social Media (CMSI) have found in a forthcoming study, 67% of respondents who identified as documentary professionals don’t make their primary living through doc filmmaking. Director Emily James illustrated her struggle through the concept of ‘auto-exploitation,’ while noting a wider – sometimes seen as exploitative – commercial system around doc makers that uses their work as the central commodities of the industry.

But what do those on the other side of the commissioning table make of the commercial system in which they operate? In what ways do they look out for the filmmakers they commission? And what about the distributors, professionally entrusted to turn profits for the filmmakers they represent?

Nick Fraser (pictured, top left), editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand, says bluntly that the whole genre is “catastrophic” when it comes to sustaining careers, but also doesn’t see a way of regulating documentaries or the process behind them.

“The problem about all these surveys and stuff is they circle around this subject; they kind of hold out the prospect that it will be possible to normalize and industrialize docs, and I feel trying to write a book on the subject of docs is something you can’t do.

“Docs will always be the strange hybrid of something that people love, but they get made in a borderline miraculous fashion and there really isn’t any way of industrializing them, because if they’re any good, they’re different.”

Fraser acknowledges a significant inflation of doc costs in North America, but notes more opportunities – though “poorly spread” – in the region, with decent levels of government funding available in Canada. The situation, he says, is tougher in Europe where some broadcasters have experienced hefty cuts, particularly the BBC.

“Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film.” – Nick Fraser, BBC ‘Storyville’

“It’s very tough, and the only way I can get around this has been to amalgamate the work of many broadcasters, put it together and find enough money for filmmakers,” he says, referencing the successful ‘Why Poverty?’ series and recent ‘Why Slavery?’ project, which unites international broadcasters in commissioning and funding a number of films around a theme.

Fraser says he tries to give all filmmakers hope and assistance in putting packages together for their projects – “Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film,” he explains – but adds that solutions to the funding squeeze aren’t straightforward.

“[It's] an anti-system – it always has been – and you just have to hope that more important players or individuals come to the market with money,” he says, adding that an essential step is encouraging traditional elements of the “anti-system,” such as broadcasters, to step up their game and “spend more money on docs… the erosion of funding, from my point-of-view as someone working at the BBC, has been pretty borderline awful.”

“My license is what my license is.”
Jane Jankovic – commissioning editor at the publicly-funded TVOntario (TVO) – agrees there are more opportunities for doc financing in Canada through a mix of public and private funds that aren’t as widely available in other countries.

She commissions projects with budgets that range from CAD$200,000 up to $1 million, with most budgets coming in between $350,000 and $400,000. Her license fees for first-window commissions average $70,000 to $80,000 per film, with occasional exceptions on either side of that range. And often, that fee is at least matched by the Canada Media Fund, which is triggered by a broadcast license fee.

But Jankovic (pictured, center) is clear about the parameters of her support, particularly for bigger-budget projects.

“My license is what my license is, and I’ve been very vocal about what my license is. My Canada Media Fund commitment is what it is. If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money,” says Jankovic, who has served as a doc commissioner at TVO since 2006. “I can trigger a lot of it, but they have to do the footwork and the sweat equity to get that money together.”

She says that when filmmakers come in – particularly those who are new to the field – she indicates that they must pay themselves in the budget, and asks to see it in on paper as a commitment.

“It doesn’t mean [their salary] stays there, because they will continue to whittle away at it [with production expenses], because they think, ‘Oh it’s just $1,000, it’s worth the $1,000′ or ‘It’s only $5,000, that’s okay.’

“I have certainly worked with teams that have brought in outstanding documentaries but when I look at the time they put into that film and I compare it to their budget, I know they did that for nothing and they were paying their bills in some other way,” she adds. “I don’t think that should be encouraged or even, frankly, admired.”

“If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money.” – Jane Jankovic, TVO

On the other end of the spectrum, she says, are filmmakers that “absolutely pay themselves first” and appear in every budget line. Jankovic outlines that a budget has to be reflective of the needs of the production plus the filmmaker’s salary, but doesn’t have to take into account total living expenses for the numbers of months or years a project is in development.

“Sometimes, I see what I think is a very high fee for a producer or director, and they’ll say to me, ‘Well yes, but I’ve been working on this for three or four years,’ and I [say] ‘I can’t pay you for the time you’ve put in on your own. What I can pay you for is to get this film out.’”

Jankovic makes it known that her financial obligation ends following the endorsement of a license. After that, she says, it’s up to the filmmakers to look for funding from as many avenues as possible that the broadcast license can trigger.

And herein lies the problem with dual director-producer roles and the navigating of finances, says Jankovic.

“[Filmmakers] just keep slicing away at their 15% of the budget and they think, ‘Because I’m doing both the producing and directing, I can afford to lower my fee just a little bit,’ and then it’s always just a little bit, a little bit, a little bit [more].”

The commissioner says she doesn’t often meet as many people who are interested in producing. In fact, she offers that there doesn’t seem to be a full understanding of what producers do.

“They’re horrifically undervalued and I’ve seen many projects where there’s been a weak director, or a director that’s gone off the rails, and it’s the producer that saves the project – not just financially, but also from a creative perspective,” she says.

“Having that second set of eyes that can step back and see whether or not that story is working, is really critical I would say [for] 99% of the projects that I deal with.”

Art vs. commerce: a distributor’s take
Esther van Messel (pictured, right), founder and CEO of the Zurich- and Berlin-based distributor First Hand Films, is often caught in a limbo between art and commerce. Offering the character of Ari Gold from the HBO drama Entourage, she says some people perceive distributors as greedy ten-percenters.

“That’s not us. It’s documentary. Nobody goes into documentary sales or distribution for financial reasons. But on the other hand, it has to make sense and it has to pay and it has to not be abusive in any financial way. It’s a very challenging job.”

Alongside acquiring films on completion and serving as an international distributor and sales agent, First Hand is one of a growing number of distributors that often comes in early on projects, getting involved as executive producers or co-producers and helping with financing and the production process.

One of their recent co-produced successes was Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw, which last year premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was picked up by Magnolia and Participant.

A key factor in the commercial viability of such projects is an acknowledgement of what things costs, says Van Messel, who served as an EP on Princess Shaw.
“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that. You can’t tell your landlord or the person in the supermarket that you’re living off air,” says Van Messel.

“Nobody is in this for the money, but at the same time, as sales agents, if we don’t make the producers more money at better conditions – sooner, and including our commission – than without us, we don’t have a reason to [exist],” she says.

“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that.” – Esther van Messel, First Hand Films

Van Messel points out that, overall, there has been more of a professionalization of the industry in the past 10 years, but admits the situation could be better, and there could be more self-respect among filmmakers as well as respect for the genre.

“I do think there’s a professionalism required, [an ability to] actually think a bit vertically and think ahead, and I think that’s a producer’s job in cooperation with their international representative,” she says.

“It’s such a complex profession that I really wish people would take more pride in it and refuse to be taken for granted just because they’re allowed to tell stories. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid properly.”

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.