Funders chart a new way forward for artful non-fiction

Documentaries regarded as "creative non-fiction" still get stonewalled at the funding stage, but there could be changes ahead. Directors and funders spoke with realscreen about plans to shift the status quo for artful docs. (Pictured: All These Sleepless Nights)
April 13, 2016

Two years ago, director Robert Greene pitched Kate Plays Christine to commissioners and funders at pitch forums and in private meetings. Although the subject matter was not unusual for a doc, his approach was: follow an actor preparing to star in a movie-within-a-movie about the life of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV reporter who committed suicide on live television in 1974.

Greene has always been fascinated by the story but did not want to do the standard biopic. Instead, he hoped to understand his own obsession with this disturbing tale as well as the impulse that drove Chubbuck to do what she did.

Kate Plays Christine follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she travels to Sarasota, Florida, and eventually acts in staged scenes. By documenting this process, Greene explores “the sometimes unstable boundaries between performance, the authentic self and the storytelling impulse,” as he put it in the press notes sent to reporters when the doc had its world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

It was a hit with critics, but Greene’s approach was not as popular in the funding stage.

“We had tons of meetings and everyone was interested but in the end, it’s still that limit of, ‘Is this a lay-up for television?’” he tells realscreen. “I had a great meeting and the guy was [then] like, ‘Is it going to be The Jinx or is it going to be an art film like you’ve done before?’”

His financing eventually came through a Sundance Institute grant and a contribution from Greek shipping heir and auteur patron Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, whose Faliro House Productions has backed such projects as Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. Still, Greene does not consider those earlier meetings a waste.

“I met people working in the traditional side of the industry that supported my work and yet writing checks is a different thing,” he says.

As docmakers working on films with a social issue focus have succeeded in unlocking new funding from networks, philanthropists and other investors, those with conceptually adventurous projects report feeling devalued.

Raising money for art films has never been a cakewalk, but many producers feel it is harder to land financing earlier if a doc cannot demonstrate measurable impact.

Moreover, dwindling broadcast license fees mean commissioning editors cannot afford to green light without a rough cut. That point is key for docmakers, who often start shooting years before concerted fundraising begins.

To address this situation, the Sundance Institute, in partnership with non-profit Cinereach, has created the Art of Non-Fiction initiative, which includes a fellowship, resources and workshops for filmmakers interested in inventive artistic practices.

The pilot year is underway with four fellows: Greene, Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths) and Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq (These Birds Walk).

“We need to be able to come in earlier and actually support the film makers, not just the projects,” explains Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program. “It’s almost like going back to a Renaissance model of art patronage in that you support a person throughout their career.”

tabitha jackson

Tabitha Jackson

When Jackson joined the Sundance Institute in 2014 from Channel 4, she laid out a vision to give cinematic non-fiction more prominence alongside social justice and human rights-focused docs in a keynote talk at DOC NYC. She argued that a cultural shift in the way documentaries are perceived is needed.

To that end, the Art of Non-Fiction is different from other Sundance fellowships. Participants are not required to have a project and it is invitation-only. Organizers wrote to filmmakers they thought would fit and asked about creative interests in what Jackson calls a “non-application application.”

She cites Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing as a gamechanger. The doc grossed more than US$485,000 at the U.S. box office and was nominated for an Oscar. It also polarized critics by approaching the state-sponsored mass killings that took place in Indonesia in the mid-1960s through having the perpetrators create a fantasy film based on the murders.

“No one could say that isn’t a social issue film, but it’s also stunningly bold,” says Jackson, noting that Oppenheimer spent seven years working on the doc. “If Joshua thought too hard about funding and whether this was going to be viable, [he] would never [have done] anything. That is a bar to diversity. One of the most powerful things that documentary does is to reflect who we are. If only certain people can tell stories in certain ways because that’s the only way to get funded, it undercuts the whole endeavor.”

Another company hoping to get more adventurous docs out of development is Pulse Films (20,000 Days on Earth). The London-based shop has teamed with non-profit BritDoc on the Genesis Fund, a grant that gives directors with highly original concepts in development £5,000 (US$7,600) 10 times per year.

The first recipient is Khalik Allah, a photographer-turned-filmmaker who made a splash on the festival circuit last year with Field Niggas, a doc portrait of Harlem’s notorious street corner, 125th and Lexington.

khalik allah's field niggas

Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas

The director self-financed the film and posted it online last winter. That’s how programmers for the True/False Film Fest saw it. Critics praised the way Allah used slowed-down footage and out-of-sync audio to portray urban outcasts in startlingly beautiful ways. The True/False screening exposed Allah to doc funders and producers for the first time and he is seizing the moment.

He has since participated in a CPH:DOX lab and is now drumming up financing for his next project, the Jamaica-shot Black Mother (working title). He already has a $20,000 camera grant from Rooftop Films to shoot on 16mm and is using his Genesis grant to cut a trailer.

“Coming off the street, my main thing is remaining in control of the film,” he says. “A lot of what I do is off impulse and feeling-based. Trying to delineate that onto a piece of paper is extremely difficult for a director like me. I’m more or less like, ‘Yo, just drop me off with a camera in this location and let me find what the story is.’ That being said, I did write five-to-seven pages for the Rooftop Films grant.”

Genesis Fund applicants can be of any nationality, living anywhere and with any level of experience. Grants are not contingent on working with either Pulse or BritDoc upon completion; however, the organizations may make rare coproduction offers. (Pulse is on board for Black Mother.)

“As a business, we want to be involved in these types of creative endeavors with directors who see themselves as artists,” says Pulse’s head of documentaries, Julia Nottingham. “We really value that.”

She notes that this year’s Sundance Film Festival programmed several artistic docs, including the Pulse-produced All These Sleepless Nights (pictured above). Directed by Michal Marczak, the film follows two friends through Warsaw’s after-hours party scene with a roving, close-up camera rig that gives the doc the intimate feel of narrative drama.

Marczak won a directing prize at Sundance and the doc has had its North American rights acquired by The Orchard, while Kate Plays Christine picked up a writing award at the fest. These wins are perhaps small indications of change, but more exciting for producers was the presence of Amazon and Netflix in Park City.

The companies dropped millions on acquisitions this year. Noting how the streaming services have invested in risk-taking scripted, Nottingham wonders if their execs will eventually want documentaries of a similar caliber.

“Are they going to buy those films that five years ago would’ve been seen as super niche because they didn’t have a social issue?” she asks. “Who buys those films, where they get distributed and how they get to audiences will be important. It’s going to be interesting to see where creative nonfiction is at in the U.S. in five years.”

For non-profit foundation and production company Cinereach, the end goal for backing artful non-fiction films is to support projects that have cultural value. Founded in 2006, the New York-based organization has backed docs such as TeenageEvolution of a Criminal and first-time director Steve Loveridge’s upcoming film about musician M.I.A.

Cinereach is also providing editorial and financial support for Sundance’s Art of Non-Fiction program in hopes of galvanizing a greater community of filmmakers and like-minded funders and festivals such as BritDoc, the Jerome Foundation, Cinema Eye, True/False, Creative Capital, the San Francisco Film Society, the LEF Foundation and the Warhol Foundation.

kate lyn sheil in robert greene's kate plays christine

Kate Lyn Sheil in Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine

When considering a film for financing, co-founder and creative director Michael Raisler asks filmmakers, “Why is this film being made now?”

“Oftentimes I find that films are being made simply because they can be,” he explains. “That’s a limit for me. I’m much more excited to see someone put forth a rough proposal and say, ‘I have this idea and it’s not something you’ve seen before.’”

Although Cinereach does not measure social impact, it looks at longer-term cultural impact. Who is talking about a doc and in what context? Is it resonating in high-art circles or on The Today Show? Critical writing is important but Raisler notes the way creative non-fiction is written about – if at all – can hinder a film’s success.

“The majority of American publications that do review documentaries are generally reviewing solely based on the content,” he says. “There is very rarely a critical discourse about the documentary form. That doesn’t help maintain a dynamic funding infrastructure for films like Leviathan, for example.”

The potential scale of an artistic doc is something Pulse’s Julia Nottingham considers when budgeting. She finds every tax credit possible and focuses on funders amenable to creative leeway.

“If we’ve got a commercial film, we can scale that to a particular budget,” she says. “With Khalik, we’ve budgeted much more on point in regards to how we think we’ll take his film to market.”

Although she would not expect a pitching forum to yield big commissions for artful docs, she sees merit in that arena. It’s a chance to educate broadcasters, create awareness and show that audiences exist for this work, however niche they may be.

In her DOC NYC keynote, Jackson lamented that a “creeping up” of budgets was making it hard for less experienced filmmakers to break through. More than a year into the job, she believes that “budget creep” is due to producers accounting for actual costs – not what what they think funders want to hear.

“One of the things I would love is for us as funders to recognize what a film actually costs if our producers and directors are going to pay themselves,” she says.

“Documentary is such a young art form,” she adds. “There’s still a lot of exploration in how we can tell the stories of our times but we’re never going to get there if the focus is always on the end product. In great cinema, the notion of how we say things is more important than what we’re saying. We don’t often build that into our creative infrastructure.”

  • This article first appeared in the current March/April 2016 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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