Viewpoint: NYC doc producers call for ‘a little respect’

In this White Paper, the NYC Doc Producer's Alliance responds to realscreen's recent "Documentary Pays?" series, which examined the economic pressures placed on some doc filmmakers working today.
September 27, 2016

The question of industry and career sustainability is approaching a zeitgeist in the documentary film industry, with articles and conference panels emerging to address the issue head-on. Indeed, that was the goal of the recent series, Documentary Pays?, written and published by realscreen, and exploring the economic pressures placed on many documentary filmmakers working today, and it certainly struck a chord within the industry. The founding members of the NYC Doc Producer’s Alliance, including Nina Chaudry, Beth Levison (pictured, left), Marilyn Ness (pictured, right), Dallas Rexer, Ann Rose, and Beth Westrate, weigh in on many of the production issues raised in the series ahead of the Getting Real Documentary Film Conference, which opens today, Sept. 27, in Los Angeles.  

Documentary producers have long used informal peer support groups to cope with the highs and lows of documentary filmmaking. After several casual gatherings that started as “venting” sessions, it became abundantly clear there were patterns and practices emerging in the field from which we all suffered and under which we were all quietly laboring. Six of us began to meet regularly — all of us seasoned, mid-career, women and documentary producers with a variety of experiences, genres and specialties among us. Our first aim was to catalog and quantify the challenges we were each facing in an effort to remedy some of the challenges we all worked under. We were gratified to see some of the issues we raised over BYObreakfast meetings discussed in realscreen series. And while a number of those interviewed for the series acknowledged the long misunderstood role of producers and their essential contribution to the form, we still feel the unique challenges for producers  which belied more troubling trends in the industry need greater and focused attention.

To that end, the NYC Doc Producer’s Alliance was officially formed, to invite industry-wide reform. With the goal of identifying solutions, the alliance drafted the following White Paper:

A Little Respect: Documentary Producers’ 2016 White Paper

There’s no doubt about it. Documentary films today need strong producers. Storytelling values are at a premium. The tools and technologies of production and post continue to evolve. The models of distribution change shift with every new platform. The scope of films is expanding—social media engagement, up-to-the-minute websites, and long-term outreach campaigns are the expectation, if not the norm. And yet, funding sources are only shrinking, forcing budgets to places that are at odds with many films’ goals.

While this is a challenge for all of our documentary film colleagues, it is uniquely the producer who is expected by directors, funders and distributors alike to perform the Herculean task of reconciling the ever-diversifying facets of documentary filmmaking — all the creative, budgeting, fundraising, production, operations, legal, tax, and marketing and outreach considerations — with fewer resources and support. In this climate, it’s clear that the artistic, entertainment value, social impact, and market promise of the documentary will not be realized if the crucial role of the producer in documentary film is not considered from a sustainability perspective.

We, the authors of this White Paper, are all hardworking, award-winning and experienced producers. Like many of our peers, we see problems on the road ahead. It is time to make a call to action, and turn industry attention to the unsustainable challenges of our work as documentary producers today.

For example, in our role we are routinely:

  • Underpaid, if offered pay at all;
  • Expected to invest our own resources and personal funds into projects during the
  • development and distribution phases;
  • Uncredited in festival, grantor, press, and market dossiers;
  • Under-supported by funders, grantors, industry organizations and other”filmmaker-centric” sources;
  • Often one of the first on—and last off—of a film aiming to fulfill fiduciary, distributor and contractual obligations;
  • One of the few on the film team whose hard-earned credit can be bought; and,
  • Left to fend for ourselves with almost none of the benefits that other working professionals of our level expect (job security, health care, overtime, paid vacation, or any employee benefits that are norms in other industries feel like fiction in ours).

Individually and collectively, we have experimented with a range of ways to compensate and do our jobs while serving the best interests — and bottom lines — of our films: take on multiple films so that concurrent funding streams might yield sustainable wages; expand our job description to include shooting, editing, directing and producing to cover line item costs; work collectively to share overhead and operating expenses that are individually unaffordable; return to producing commissions (branded content, reality TV, etc.) that do not have the reach or impact of independent films. Despite our ingenuity, these efforts almost always work against us, set poor precedents for our fellow producers, and fail to improve the viability of the producing role.
We have to reverse the tide. The field stands to lose those that have the experience and relationships to navigate the most complex of projects; proven experts in their field who know how to manage and staff productions on budget, on time, and with creative vision; role models and mentors who will help nurture the next generation of producers; and those who might actually take documentary and its future to the next level. A form based on reality that requires realists as much as dreamers, the documentary film community has to value its producers more or it risks their exodus to more equitable, sustainable, and gratifying careers.

We want to open a conversation with government entities (federal, state and local), funders, industry trade groups, broadcasters, distributors, festivals, press, and our fellow producers that yields structural change.

Our immediate and long-term goals include:

  • A better understanding of the role, value, and contributions of producers amongst industry and the general public, alike;
  • A revolution in crediting protocol so that producers are included in all festival, grantor, press, awards and market materials, and the contribution of creative producers versus financial supporters is clearly reflected;
  • Transparency and standardization around pay rates and basic line items;
  • The acceptance of realistic budgets by funders, broadcasters and distributors that reflect the true costs of the resources required and equitable salaries for all — including producers;
  • The creation of producer-specific grants, so that producers can secure early financial support for projects they wish to develop or nurture; and,
  • Institutional support for a thorough study of documentary financing, distribution, and overall business models, with an eye to making the field more financially viable.

We also believe that the producer’s role and films would be well served by:

  • An examination of ways to standardize agreements, applications and deliverables to reduce staff, legal, and operational fees that put strain on limited budgets and teams;
  • Professional development workshops and labs for not only emerging producers, but also mid to late-career producers; and,
  • Increased support for the craft of documentary filmmaking so that all members of a film team can thrive and enjoy satisfying and sustainable careers.

We are committed to documentary films that entertain, advance the form, and inform our understanding of the world. We play an essential and indispensable role in the very promise of the documentary form. With this in mind, it’s time that the documentary community turn the lens on itself, so that producers are empowered to do their work, and documentary films can continue to have impact and thrive.

The particular challenges and potential solutions of producing will be discussed at the Getting Real conference in a session titled “Producing Our Way Into the Future.” Levison and Ness will participate in the discussion, scheduled to take place Sept. 29. 


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.