12 March 2008

Documentary Cookbook Preface

In researching the Kubrick Napoleon project I came across this manifesto for a new movement in documentary film making. I believe in it strongly enough to try and stick to its precepts in making the Kubrick Napoleon documentary. The manifesto is in two parts. I have posted the prefatory material below.

Documentary Cookbook

*** DRAFT 02/20/02
The Center for New Documentary
Graduate School Of Journalism
University Of California, Berkeley

The Center For New Documentary was established in the fall of 2000 to explore, test, and promote new ways of producing good quality long form television documentaries at very low cost. We opened our doors (one door, actually) in response to a rising chorus of frustration over the skyrocketing cost of mainstream documentary production, and an ever deepening exasperation with fundraising. We sensed that enormous talent and energy were being wasted in stalled production and grant writing. As a way to help break the logjam, we invited several filmmakers to experiment with very inexpensive production, and to tell us what they found.

We are not trying to make all documentaries cheaply. We do see the new little cameras as "ball point pens of television" but we have no interest in abandoning 50 years of hard won documentary craft. We are looking for those few stories and production methods that naturally lend themselves to the very low cost production with high-quality. Without compromising journalistic integrity or style, can some films be done for a fifth, a tenth, or even a hundredth of the prevailing cost? Can some of public television possibly approach the cost of public radio? Can we make a living at it? Will there be any pleasure in it? In an increasingly stagnant, market-constrained TV landscape, can low-cost production boast its own craft and virtuosity? Can it co-exist in tandem with high cost traditional (archive/witness/observational/narrated/series-driven) documentary? What strong, journalistically sound, adventuresome films for prime time television can be made by a grown up with a DVCam and Final Cut Pro? Is the whole idea self-destructive?

In practical terms, we invited three filmmakers, Peter Nicks, Lourdes Portillo, and Albert Maysles, to see what films could be well made for $100,000 per hour---about one-fifth the going rate for prime time documentaries. The obvious question is "Where do you get $100,000?" More on that later, but finding 100K is certainly easier than finding half a million, and we see the 100K target as only a first step in really drastic reductions for some films.

Our main concern is not with beginning filmmakers, students, or neighborhood filmmakers, but with journeyman documentary makers who already know the ropes, and are trying reach a large television audience. (The Center's work is not part of the regular graduate studies curriculum at the School of Journalism. Likewise, we are not skilled at shepherding photojournalists into television magazine work or breaking news; that is being well handled by Dick Halstead and others at the "Platypus" workshops, www.digitaljournalist.com. Likewise, international digital journalism is being well considered by the Pew International Journalism Program www.pewfellowships.org).

By now, virtually everyone working in documentary in this country has brushed up against DV production, and many producers have embraced it exclusively. But despite the emergence of a robust folk culture surrounding digital non-fiction, we still see little evidence of filmmakers aggressively searching out stories, styles, and techniques which naturally fit the new tools. Most of the work seems aimed and squeezing blood from the turnip, by digitally making the same sorts of traditional films with the same methods for less money.

Many cost saving devices are already in play. Most of it is not rocket science, but rather a cagey sort of "preventive production," as described below. It turns out that the technical advantages of DV are not as much of a cost lever as personnel time or rights costs. Story choice seems to make the greatest difference, followed by extreme schedule efficiency, and extreme technical discipline. Then comes a nearly dogmatic avoidance of archive footage, archive music, and travel. Everyone gets paid professional rates, and cost savings are achieved by adjusting methods and schedules, not day rates. We look for generally non-technical "evergreen" devices that will long outlast changes in hardware and software.

The Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and Gerbode Foundation stepped forward to fund our first round of work. The Rockefeller Foundation supports the development and distribution of a "Documentary Cookbook." Our first project, "The Wolf" by Peter Nicks, was completed for $100,000, and has been acquired by ABC Nightline for broadcast over two nights this spring, where it will probably be seen by 2,000,000 people. It's a good start.

Following is some of what we've learned. Please send your experiences, suggestions, lessons, tips, lists of what to do, etc, to dvtv@berkeley.edu. Please do not send proposals; that will come later.

The Problem

It had become clear by the early 1990s that most available documentary money, especially in pubic television, was going to a shrinking and increasingly risk-free pool of veteran producers making increasingly risk-free documentaries. These were more often than not earnest, predictable, and sometimes brilliant programs about dead people. For reasons involving public policy, the commercialization of public television, corporate consolidation in commercial television, partisan congressional politics, and the rising costs of production, new voices and new forms could emerge only with great difficulty. Even well established documentary makers could seldom explore new ground.

The average cost of a prime time documentary television hour had risen to around $500,000, of which a large portion generally had to come from the advertising budgets of ratings-hungry corporate underwriters. As the funding and underwriting stakes rose, idiosyncratic "one-off" programs and unpredictable forms like cinema verite all but vanished from public television, except for work within ITVS and POV. Long form was dead at the networks. HBO soldiered on, and together with MTV has become generally more accepting of idiosyncratic fare.

The cost of traditional production rose, due largely to 16mm film costs (before the wholesale transition to video), skyrocketing archive footage and music costs, travel costs, and long production and post-production schedules often made even longer by delay in executive sign off.

As independent producers, we knew even by the early �90s that a good one-hour prime time idea pretty well condemned us to raising half a million dollars, and that it would take five years of fundraising---work for which we had no talent, no training, and less than no interest. Small, experienced independent production houses and producers of on-offs were particularly hard hit, and the pipeline became increasingly clogged with unfunded and partially funded $500K projects. Henry Hampton took ten years to fully fund Eyes on the Prize. Cadillac Desert required 307 separate funding applications, and for Sing Faster: The Stagehands Ring Cycle, Jon Else prepared and submitted 137 separate grant applications over nine years. Who does not have a seed-funded, embryonic, or half-grown single program or mini-series festering on the shelf?

In a trend that has accelerated ever since the ratings success of The Civil War, public television especially embraced huge, market-friendly series projects while generally consigning single programs to the dustbin. We came to live in a world of exemplary but chillingly expensive series and mini-series like Africans in America, Frontline, The American Experience, and New York. But not every idea was a series idea, and not every one-off fit into an established strand.

We complained that Ken Burns got all the money (not noticing that his passions for serial American history correlate almost exactly with funders' desires). We became a culture of complaint, with journeyman filmmakers frustrated at moving beyond traditional forms, and young professionals frustrated at trying to launch new projects. The important role of television documentary in vigorous civil dialogue, in collective memory, education, entertainment, and public policy formation was not well served. Over the years, a great pool of young documentary talent became increasingly unhinged from prime time television.

The aggregate level of support for long form documentaries at the networks, PBS, cable, foundations, and endowments, has not increased significantly, nor is it likely to. As producers scramble to get anything made---anything---these funding imperatives erode the traditional fire wall between non-fiction television and the marketplace, and journalistic standards begin to erode. Despite rare exceptions like The Farmer's Wife and the heroic efforts at ITVS, POV, HBO, and a few foundations, idiosyncratic one-offs are off the table.

The new Juggernauts

Some production institutions have chosen to attack the problem of escalating cost with brute force, by designing ever-larger documentary projects as "product lines" intended for a market-driven television system. These typically include the films themselves, web sites, interactive enhancement, outreach programs, and curriculum materials, as well as companion books, videos, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and CDs sold via on-air advertising. Many public television venues are, in fact, now demanding that proposals come through the door not as films, but as "projects" with web sites, outreach, and educational materials. Even the cheapest documentary can now easily balloon into an expensive multi-layered project. Cable channels appear more flexible, and somewhat less demanding.

Many producers now find themselves in a surreal vortex where the longer a project takes to fund, the more it costs, and the more it costs, the longer it takes to fund, and the longer it takes, the more it costs� ad infinitum. The more films cost, the less risk the funders can stand; at $1,000,000 per hour, who can dare risk a ratings misfire? Some half-funded Juggernauts have been inching their way through the system for years.

Hamster Wheel

Then, there were those of us who scampered to make as many corporate videos, TV commercials, airline tech reports, depositions and wedding videos as we could, trying desperately to save a few hundred thousand dollars for MY BIG FILM. We should live so long.

A few good, cheap, fast films

We are interested in the exact opposite approach: drastically limiting cost in order to get more documentaries made more quickly. We want to break the queue by lowering the entry fee, not raising it. It is the television equivalent of watercolor instead of oil paint, mimeograph instead of linotype, garage bands instead of stadium rock, guerrillas instead of armies. The aim is to find methods and stories that are so naturally inexpensive that they can slip below the radar of financing. It worked in the �60s.

We were first inspired by public radio, seeing the refreshing power of programs like the early "This American Life," "Lost & Found Sound" and "Soundprint." There were glimmers of real possibility in late 90s with The Cruise, Salt Men Of Tibet, digital work by Ricky Leacock, experiments at Frontline, Nightline, and the National Film Board Of Canada, and the narrative productions of Jon Jost and the Dogma '95 group. And on the un-cool sidelines, a shadow world of very fast very cheap and sometimes very good corporate production had also taken hold.

An old truism in Hollywood is, "Cheap, fast, good� Pick any two." Clearly with the right methods, some small percentage of documentaries can be cheap, fast, and good. In the bargain, as we found with "The Wolf," there is the prospect of retaining true independence by avoiding early funding from any specific broadcaster, and thus being able to offer the finished documentary to all possible broadcasters.
Part 1 will follow in a future post.

Picture of the day. I could make a rude joke about the real reason Napoleon stuck his hand in his clothes but if the current governor of New York had been a French politician instead of a Dick Tracy square-jawed type he could have survived the discovery of his sessions with prostitutes from the Emperor's Club with mere public scorn and cries of hipocracy and not calls for his resignation and impeachment. Or maybe he should have been a US senator from Louisiana. Lagnappe. Click the link below to hear about the Napoleon who fascinated me as a tot in the 1960s.

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