Early in October during MIP COM in tawdry Cannes I caught up with Claire Aguilar, vice president of programming for ITVS over a bowl of truffle ravioli that was all the more delicious due to the weak dollar (oddly enough, I discovered that the frugal food of choice was a dozen oysters from Astoux et Brun with a glass of white wine, reminding me that one hundred years ago in New York oysters were the poor man's food because they were so abundant on the Sound, a briny contrast to their status today as a delicacy, but I digress...)
lTVS, based in San Francisco, is a CPB and foundation backed fund for independent producers that is open to both Americans and international producers, first time directors and producers as well as Tefflon industry veterans. ITVS green lights 40 projects a year that can be submitted either to the International Call, for funds up to $150,000 or Open Call, with budgets of up to $350,000. ITVS also commissions and acquires approximately 50 hours per year. At the moment, ITVS has approximately 50 programs in the pipeline and seven projects showing at the IDFA Film Festival and one being presented at the IDFA Forum in November.
As we relaxed at our sidewalk cafe, astutely ignored by the wait staff which allowed us ample time to chat while sipping our Pellegrino, I asked Claire to talk about the fund, what types of programs they are funding, how much they are funding, what funds they have, their other funding partners, the funding review process, and some of her favorite projects that she has funded.
I'll start by saying that I first met Claire a little over a year ago at the French Screenings in St. Tropez, where we were the two lone American buyers and found ourselves seated next to each other over a three-course gourmet meal in a private courtyard shaded by oak trees. Claire is active in the international market, flying to Africa, Portugal, and France (and that's just in the last eight weeks) to find projects that meet her programming needs, encouraging international producers to submit to the International Call as well as meeting with her international colleagues. The only requirement for submission to the International Call is that the topic cannot be about or by Americans; it is for international producers addressing global topics. Rather than ask her to describe the fund's objectives, I asked what her two favorite recent projects are; with no hesitation she replied, "That's easy: Stranded and Waltz with Bashir."
Stranded: The Andes Plane Crash Survivors is a documentary featuring the remaining survivors of the Uruguayan soccer team whose airplane crashed in the Andes. They survived for seventy-two days. According to Claire, what makes the doc so compelling is the personalities and their survival stories.
Likewise, Waltz With Bashir is an animated doc about an Israeli soldier's attempt to remember his involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon in 1982. Unusual as it is animated, the doc's strength is it's a personal story that has historical and current relevance.
Two other docs that Claire cited as coming directly out of the International Call were House of Saad and Cuba: An African Oddyssey. Both broadcast internationally and were co-produced with Nick Fraser of the BBC, who is frequently a partner along with other European broadcasters, such as TV2 in Denmark. The next submission deadline for the International Fund is February 1st.
On the domestic front, the next deadline for submission to the Open Call Fund is January 11th. The deadline for the International Fund is February 1.For both funds, ITVS receives roughly 300 submissions of which 30 are recommended and sent out for review. The review panel is a mix of commissioning editors, scholars, and media professionals. The reviewers recommend 10 from the 30 and then convene to discuss and finalize the recipients. The process from submission to release of funds takes five months.
Budgets submitted to Open Call go as high as $350,000. On average, Claire shared that a PBS budget is $600,000 per project with the majority of the money going above the line and that it is not unusual for there to be three executive producers attached to a project. A similar project from the U.K. would be made for $300,000. ITVS believes in providing enough money for a filmmaker/producer to pay themselves but often suggest that filmmakers also approach the NEH, the Sundance Fund, and POV for additional money as well consider seeking international co-pro partners if appropriate.
ITVS's funds have increased over the last eight years, even though under Michael Pack's time at the CPB there was pressure to fund and commission 'conservative films.' As Claire wryly pointed out, while they canvas for ethnicity and gender, it would be awkward to ask about a producer's political beliefs and integrate that information into their review process.
Leaving politics aside, as well as producing as a career for the wealthy as we polished off our pasta, we moved on to the thorny issue of contracts, schedules and deliverables. Since ITVS is a funding source and broadcaster rather than a grant agency, they ask for exclusive U.S. broadcast rights for a 4-7 years period as well as a credit and revenue share based on the contribution of the net. Many docs that they fund broadcast on the Sundance Channel, Nat Geo and Link TV in addition to PBS.
As our bill arrived I thanked Claire for her time and her support of MyFilmBlog.
The Prisoner, Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is a quiet film. By this I mean that there is no hyperbole, no drama, just one man's story about how he was falsely arrested and imprisoned for nearly nine moths by the American forces in Iraq. His story is a simple one, detailing faulty intelligence, a prison system based on an assumption of guilt, and finally his anti climatic release, accompanied by a "Sorry" from an American general.
It reminds me of Kafka's The Trial, even down to the epithet of "dog," that an American guard repeatedly hurled at Yunis during his interrogations. Fortunately, Yunis was released rather than executed "Like a dog!" and he tells his story to Michael Tucker, who filmed Yunis's initial arrest in 2003 while shooting Gunner Palace.
Unlike Josef K. in The Trial, Yunis is never brought before a judge, nor does he have a lawyer, since apparently he has no rights. What good is a lawyer when you are arrested, presumed guilty just because you are arrested, and there is no judge or jury?
Yunis is arrested, interrogated, and finally released. During his stay at Ganci 6, a camp next to Abu Ghraib, for prisoners deemed of "low or no importance," there is no hope of justice, just survival-the odds, however, are not good as the food is rancid, there is disease, and the resistance frequently hurls grenades into the camps, which then erupt into riots and shooting by the U.S. guards in a futile attempt to keep order and calm. Yunis is by training a journalist and was imprisoned as well under Saddam Hussein. In both instances of imprisonment, there is no trial, and upon release, he simply returns to his family and civilian life.
Abu Ghraib is internationally synonymous with humiliation and abuse: both forms of torture, one psychological, the other physical. As I watched Yunis speaking, I was struck by his dignity in the face of degradation. Again I was reminded of Kafka's novel and Herr K's final lament, "Like a dog!" Imprisonment without due process-without the assumption of innocence-robs people of their dignity and humanity. Perhaps dignity is one emotion that separates us from animals, or is it our elaborate legal system?
Yunis maintains his dignity throughout the telling of his story. As he speaks you see that for him his dignity is more important than refuting the false accusation, which amounts to nothing less than plotting to kill Tony Blair. At the end of the film he quips that he and Tony Blair are forever inseparable, connected like twins separated at birth by history: one a powerful man, the other an anonymous man swept up by events, quite literally a mere number in the machinery of U.S. policy in Iraq and our war on terrorism.
I'd like to think that Yunis's story is unique, an anomaly, an aberration; that like Herr K's trial, it was all a mistake. Yet the film suggests that all of Camp Ganci was populated by other Yunises: even his two brothers were yanked from their homes by American soldiers in the middle of the night, after a wedding party, loaded onto trucks, and sent for interrogation. When they did not supply confessions of their guilt or corroborate the evidence gathered by INTEL, off they went to Abu Ghraib or Ganci, which at one point had a population of 6,000.
No, Yunis was not unique. He most certainly was not alone. Due to his training as a journalist, he could speak English, a skill that he put to good use at the camp, working with the guards, and one in particular, Specialist Thompson, to keep the peace. If it were not for Thompson, the veracity of Yunis's story would be questionable as there is no official record of prisoner number 151186 in detainment.
Thompson's testimony lends the film its powerful objectivity. Specialist Thompson, a new recruit and former real estate agent, finds himself at Ganci. He describes the deplorable conditions and the efforts that he made with Yunis's help to ease the physical discomfort and keep calm in block 6 among rampant fear of attack, hunger, and sickness due to malnutrition and lack of sanitation. Thompson's testimony regarding Yunis's imprisonment and his role in helping to keep calm and order among the prisoners paint a picture of people in dire circumstances and tell how two individuals managed to penetrate the metal fence between guard and prisoner for their common good.
Yunis's story is one of quiet victory: His freedom is restored, and he receives an apology from the American general. The presence, however, of Thompson and his willingness to talk on camera about his experience at Ganci remind one that while bureaucracy under the guise of any ideology can be inhumane, and that guards can and do abuse prisoners, there are individuals who do not succumb to the lure of power because they have a gun or the anonymity of a uniform.
Tucker and Epperlein's film is powerful because it does not exaggerate, seek to accuse, or manipulate the viewer. Yunis tells his story in a stoic voice, occasionally pausing as he seeks to find the best English word, at one point even resorting to Arabic. He does not cry but he smokes continually. His voice is even and soft.
As an American viewer listening to his story, I experienced the emotional complements of Yunis's dignity: shame, guilt, and embarrassment. He never criticizes America or the American people, being very precise to distinguish between the army as an instrument of the American government's policy in his country and America as an ideal and its citizens.
Yunis is generous, even funny when he quips that the Americans have mistaken him for Rambo, given what he is accused of plotting. The comment is even funnier as he is physically slight, with glasses and a goatee speckled with gray. He is clearly no gun toting terrorist or assassin, just a journalist, a son, a brother.
This article originally appeared in The WIld River Review.
Peter Kaufman in Indiewire writes that DIY distribution will be a viable option for independent producers in 2014. My question is: Why wait for the year 2014? The scenario described is here now... but with an unexpected twist.
I agree that the days of traditional distribution are coming to an end as
distributors face decreasing box ticket returns from theatrical releases and
DVD sales and the promised pot of gold at the end of the proverbial digital
rainbow remains a mirage. Sundance, and top tier and some emerging niche
festivals, will remain key to generating recognition for independent films.
But the days of large advances from an independent distributor who relies on
DVD sales to recoup the theatrical cost from big box names, brick and mortar
outlets and online sales are waning. DIY distribution is already here and
is being successfully implemented… by a distributor.
Great article by Lance Weiler in the Winter 2008 Filmmaker's mag about digital distribution and generating online revenue for independent filmmakers. I think the most important point of the article, besides the benefits of working with a content aggregator/distributor, is that filmmakers need to be very technically savvy when it comes to self-distribution.
A lot of times filmmakers are advised to avoid working with traditional distributors, who are essentially described as greedy vultures, and to strike out on their own. The main challenge of doing so is creating awareness of your one, lone film and connecting it to your audience. There are a gazillion websites out there, two dominant social networking sites, and an undefined marketplace. Unless your potential customer can find you, no matter how good your film is they aren't going to buy it. This is not an original idea and a book that expresses this idea very eloquently is Ambient Findability by Peter Morville.
As a buyer of documentaries, factual series and digital content, I have gotten to know many filmmakers, producers and distributors over the last ten years. I have watched friends and colleagues go from a simple idea to a a completed film, wading through the muddy waters of fund raising, securing a broadcaster, international distribution, DVD licensing -- sorting out non-theatric vs. home video -- and then on to the next project, starting the whole process over again.
Every stage poses its challenges. Producing is a solitary process that requires four components: passion, patience, perseverance, and promotion. If you lack patience, your project will never be completed; even the best timelines mysteriously morph as raising production funds can, and usually does, take more time and energy than making the actual film. Without perseverance, each rejection letter, no matter how politely worded, will be like the fatal gun shot wound rather than the spaghetti stain on the wall it really is. Perhaps patience and perseverance are manifestations of passion but passion without promotion will mean that even a great idea will remain just that: an idea.