Providence Pictures marks 25 years of storytelling

When considering the path taken to launching and managing a successful documentary production company, few would consider a starting point that involves joining the circus. In the case of Providence ...
August 19, 2021

When considering the path taken to launching and managing a successful documentary production company, few would consider a starting point that involves joining the circus. In the case of Providence Pictures, however, that’s precisely what happened.

Providence founder and president Gary Glassman caught a performance from a clown troupe while studying in college, and it ended up changing the course of his life.

Glassman, previously considering a career in education, was stopped short by, of all things, clowns. More specifically, he was struck by how they connected with their audience.

“I never thought of doing anything like that, and I just fell in love with their communication skills, how they were able to connect with people on some primal, human level, and I just thought, ‘Wow, I’d really like to do that,’” Glassman tells Realscreen. “And I joined the circus.”

After a few years touring the U.S. and Europe, Glassman transitioned to documentaries with 1985′s Prisoners after being blown away by the possibilities — and accessibility — of VHS. The hour-long doc was shot on video and saw Glassman and his friend, artist Jonathan Borofsky, interviewing inmates at several California prisons.

“I thought if I could give prisoners the power to present themselves and put them on a screen, the same size screen that a president could be on, and light them the same, what’s the difference? It sort of equalizes the playing field,” Glassman says of the film, which remains in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

After a job opportunity for his future wife took him to Providence, Rhode Island, Glassman’s travels to nearby Boston connected him with a producer named Marc Etkind, who had just received a commission from Discovery for a series called Discover Magazine. He showed Etkind an experimental short he had made with artist John Chamberlain, 1991′s Bags Up, which oddly enough ended up leading to Glassman getting more mainstream television work.

“John was very well known for these giant, abstract expressionist sculptures made out of car parts. I made a film with John where he crushed one hundred brown paper bags,” Glassman recalls. “Marc loved that film and he said, ‘Well, can you do anything normal?’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, normal is easy.’”

Glassman launched Providence Pictures in 1996, with Glassman and Etkind collaborating on numerous Discover Magazine documentaries together. The projects saw Glassman utilizing cutting-edge editing techniques from younger formats like music videos to bring some new energy to their work.

“We were doing things like changing speeds and using different frame rates and superimposing images over themselves and blurring things, that was something that was very common in the music video world at that time, but not many people were doing it in the documentary world,” Glassman says.

Providence eventually branched out into producing TV documentaries across the science, nature and history genres like The Trial of Jesus for the History Channel, Women Pharaohs for Discovery Channel and Forensics on Trial for PBS’s NOVA.

Providence’s projects grew in scale, such as 2015′s Emmy-nominated Building Wonders of the World, which saw the company’s production team design and install an ancient lift and trap door system in the actual Colosseum in Rome, releasing a wolf into the arena for the first time in 1,500 years. (The lift remains to this day.)

Another recent milestone was the Emmy-nominated Native America, a four-part 2018 series for PBS that uses unique techniques to tell the story of the peoples who lived on the continent before the arrival of European settlers.

“With our Native America series, we had what we called our Sacred Stories, where faith leaders and cultural treasure keepers from these different native groups told stories that are foundational to their beliefs, and told them in native languages, and told them from the essence of their souls, and we collaborated with them to create these beautiful animations,” Glassman says.

As the industry has evolved in the 25 years since Providence’s creation, Glassman has observed many changes. He sees the positives that have come about with changing technology, particularly for documentary producers.

“You make a documentary, you’re lucky if you’re shooting a 40-to-1 ratio, so what do you do with that other 39 hours?” he says. “The ability to be able to share some of that, whether it’s deeper interviews or really special scenes that don’t quite fit into the straighter narrative, to be able to put that out there on the companion websites, like with PBS… I think it’s been great.”

When it comes to his and Providence’s future, Glassman mentions “a few different paths” including an ambitious feature documentary and an augmented reality app. But Providence continues to produce high-quality non-fiction content for partners like PBS and Discovery.

“I want to keep making premium documentary series and reaching audiences that way, and we have a few in the works. I love the basic ‘make it for TV and put it out there’ [model] and so we want to do more of that and we want to do it for more clients,” he says, adding that he’s also interested in Providence working with a streaming service.

During his journey with Providence, Glassman’s work has evolved, but he’s stuck to the principles that led him to join the circus all those years ago. That need to connect with audiences, whether it’s through clowning, telling the stories of prison inmates or recreating the Roman Colosseum, remains.

“The conscious decision to move away from more intimate performance and discreet audiences and into television — in the same way you can take a prisoner and a president and bring them into everybody’s living rooms — that’s incredible power, and can be an incredibly powerful means of affecting people’s beliefs, taking some kind of action to make the world a better place,” he says. “It sounds sort of naïve, but it happened to me.”

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