Brad Lichtenstein’s blog

Behind the scenes of What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Journey to the Commons

Posts Tagged ‘Almost Home

Almost Home Film in BROOKLYN!

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Almost Home aired back in 2006, but that was just the beginning…

We saw how the film spoke to so many people either afraid of dealing with aging issues, or overwhelmed with the care of their parents or a loved one.

We’ve been working all over the country to put the film to work — screening it with community audiences, then following up with discussion groups facilitated by local experts who can answer questions and point people to help right nearby.

The topics usually include caregiving, changing the negative culture built up around aging, and end of life.

Now, I made the film, so of course I think its great.  (But rest assured, a lot of people have said the same).  So come for the film, stay for the discussion, leave with a clearer sense of how you can deal with issues that aging may present to you in your life now, or down the road.

Saturday, March 13th

Park Slope United Methodist Church (6th avenue and 8th street)


For more info, directions, etc….

Sunday, March 14th

Union Temple (at Grand Army Plaza)

10am – 1pm (with some food served)

For more info, directions, etc….

Hope to see you there…..and please, spread the word.


Written by Brad Lichtenstein

March 8, 2010 at 11:01 am

Check it out…the budget for Almost Home

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Well, when the author of Shaking the Money Tree suggests that a budget would be helpful, I jump!  Thanks for the suggestion, Morrie.

My back is killing me!

My back is killing me!

Please know that the budget I’ve included here made a few assumptions that turned out not to be true.  For instance, while the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee did provide space in-kind, it did not offer adequate legal services, so I had to purchase my own.  Thank you FKKS!  And technology has changed in just 3 years, when this budget was created, so keep that in mind.  By and large, though, this budget is a good reflection of our effort. And we held to its bottom line.  Let me know your thoughts.  And please feel free to use the comments section of this blog to ask questions or discuss the budget.  Hope you find this helpful.   One note.  Some links remained in the budget document that I pasted.  I can’t get rid of them.  They go nowhere.  Sorry!


Acct. Account Name Unit Qty Rate Amount Detail Totals
1101 Producer allow 1 $100,000 $100,000
1102 Associate Producer weeks 77 $800 $61,280
1105 Project Intern(s) UWM In-kind 0 $0 $0
1106 Bookkeeper weeks 77 $90 $6,894
1190 Payroll Expenses
1191 Production Staff taxes & fringe allow 1 $31,325 $31,325
TOTAL 1100 DETAIL $199,499
1301 Plane fares RT – persons 2 $350 $700
1302 Car rental days 2 $65 $130
1303 Hotel persons – days 2 $100 $200
1304 Ground transportation days 2 $75 $150
1305 Meals person-days 2 $45 $90
1306 Research materials allow 1 $750 $750
1307 Gratuities, Misc. Expenses allow 1 $250 $250
TOTAL 1300 DETAIL $2,270
1401 Cameraperson shoot days 84 $600 $50,400
1402 Camera w/ ultra-wide lens months 7 $4,500 $31,500
1403 Sound Recordist shoot days 84 $325 $27,300
1405 Add’l Lighting Package allow 1 $2,000 $2,000
1406 DVCam Stock T-60 294 $24 $7,056
1407 Production supplies allow 1 $1,500 $1,500
TOTAL 1400 DETAIL $119,756
1501 Van Rental days 28 $85 $2,380
1506 Tolls, Parking, Gas days 28 $20 $560
1507 Production Food days-persons 168 $45 $7,560
1510 Location Fees allow 1 $1,000 $1,000
1511 Gratuities allow 1 $500 $500
TOTAL 1500 DETAIL $12,000
1601 Editor weeks 36 $2,500 $89,000
1604 Ass’t Editor weeks 40 $650 $25,740
1605 Post-production Intern weeks/inkind 0 $0 $0
1691 Post-production Staff taxes & fringe weeks / union payments 36 220.00 $7,832
TOTAL 1600 DETAIL $122,572
1701 Avid (editing facilities) weeks 36 $1,000 $36,000
1702 Edit phone, office & petty cash Months 9 $75 $675
1703 Transcription Service hours 74 $120 $8,820
1705 Add’l VHS Dubs T-120 150 $7 $1,050
1706 On-line Edit hours 32 $300 $9,600
1707 Color Correct hours 24 $300 $7,200
1708 Computer Animation (Photos) hours 4 $250 $1,000
1709 Chryon Pre-programming hours 8 $100 $800
1710 Sound Editing days 10 $650 $6,500
1711 Audio Mix hours 48 $300 $14,400
1712 DigiBeta stock for masters T-124 2 $180 $360
1713 Online Layoff to Digibeta T-124 2 $180 $360
1714 Digibeta Copies from Master Digibeta T-124 8 $180 $1,440
1715 Misc dubs, preview copies, etc allow 1 $250 $250
1716 VHS cassettes of final film dubs 100 $7 $700
1717 Edit Room Computer allow 1 $2,000 $2,000
1718 Graphic Opening Sequence allow 1 $15,000 $15,000
1719 Closed Captioning hours 2 $1,600 $3,200
1720 Plane Fares trips 7 $350 $2,450
1721 Ground Transportation trips 7 $150 $1,050
1722 Meals trips 21 $65 $1,365
TOTAL 1700 DETAIL $114,220
1801 Original Music Score (incl. production) allow 1 $15,000 $15,000
1802 Music Cue Licensing allow 1 $8,000 $8,000
1803 Archival Footage Licensing (incl. transfers) allow 1 $1,500 $1,500
TOTAL 1800 DETAIL $24,500
2001 Legal UWM In-kind / allow 1 $0 $0
2002 Publicity allow 1 $9,000 $9,000
2003 Insurance (E&O) allow 1 $6,000 $6,000
TOTAL 2000 DETAIL $15,000
Subtotal $609,817
Outreach Grand Total $262,048


This proposal was funded…by ITVS.

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Lloyd Herrold, one of the stars of Almost Home.

I’m sharing this proposal because I notice a need out there to see examples of funded proposals.  And, I believe that sharing profits us all — the commons (my current obsession and the topic of my next film).  I’ll post the proposal that was first rejected by ITVS, too, so that you can compare.  The big difference is in the detail of my articulation of the story and conflicts.  We ended up making a film that strayed from what was proposed, but some of the storylines we predicted unfolded and most of the values we declared as important were presented in the final film.  You can see clips of the film (and buy a DVD) at — and it is still airing on PBS stations 2 years since it’s premiere on Independent Lens.  Hope this proposal is useful to you.


Countering America’s denial and stereotyping of aging, Almost Home is a verité documentary about people who live, work and visit in an “old-age home.”

Consider this.  The last wave of baby boomers will soon reach sixty; meaning half of all Americans must contemplate eldercare for themselves or a loved one.  That’s 200 million of us dealing with eldercare.  Now consider that those same 200 million live in a country steeped in denial of its aging, frightened by the specter of dependency and death. We combat aging with pills and surgery, dismiss it with humor, and avoid it by neglecting to plan ahead.  We proffer images of “positive aging,” like 90-year-old marathon runners, and shun common realities of frailty and dementia.   Almost Home, a cinema verité documentary about a year in the life of people who live and work in an “old age home,” rescues the true stories of older adults and those who care for them from an exile of denial.

Almost Home combines handheld mini-dv verité footage and “in the moment” interviews to tell the extraordinary story of Saint John’s in Milwaukee, a typical continuing care community (or “old age home”) transforming its 135-year-old medical model of care (think hospital) into a holistic, social one (think neighborhood) that focuses on the whole person rather than her ailments, and embraces dignity, autonomy and equality.  This “culture-change” revolution tears down traditional walls between residents, staff, administration and families to replace the stigma of nursing homes as institutions of lonliness and death with a vision of “community” where people want to live, work and visit, and where healing isn’t encumbered by medical trappings.  To succeed, the visionaries will have to win over cynical managers skeptical of change; resistant nurses mired in regulations; overworked and underpaid nursing assistants juggling precarious lives; and complacent residents and families used to being excluded from many of the decisions that affect them.

While PBS programs have addressed issues of aging before, none have offered an intimate portrait of a diverse, multi-generational universe of people connected by aging and care giving.  Utilizing our total access to Saint John’s , we will present their stories in their own words and actions without interpretation by experts, narration or a host.  Direct cinema is hardly a new approach to filmmaking, but it is a radical choice for this subject because several people in the film suffer from dementia.  One of our greatest challenges (and rewards) is adapting a standard verité approach to one that captures the drama and personality of people unable to access memory or understand their own lives as a continuum.  Giving such people a voice is among our major goals.

Our perspective is 360 degrees – each moment can be understood from multiple characters’ points of view.  Shooting for a full year, we will be able to interconnect stories through overlapping characters, and weave them together into an overarching narrative about whether Saint John’s will succeed in it’s grand culture change experiment, and help lead America to rethink our approach to elder care.  Almost Home is a drama that elicits important issues: coping with physical and mental disability; coping with and planning for death; negotiating family care responsibilities; dealing with the challenges posed by high staff turnover and worker stress; the challenge of innovation in a field governed by intense regulation and shrinking resources.  Eighteen weeks into a 52-week shoot schedule, the following stories are unfolding before our camera:

John George, the young, gay, hip manager of the nursing home, grew up in a hardscrabble, stoic family near the Wisconsin-Canadian border.  During a family visit he lies to cover up a journey to his grandmother’s grave, “just to talk.”  At the gravesite he tells us of the close relationship with his grandma that inspired his career.  At a “culture change” conference the speaker asks who would put their parents up in the institution where they work.  No one raises their hands, including John.  “That’s my goal,” he tells us later, “to create a place where I would send my grandma.”

But changing the culture of care is hard and the management team grows impatient with John, finally exploding with a barrage of accusations:  why spend so much money on culture change in the nursing home when Saint John’s lake-view independent living apartments are the prime marketing tool?  One manager strikes the heart of much of the resistance to change:  nurses resist “managerial fads” and CNAs, who are mostly African-American, resent all-white management “coaching”, which often seems patronizing.  John tries to model the new mode of care, forming tight bonds with residents like Lloyd Herrold, whom he takes on visits to the art musem.  Riding home he confesses his failure to a colleague.  But John is driven.  He puts full faith in his staff and gives them the power to make decisions, while issuing the edict that staff must change or move on.  Those who stay transform into a team that throws out the institutional mentality, working together to create a home where residents can wake, eat and sleep on their own schedules.  Staff start interviewing residents and posting their stories for all to see. Wheel-chair “slumpers” slowly become engaged, death becomes a shared experience between residents and staff, and Saint John’s culture transforms.

Edie and Lloyd Herrold, once notables on Milwaukee’s social circuit, are now separated by Lloyd’s Parkinson’s, which forces him to move from their independent living apartment to the nursing home.  Publicly, Edie is comforted by friends who ask after Lloyd.  Privately, she is racked with guilt for not providing his care.  What nobody knows is that she also faces surgery for a nerve disease, and fears it may force a move to the nursing home.  (We will film her informing Lloyd and experiencing surgery in June).  Lloyd, meanwhile, is working feverishly in therapy to walk again, hoping to return to their apartment.  Desperate to leave the nursing home, he is often found wandering into elevators and ripping off his WanderGuard bracelet.  Embracing new culture change principles of autonomy, nurse Erika Stoving meets with him to discuss leaving, but the combination of his clouded brain and her determination that he remain in the nursing home makes for an awkward affair.  In the wee morning hours a somewhat lucid Lloyd eloquently articulates the painful experience of Parkinson’s – the words are there, but he can’t mouth them – which frustrates him to the point that his entire body freezes.  The words surface again at the art museum where he interprets for John George several paintings, touching on personal themes of lonliness, untapped strength and fantasies of escape.  Perhaps the brightest light comes from a fellow resident with Alzheimers who takes to helping Lloyd walk up and down the halls, laughing all the way.

Erika Stoving is the epitome of a dedicated nurse, working hours beyond her shift to care for every detail of the residents while also caring for her 2-year-old baby girl at home.  It’s a delicate balance thrown off kilter by the new changes at work that make her uncertain about where she stands.  She’s accountable when a resident is dropped, but instead of embracing the new culture’s transparency, she follows orders not to tell the resident’s family all of the details in order to protect the institution.  When she meets with Lloyd Herrold she is again caught, wanting to honor his autonomy but knowing he can’t function outside of the nursing home.  And when Edie Herrold, angry about losing her once dapper husband, insists that Erika put a bib on Lloyd, Erika is again caught between the new culture’s mandate to reject bibs as degrading and a family member’s request.

Nursing supervisor Sharon Prusow is also caught in the crossfire over the new changes.  Families appreciate the time she now gives them, like when Lloyd Herrold’s daughter inquires about missing clothes and Sharon calmly explains how her father wanders the halls and often places his clothing in other resident’s drawers.  But her nurses resist changes, claiming that doing away with an institutional medical cart in the hall or ceasing pulse checks in the middle of the night makes their job too difficult and risks residents’ lives.  And when state inspectiors issue the first violations she has received in her entire career, she feels that culture change may have distracted her attention to details.  John George places her on probation, wrestling privately with the dilemma of whether to fire one of his best friends.  In response, Sharon starts cracking down on her staff.

What she might not know is the ordeal of daily life faced by many nursing assistants like Enchantra Cosey who, like most of her colleagues, is poor (making less than $8/hour), African American, and working two jobs. Enchantra deals with the seamy side of care, changing diapers and bathing residents.  At home she is raising two grandchildren fathered by her 15 year-old boy, while her oldest son is in prison. She, however, embraces the new culture change which encourages her bond with Pauline Coggs, one of the few African American residents.  In death, Pauline has taught Enchantra about strength.  Fearless, Pauline instructs an official gathering of staff (including Enchantra) to end her therapies and withhold lifesaving measures.  Free of the burden of keeping her body functional, she attains a kind of bliss, which Enchantra relishes whenever she has a moment, listening to Pauline’s stories and jazz floating from her room.  These moments offset the more difficult ones her job presents, like when Dolores Haig, who has Alzheimer’s, slaps Enchantra while she assists her to the toilet.

Delores can be belligerent with staff.  Her husband, Bob Haig, does what he can to calm her.  Bob is 90, and goes to work at his photography studio every day.  Before work he walks from his independent living apartment to the nursing home to wake up, dress and make-up Delores.  It is sweet and sad to see him “doll her up,” as staff put it.  They understand Bob pines for the wife Alzheimer’s has stolen from him.  In a meeting with Erika Stoving and John George, Bob spends the entire time remembering his and Delores’ global adventures. In his photography studio he confesses to being utterly confused about how to deal with Delores.  When he throws her an 88th birthday party she seems happy, even a little saucy, until they visit the apartment they used to share. In a rare moment of clarity she declares to her grandchildren “I miss this place, you should see the dump where I live now.”  Hurt, Bob finally takes John George up on his offer to enroll him in a support group.

Winding his way through all of these lives is the indomitable Ralph Nelson.  He sails.  He woodworks.  He surfs the internet.  After losing his wife 12 years ago, he is finally ready to date again.  A fixture at cocktail parties and other functions, Ralph pours his heart into everything he does.  Knowing how difficult it is for Edie Herrold  and Bob Haig to accept their spouses’ deterioration, he joins them for lunch to ease the pain.  Knowing how strapped Saint John’s is for cash, he leads trash pick-up brigades and refinishes the building’s benches.  But there is one line he will not cross – the threshold to the nursing home.  He explains that his projects are a way to do for the nursing home residents in lieu of visits.  The truth is he is afraid of becoming frail, which is why he stays active and volunteers in a program with 2nd graders.  “Just let me fall down, dead, when my time comes,” he says. “I don’t want to lose my independence.”  He is just the person John George hope to comfort by achieving a culture change that makes the nursing home less frightening.

Providing an antidote to our youth-obsessed culture, Almost Home portrays older adults as they really are:  people who cope with disability, dementia and death while also continuing to love, desire and engage in meaningful relationships.  Almost Home will resonate with older adults who rarely see themselves depicted honestly on television. Already a significant PBS audience for cultural and arts programming, we hope to expand their viewing horizons.  Almost Home is also a multi-generational drama that reflects the reality of the long-term care industry where upper management is often white, while frontline workers are often minority.  To build relevant audiences we have forged partnerships with organizations like AARP and the National Association for the Black Aged.  Because Almost Home features the stories of so many people from a variety of generations – second graders to middle-aged adult children to the older adults – and racial, economic and educational backgrounds, we are poised to appeal to an unusually broad and diverse audience.

To ensure that we reach the diverse populations represented in Almost Home, and to fulfill the core PBS mission of delivering both quality television and meaningful community service, we are organizing an ambitious $250,000 national educational outreach effort.  We will partner with national organizations not associated with aging (NAACP, YMCA, American Library Association) and local coalitions of aging professionals, community groups and public television stations in 20 communities across the nation to design and implement a grassroots effort to reach out to people who do not yet identify themselves as potential caregivers or care recipients and encourage their recognition, understanding and consideration of long-term care issues.  We are also working with a national board of advisors to develop a curriculum that can be woven into continuing education courses for professional caregivers who must obtain such credits to keep their licenses active.  A comprehensive web site will support all outreach efforts.

Wisconsin Public Television is our producing partner station, and PBS has registered support for our project at a length of 90 minutes, leaving time for a 30-minute follow-up by local stations.  Editing begins in July, and delivery is planned for April.  More than 77% of our budget has been raised.

Final Version of Sundance Documentary Fund Proposal for What We Got

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I’d love to know your thoughts so please share as a comment, below.  I already caught a typo, too.  Sort of a contest; see how many you can find.  I hope this proposal might help others as they formulate their own film projects, so feel free to share widely.  For now, fingers crossed.

DJ Spooky, the magical DJ in What We Got

DJ Spooky, the magical DJ in What We Got

Sundance Documentary Fund Proposal Proposal


Remix culture impresario DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) leads the fictitious biotech venture capitalist Samir Ansari on a magical documentary-fiction journey to discover why his company’s patent on part of our DNA is illegitimate:  because genetic code cannot be privatized — it belongs to our commons.  Using his magical DJ “remix” powers, Spooky moves Samir through a documentary landscape, manipulating time and space to show him how his patent of DNA is connected to all kinds of commons threatened by overaggressive privatization, from water, sky, and land, to scientific research, traditional knowledge, the Internet, and even art and culture in the public domain.


The Point of What We Got
WHAT WE GOT harnesses the power of media, technology and storytelling to name, claim and protect our commons.  We are at a tipping point.  On the one hand, the rise of commons-based solutions to our problems signals a new age of cooperation and sharing — from Wikipedia’s open, social model for collecting and sharing knowledge to NASA’s cooperation with thousands of stargazers to chart the sky to open-source technology communities that make better software by allowing everyone access to source-code.  On the other hand, global corporate privatization of our natural commons — sky, land, water, DNA — threatens to nullify our obligation to pass these gifts of nature on to future generations.  And even as our web 2.0 world enables global cooperation in every thing from citizen journalism to scientific research, the forces of privatization threaten our created commons: collective social enterprises like the Internet, scientific progress, traditional knowledge, and music, art and culture in the public domain.  Plunder of our commons by private enterprise is happening right now, right under our noses.  We need to understand and fight this threat; else market forces will consume our commons.  We must balance the pursuit of private wealth with protection of our common wealth to both save people whose lives are threatened today, and to ensure that future generations may have the chance to lead healthy, happy, prosperous lives.

What is a commons?
Most people know what a market is.  But do they know what a commons is?  You might think of Boston Commons or medieval grazing land.  You are on the right track.  Simply put, a commons is a thing that belongs to all of us.  It’s a resource that we share because either nature created it (the sky), we jointly created it (public domain), or we jointly pay for it (social security).

Understanding commons begins with questions about ownership.  Who owns the sky?  Who owns water?  Who owns wilderness?  Forests?  Language? DNA? What about the Internet? Art?  Culture? Music? Roads? Social Security?  Scientific Research? Parks? Indigenous traditional knowledge?  Scientific discovery?  Biodiversity? University research? Democracy?  Wikipedia?

Privatization of our commons is nothing new.  The 100 years between 1750 – 1860 was known in England as the Enclosure movement, when public grazing lands were walled off and parceled out to land owners thereby denying a shared resource to a community that had sustained this land, and been sustained by it.  An English folk poem of the time protested enclosure:

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The villain here is the land-owner who was happy to prosecute the man or woman who stole property off of his land; but prospered blissfully unaccountable for the enclosure of that land, a theft in its own right — of a common.  The poem is apt today, a time that some call a second enclosure movement because privatization has laid claim to so much of what was previously held in common.  Sometimes efforts are calculated and deliberate, as in the case of Disney’s successful effort to extend the term of copyright, patent-grabbing that restrict other researchers’ access to genetic code, or the bottling of water from the world’s aquifers and public water systems.  Other “takings” are the result of wanton neglect, like the destruction of our sky by the proliferation of coal-burning power plants in the United States and China or the depletion of fisheries off the coast of Japan.

Global capitalism’s appetite can’t help but consume commons.  It’s the nature of the beast.  Our sky, the public domain, publicly funded research, traditional indigenous knowledge, social security, public lands, even the Internet are fair game.  It’s not that capitalism is innately evil.  It just needs to be held in balance by robust protection of our commons so that the entire system is sustainable.

Two generations of worldwide free-market triumphalism has conditioned us to prioritize private property rights over commons rights, so it is hard to see that our commons are in jeopardy, much less that common wealth makes our private wealth possible.  One of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett, made the point eloquently in the book I Didn’t Do it Alone: “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”  He refers to all kinds of commons, from transportation systems to schools to the stock exchanges themselves.  Commons are everywhere, yet often invisible.  We must make them visible.
This is urgent work.

Multinational conglomerates exploit the timber, minerals, oil, and wildlife on land owned in common by millions of people who rely on it for their daily survival.  In Nepal 8 million people depend on nearly 50% of the land held in commons for their survival.  Similar circumstances exist in Liberia, Afghanistan, Sudan and other less-developed countries.  Right here in America the government has sold mining rights to Native American lands without the consent of tribal councils.  In all, land commons support 2 billion of the poorest people on earth.

Private development, often with the support of governments, is destroying indigenous communities at a pace that threatens to extinguish up to 90% of the world’s languages by the end of the 21st century.  The extinction of indigenous cultures, along with their languages and traditional knowledge, means the loss of much of what we know about biodiversity and plant species.  Pharmaceutical companies have long understood the value of such traditional knowledge, routinely patenting the medicinal benefits of plants, ironically enclosing such knowledge from the very people who discovered and freely shared it in the first place.

In just the last decade global corporations have privatized water supplies, draining critical aquifers in Fiji, the United States and Canada, while creating an artificial scarcity of a common resource to support the 8.8 billion gallon per year bottled water industry.  Bottled water is a triple catastrophe, privatizing a common, consuming 1.5 million barrels of oil for the production of plastic bottles, and more to ship them, and contributing to the 3900 million pounds of un-recycled plastic that piles up in landfills and swirls amid a Pacific oceanic floating dump estimated to be more than twice the size of Texas.

On dry land, corporations like Monsanto undermine the common practice of cultivating and saving seeds, cajoling farmers into exclusive contracts to use genetically modified “terminator” seeds that “turn off” (don’t germinate) after a single season, and require Monsanto’s pest control products to thrive.  Monsanto sues farmers who grow their seeds without a contract, even when wind carries their seeds into unsigned farmers’ fields.  The intervention into traditional farming practice is so dire in parts of India that some farmers commit suicide rather than comply and face destitution.

Privatization threatens our created commons, too.
Telecom companies wish to erect barriers to speed and access on the Internet in order to privatize a human-made commons they had no part in creating.  Without net neutrality, companies will determine who gets access to a world of content becoming so crucial to modern life that it many consider it a public utility as fundamental as electricity.

Public funding has eroded for university research, forcing these institutions to look to corporations to subsidize their operations.  The quid pro quo is that private corporations dictate substantial parts of public universities’ research agendas, privatizing universities’ scientific research by claiming and embargoing resulting patents until demand can maximize profit and justify development of products.  This may be benign in many cases; but patents are currently held on genetic processes that effectively restrict access to our DNA, a natural common, which was mapped by an internationally, publicly funded commons-effort called “The Human Genome Project.”  Privatization of human genome research prevents progress in curing a number of diseases, most of which afflict the world’s poorest populations that offer no purchase power incentive to corporations.

Patents and copyright were meant to feed our public domain, but the last 100 years have seen intellectual property holders extend the maximum term of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years, effectively eliminating access to most culture and art for three generations.  It is a wild distortion of the Constitution’s purpose: “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  The Walt Disney Company is the ultimate hypocrite, leading the charge for copyright extension through 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act before Mickey Mouse was to have become public domain, yet building one of the world’s largest media empires by exploiting public domain classics like Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Over-aggressive copyright enforcement scares girl scouts away from singing songs around campfires and technically requires anyone singing “Happy Birthday To You” to pay Time Warner for the rights. What irony that the Smithsonian Museum — James Smithson’s gift to America — has pawned its archives to the highest bidder, agreeing to a “first look” deal with Viacom’s Showtime network.

It’s about restoring balance.
The importance of protecting our commons as a counter-weight to market forces should be clear in light of our global economic crisis.  For thirty years the United States has promoted the ideology of the “ownership society” abroad and at home, attempting to privatize commons like social security and advocating individual healthcare savings accounts tied to the stock market.  Imagine the folly had such measures passed.  It is time to shift the tide of market fundamentalism and overindulgent individualism towards a stronger commons for us all.

Commons are on the rise.
Such a shift is in the making.  People around the globe — and especially young people — already have an innate sense of commons by virtue of participating in a Web 2.0 world.  Efforts to preserve biological and cultural diversity are approaching a critical mass, with one organization, Terralingua, compiling a Global Source Book to create a massive catalogue of language, species, and the knowledge that connects them.  Open source technology communities are proving themselves to be innovation leaders to rival traditional, proprietary companies.  The Firefox web browser and Drupal online content management system are but two examples.  IBM went open-source to create the Linux operating system and increased their business.  Creative Commons licenses are displacing overbearing, increasingly impractical copyright regimes unable to cope with digital technology.  As more of us come to recognize our environment as a commons, common-based solutions like “cap and dividend”, a sky trust set up to reduce carbon emissions and give the public owners of the sky a dividend from corporate “rental” of the sky, is hailed as “transformative” by Newsweek magazine.  Small-town America is starting to resist low-price big box store hysteria in favor of the social commons of main streets.  Indigenous people of Kerala, India beat back Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s attempts to privatize their water.  Brazilian farmers have banded together to resist Monsanto’s seed regime.  Gilberto Gil, the cultural minister of Brazil, declared music a commons and instituted measures to collect and archive music samples from every village and town throughout that vast country.  Listen closely.  Mainstream political leaders are using the language of commons.  Terms like commonwealth and “the common good” are returning to political discourse.  A “sharing economy” is emerging.

Name it.  Claim it.  Protect our commons.
You cannot protect what you cannot name.  WHAT WE GOT unites a variety of movements to protect what is ours by resurrecting and reinvigorating an ancient term — commons.  Naming and claiming our commons is much like the cultural invention of “the environment” in the early 1960s to capture efforts to protect air, rivers, and wildlife.  WHAT WE GOT’s purpose is to inject the notion of commons into the mainstream, the zeitgeist, the popular consciousness — what ever you wish to call it, so that we can name, claim, and protect what belongs to all of us:  The Commons.


Every great endeavor (and, admittedly, many failures, too) begin with a problem.  Ours was this:  The commons is an incredibly important and current topic deserving of a movie.  It is also convoluted and vast.  How do we address it in the form of a compelling movie?  And how do we make a movie that will appeal to wide, diverse audiences?

The conventional approach to material like ours would be an essay film — a long argument featuring the most compelling voices on the topic and a strong presentation of the ideas and their challenges.  Yet, it is this filmmaker’s opinion that many essay films are unsuccessful because they are often boring.  They are hard to sell to audiences beyond those who already agree with the argument’s conclusion — aka, preaching to the converted.

My past work almost always relies on a few great characters with compelling stories.  But there is no real-life person whose life could capture the full scope of what we want to say about commons.  After much toil we landed on the idea of a documentary-fiction hybrid.  Within this form. we can invent a character who goes on a journey to discover the commons we wish to show.  The main character is a proxy for the audience, also likely unaware of the full scope of commons.  We feel free, then, to invent a reason (based on extensive research) for our character to have a “commons conflict” and to have a need to go on a journey.  Hence, Samir Ansari, a bio-tech entrepreneur with a good heart who, somewhat unwittingly, is about to privatize DNA and prevent life-saving medical aid from reaching a poor population in need.

Inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we decided to give Samir a chance to learn about the consequences of his actions and reconsider his decisions.  Instead of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, we decided to imbue the real-life DJ Spooky (artist, writer and DJ Paul D. Miller) with magical “DJ powers” to remix reality, and lead Samir on a journey through time and space to discover commons.  In this way, Spooky can transport Samir to places like Nepal where land commons are threatened, to North Dakota to visit a farmer sued by Monsanto for accidentally using their patented seeds, or Kerala, India, to learn how indigenous people successfully fought back Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s attempts to privatize their water.  Spooky can turn Samir into an animated character so that he can visit Benjamin Franklin and other authors of the original copyright law, or travel into conceptual space like the Internet.  In this way, we hope to have our cake and eat it too.  We get a compelling narrative that delivers the full scope of the exploration of commons we hoped for.

We also achieve an aesthetic that is expressive of commons.  Technologies and digital platforms have fueled a boom in remix culture, from mega-hits like DJ Dangermouse’s Gray Album to the proliferation of video mashups online. Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s essay An Ecstasy of Influence (Harper’s Magazine, February 2007) highly influences our approach.  In the way that Lethem tried to footnote the influences on every line of his essay, demonstrating that ideas and knowledge are a cultural commons seeding creativity, we will explicitly trace the influence pedigree of our movie, sometimes onscreen, and certainly online.  It‘s no accident that we chose a DJ, an artist who remixes our cultural commons to make something new, and then offers it back for further remix,.  Our aesthetic, then, is a mash-up of documentary and fiction forms, and a mix of our originally shot material, archival material and material contributed by our online “commons” community.  We marry aesthetic and content in our approach to WHAT WE GOT’s story.  It is also a deliberate attempt to reach diverse audiences, appealing to lovers of remix culture, politically-engaged people who care about any of the multiple commons issues we address, cinephiles interested in new cinema forms, music fans, especially those of key collaborators Vernon Reid and DJ Spooky, web 2.0 users, in addition to traditional independent and documentary film-goers.  With this in mind, we invite you to read about the narrative we’re creating.  It is a work in progress.

WHAT WE GOT is the story of SAMIR ANSARI, a self-made biotech-capitalist wunderkind whose company, Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM), is sitting on a patent for genetic material that could stem the rise of diseases harming many of the earth’s poorest people.  Samir, based on a composite of real-life characters, faces the decision of whether or not to release access to his patent on the eve of his company’s initial public offering.

Protesters led by Beka, a woman Samir knew in college, try to pressure him to release the patent.  Using the conceit of a documentary crew that follows Samir’s every move, we are with Samir as he heads toward the life-changing moment of announcing AIM’s IPO when a strange turn of events unfolds.  The real-life DJ SPOOKY, whom Samir has hired to entertain at his IPO celebration party, uses magical DJ “remix” powers to lift Samir from his reality, and transport him on a wild ride through time and space to discover the commons and, hopefully, change his mind.

Sometimes pure documentary, sometimes animation, sometimes a blend of live-action and effects, the movie shows Spooky leading Samir on a fantastic journey.  Some scenes may include:

• They visit the Human Genome Project, where they learn how some patent applications of gene sequences privatize DNA and public research, anger scientists, and stymie innovation.
• They plop down in a heath in England managed as a traditional commons for over 400 years, debunking the notion of the tragedy of the commons, that commonly-owned land will be destroyed by negligent overuse.
• BEN FRANKLIN explains that genius is not the product of one man’s work, but of many, and offers as example his never-patented Franklin Stove to explain the intention of copyright and patent law.
• Indigenous people in Kerala, India show Samir how they defeated Coca-Cola and Pepsi’s attempts to privatize their water supply.
• WARREN BUFFET points out the flaws in market fundamentalism, reminding them that our common wealth enabled his accumulation of private wealth.
• A mindless sip of bottled water suddenly transports Samir to the islands of Fiji where the eponymous bottled water company supplies pure water to consumers thousands of miles away while their own population thirsts for basic, potable water.
• They join Brazil’s farmers as they take on their government for conspiring with Monsanto’s “terminator seed” strategy.
• They spot a woman repainting billboards to look like the nature behind them — she says she’s reclaiming the commons.
• The Penan of Malaysia show how corporate deforestation of homelands have left them little choice but to give up their ways of life for inhuman existences of servitude and prostitution.
• A silhouetted and vocally obscured MICKEY MOUSE makes the case against ad infinitum extension of copyright, using his own back story and creative stifling as a cautionary tale.

Spooky returns Samir to the present when he believes that Samir is ready to decide in favor of the commons, but Samir loses his nerve under the gaze of his business colleagues and an adoring audience.  As a last stop measure, Spooky sends Samir to one final stop in the journey, a dystopian future, part live-action and part animation, in which he sees the horrors of an overly enclosed, Balkanized society and learns that Beka has died as a result of not having had access to a therapy derived from the patent.  He pleads with Spooky to send him back to the present so he can make good.  This time, to everyone’s surprise, Samir announces AIM’s intention of open-sourcing their genetic discovery, rather than patenting it.  They’ll still partner with businesses to offer support services, much as IBM does with the Linux operating system.  They still intend to make money, but also to speed production of life-saving drugs for poor populations in recognition of their use of public resources and concomitant obligation to the common good., In the end, he comes to understand that the human genome research and DNA are commons and decides to return his patent to it’s rightful owner, the public.


WHAT WE GOT is currently in what our team refers to as phase 2.  We’ve successfully raised $666,666 towards the development and production of the project.  Those funds have enabled us to engage our core creative team of director Brad Lichtenstein, producer Brian Glazer, writer Jason Grote, co-director/composer Vernon Reid, editor Sam Pollard, researcher Nicole Brown and technology and outreach consultants Civic Actions.  As of February 1st, 2009, we’ve completed three drafts of a treatment for the film and a first draft screenplay.  The team is currently working towards revising that screenplay, a process that blends crafting the narrative and researching the many documentary elements.  Our process includes daily research, regular, in-person meetings with our core team, research trips, conference attendance, as well as consultations with a select group of advisors to our project including activists Maude Barlow and Harriet Barlow (unrelated), writers David Bollier, Lewis Hyde and Jonathan Lethem, and production and distribution consultants Peter Broderick and Norman Lear. In the coming months we’ll work towards a final script, storyboard the majority of it, pre-produce the film and finalize it’s schedule and budget.  We’ll cast our lead talent, complete our production and location research, and lock in the rest of our production team.  We will also continue our work with Civic Actions to complete a blueprint of our online and outreach engagement strategy, begin construction of our online presence, and solidify relationships to potential outreach partners.  We are currently blogging about WHAT WE GOT at and sharing information on Facebook and Twitter.  We aim to transition into active production in the fall or winter of 2009, shoot for roughly three months and look to complete post production by the fall of 2010.

(***Please note that this section is combined with OUTREACH AND ENGAGEMENT and INTERACTIVE ELEMENTS since the filmmakers feel that all three are necessarily intertwined.)

New digital platforms are eroding traditional distribution models.  Multi-platform distribution, participatory media and collaborative storytelling offer startling and compelling new paths for merging filmmaking and outreach into a single, effective strategy that maximizes impact.  Our strategy is to share our media and build a community as we make WHAT WE GOT.  It’s called TRANSMEDIA, a collaborative “commons” model of storytelling and creating social change that trades the old centralized, linear model of making a film first, then using it to foster discussion and action, for a continuous, decentralize collaboration that invites a variety of audiences to become storytellers and collaborators in a multitude of ways.  Our aim is to lead the way by experimenting with new modes and models of collaborative storytelling and activism.

WHAT WE GOT:  DJ SPOOKY’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE COMMONS’s strategy is to make our commons visible not just by creating a movie about the problem, but by undertaking a transmedia enterprise that calls on our audience to work as a commons to help tell and spread many stories about commons; not just ours.

Transmedia, admittedly a rather new term, describes our aim to facilitate interactive storytelling across multiple platforms.  As we make WHAT WE GOT, we will encourage people to remix, reuse, and share our media so that multiple stories about commons are being made and spread all the time.  While we hope WHAT WE GOT will be associated with every effort promote commons, we are not ultimately interested in controlling the story.  Just the opposite.  We are interested in germinating thousands of stories, a more effective way to strengthen commons, both in terms of spreading the message and in terms of demonstrating a commons in action.

We’ll seek collaborators by requesting contributions of sound, images or footage to our site for possible inclusion.  We’ll attribute all contributions to our version of WHAT WE GOT onscreen and online.  We’ll also provide online tools to facilitate remixing of our media and our community’s media, and host our community’s ever-growing cache of remixes and reuses to encourage multiple generations of derivative remixes and uses; one work building on another.  We’ll provide intuitive social media tools so that people can easily share their creations on social networking sites (like Facebook, Myspace, and hundreds of smaller scale online communities).  Heck, we’ll even make it easy for them to burn DVDs.

Creative commons licenses will govern our community’s activity.  Modeled on open-source software communities’ rules and the General Public License, creative commons licenses ensure further access to our media downstream so that the “gift” keeps giving.

To bolster our transmedia effort, we dreamt up our first widget (or mini-application for the web, social networks like Facebook, and mobile platforms like the iPhone):  the WeJay, an online video remix and share application that we prototyped at the Bay Area Video Coalition’s Producer’s New Media Institute in June of 2008.  Our “toy” is styled as a DJ’s console that provides a fun way to directly experience the commons.  Users can play with media (ours and others’) shared through the WeJay by scratching, remixing and sharing it.  The WeJay fuses pleasure with the experience of commons, and will help to build our online community.

Communities don’t arise on their own, of course.  We’ll join forces with scores of organizations worldwide to encourage their constituencies to help build our online “commons” and to stage events (offline, in real life) prior to our theatrical and television runs that feature remixes of our movie and highlight their local efforts to protect particular commons.  Our goal is 125 such events around the globe in various commons:  a school, a park, a reclaimed superfund site, a wilderness… wherever.  We envision each screening as an event organized and locally determined by our partners, reflecting local commons issues and flavor.  We’ll support the cultivation of these partnerships with active communication and sharing of resources online and offline, and by hosting our partners in summit at least twice to learn about the issues and sharpen technical skills, network, build new alliances, and strategize together.

Our transmedia strategy is an expression of the spirit of commons.  It celebrates our emerging remix culture, a celebration of our cultural commons.  It provides an experience of commons.  And, it makes for savvy 21st century marketing, growing an audience from the get-go rather than relying on a typically under-funded marketing campaign just a few months before the movie’s release.

Executive Producer & Director Brad Lichtenstein has been working in documentary production since 1992, as a producer on many PBS films including FRONTLINE’s Peabody award-winning presidential election year special, Choice ’96, and Lumiere Production’s  PBS series, With God on Our Side:  The History of the Religious Right.  With Lumiere, he produced and directed André’s Lives, a portrait of the “Jewish Schindler;” Safe, about 3 women who seek refuge from domestic violence; Caught in the Crossfire, chronicling  the lives of 3 Arab New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11; and Ghosts of Attica, about the infamous 1971 prison uprising and aftermath, for which he was awarded a Dupont Columbia Award for Excellence in Journalism.  He has produced for Now With Bill  Moyers.  His most recent project was for PBS’s INDEPENDENT LENS; Almost Home follows a year in the lives of people who live and work in a elder-care community.

Co-director & Composer Vernon Reid is a Grammy award winning guitarist, composer and boundary-bending artist who began with the downtown New York jazz/funk/punk  scene, lead the pioneering multi-platinum rock band Living Colour, and has collaborated with creative spirits ranging from Carlos Santana, Public Enemy, Defunkt, and African singer Salif Keita to choreographers Bill T. Jones and Donald Byrd.  He composed and performed Bring Your Beats, a children’s program for BAM. He produces artists like James “Blood” Ulmer.  He composed the scores for GHOSTS OF ATTICA and ALMOST HOME, and was the music supervisor for the Charles Stone film MR. 3000, starring Bernie Mac.  He founded the Black Rock Coalition in1984 to help combat the pigeonholing of African-American musicians.  A talented multimedia artist and curator, Vernon created Artificial Afrika, using animation, computer graphics and public domain media to explore historic, often racist myths and inventions that continue to define the idea of Africa and its culture.

Producer Brian Glazer specializes in documentary film and television production.  He recently produced the 3rd season of the acclaimed Sundance Channel series, Iconoclasts.  Additionally, he supervised post production for FLOW: For Love of Water, a documentary feature selected for competition in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.  Throughout his career, he’s worked on such diverse projects as Too Hot Not to Handle, the HBO documentary special about Global Warming; Will Play Extra, a docu-series he developed and produced for IFC about a casting agency and the commercial production industry; four shows for VOOM’S Gallery HD profiling artists Barton Benes, Deborah Kass and Patricia Cronin and the art and architecture of New York’s famed Woodlawn Cemetery; and Nightshift, a series for NatGeo about overnight workers.  Brian was Head of Production and Development at Lovett Productions for six years.

Editor Sam Pollard is an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer, director and editor and an associate professor of film and television at New York University.  His editing career spans over 30 years and includes the Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, Half-Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, and for Spike Lee, When the Levees Broke, Bamboozled, 4 Little Girls (also a producer) and Clockers.  Pollard produced episode one, “Feel Like Going Home,” in The Blues, executive produced by Martin Scorsese for PBS.  He executive-produced Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, which was broadcast nationally on P.O.V.  He was co-executive producer on Blackside Inc.’s I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African American Arts. Pollard was a producer, writer and director on Eyes on the Prize II: The Civil Rights Years(episodes 2 and 5), for which he received an Emmy Award for writing.  He also won Emmy Awards for editing for the films 3-2-1 Contact for the Children’s Television Workshop and the short documentary Iron Mike, directed by Spike Lee for HBO.  Pollard produced the first episode of the Peabody Award- winning The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow for Thirteen/WNET New York.  The film 4 Little Girls was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 1997.  The Harlem-born Pollard is a product of the City University system.  The editor, director and producer  Victor Kanefsky was his mentor in the film business and trained him to edit.

Writer Jason Grote is a playwright, screenwriter, and WFMU free-form radio host.  His plays include 1001 (Denver Center Theater world premiere, Page 73, Theater @ Boston Court, Contemporary American Theater Festival, Mixed Blood; upcoming, Marin Theater Company), Box Americana, Darwin’s Challenge, Hamilton Township (Salvage Vanguard Theater world premiere; upcoming, Soho Rep), Maria/Stuart (Woolly Mammoth Theater world premiere; upcoming, Theater Schmeater), This Storm Is What We Call Progress (Rorschach Theater world premiere), and Visions of Kerouac.  His work has also been produced or developed at: The Atlantic Theater, Baltimore Centerstage, The Brick, chashama, Circle X, Clubbed Thumb, CUNY’s Prelude Festival, The Edmonton Fringe, The Flea, The Frontera Fest at Hyde Park Theater, The Glej Theater (in Ljubljana, Slovenia), HERE, The Lark, The Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab, New York Theatre Workshop, The 92nd Street Y’s Makor/Steinhardt Center, The NY Fringe, NYU’s hotINK Festival, The O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference, The Orchard Project, Playwrights’ Horizons, The Playwrights’ Foundation, Portland Center Stage, Theater J, Theatre of NOTE, The Williamstown Theater Festival workshop, and The Working Theater. He has been commissioned by The Denver Center, Clubbed Thumb, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and The Working Theate.  And though his career is primarily in theater, he’s demonstrated great range as a regular blogger for Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart Show’s Indecision 2008 and written episodes for The Simpson.

Transmedia and Outreach Consultants Civic Actions provides strategic Internet consulting, technology planning, visual and informational design, web content creative and management advice, and outreach strategy and tools to protect the environment, advance peace, improve public health, promote education, champion human rights and increase human potential.  Projects include WITNESS’s human rights video hub and The Great Turtle Race, a partnership between TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Predators), Conservation International, the Leatherback Trust, and MINAE (Costa Rica’s Ministry of the Environment and Energy) to raise awareness of the plight of leatherback turtles.  Civic Actions is led by Henry Poole, whose extensive experience in information technology (Henry was the first technologist to setup a blog for a member of the US House of Representatives) began in the early 90s co-founding and leading Vivid Studios, where they managed the largest online product introduction in history – The worldwide launch of Windows95 for Microsoft.  Henry is a member of the Board of the Free Software Foundation and Virtual Artists and is the publisher of the Affero General Public License, the first copyleft license for web services.

Production Consultant Norman Lear is a legendary producer of television (Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, All in the Family) and films (Princess Bride, Fried Green Tomatoes).  Not content with entertainment only, Lear founded the advocacy group People for the American Way to protect citizens’ constitutional liberties, The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California to  explore the implications of the convergence of entertainment, commerce, and society, sponsored a tour that sent the Declaration of Independence across the US, and, most recently, the online Declare Yourself campaign to register young voters.

I Don’t Think ITVS Sucks!

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Sally Jo Fifer of ITVS talks to filmmakers at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival

Sally Jo Fifer of ITVS talks to filmmakers at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival

The Independent, one of indie filmmaking’s indie zines, published an article yesterday entitled “ITVS: Has the “Holy Grail” of Film Funding Lost its Way?” I don’t pretend to have a bird’s eye view of the entire organization and its relationship to PBS, indies, or filmmaking more broadly, but I offer my own experience with this organization over the past 13 years.  From my point of view, it has not lost its way.

Maybe, though, it’s a little misunderstood.  It’s important to understand that ITVS is not a grant-maker, like, say, the Ford Foundation.  When ITVS gives money to a filmmaker it initiates a partnership more akin to something between a producer’s rep and a distributor, only it’s fiduciary interest is minimal and it’s focus is on north American public television distribution.  ITVS presents the filmmaker with a licensing agreement that obligates ITVS to do it’s best to “sell” the film to the PBS system, often to a series like Independent Lens or POV.  The filmmaker, in turn, must deliver the show and all of the germane deliverables that will be required for broadcast, from a version timed to PBS standards to the proper clearances and permissions, to closed-captioning, etc.  In my experience, PBS deliverables are more onerous than the average television or cable station’s requirements, but you are not alone when you work with ITVS.  Like the article mentions, filmmakers who partner with ITVS go to San Francisco on ITVS’s dime for an opportunity not just to bond and deepen our community, but to also learn about delivery protocols and working with ITVS.  I attended one such gathering 4 years ago when my film Almost Home was selected as a LINCS (ITVS’ funding initiative that involves local public television stations) project, and I met the staff that eventually helped my co-producer, Lisa Gildehaus, and me as we prepared our deliverables.  And they provided a literal volume of templates.  I still rely on these.

During the retreat I also met the staff that helped us to organize a wildly successful Capitol Hill screening hosted by ITVS President Sally Jo Fifer and attended by several US Senators, the President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Patricia Harrison, the Deputy Surgeon General of the United States Ken Mortitsugu, Karen Schoeneman, the person from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services who deals with aging policy and about 250 policy makers, staffers and bureaucrats.  I could not have asked for a better organizing partner — ITVS staff were on the phone daily for at least a month making sure that everything was perfect right down to the color of the tablecloths, and they shared costs with me so that I did not bust my outreach budget.

I had applied to and been rejected by Open Call before Almost Home was accepted to LINCS, and my impression is that the staff at ITVS was profoundly interested in improving my application.  I scheduled my call and spent perhaps an hour on the phone with staff going over my rejected proposal.  They were so helpful that writing my new and eventually successful proposal almost felt like cheating, simply connecting the dots from their advice on the rejected proposal.  I got the feeling that they wanted me to succeed; there was nothing mysterious or cryptic about the process at all.  Of course, one can’t count on a positive outcome because the dynamics of every panel are unique and somewhat unpredictable.  And they made this clear to me as well.

I’ve heard the charges cited in the article that ITVS “can at times be a difficult partner, placing unnecessary demands on filmmakers, playing hardball during funding negotiations, shrouding the collaborative process in secrecy, and at times stifling the independent, creative spirit of the very filmmakers it is designed to support.”  I’m not privy to the actual conversations that have irked such filmmakers.  But on the legal front, I found ITVS to be much more interested in softball than hardball.  Two examples.  First, when Almost Home was accepted to the LINCS program we moved to the “feasibility” stage.  I had a problem.  I worked at a university that hosted me as a filmmaker-in-residence.  Bound by rules imposed by their funder, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and in turn their funder, the US Congress, ITVS could not fund an organization or university.  Their mandate was to fund individual filmmakers.  Believe me, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provided only minimal support.  I was every bit a struggling individual filmmaker as the next person, but on paper it didn’t appear that way.  On top of it, I was plagued by unimaginative lawyers at the university who did not have my interests at heard and refused to work creatively with ITVS to determine solutions.  The deal fell apart.

ITVS was diligent enough to track me down in a rural part of the Adirondacks (no cell phone service, can you believe it?!?!) at the last moment.  We mutually decided to give our effort 48 more hours and it was their legal department that suggested I start my own LLC and even offered tips on the process.  ITVS was part of the solution, not the problem.  Three years later they helped again.  ITVS and I negotiated a deal for internet distribution of Almost Home, and this time they gave me the gift of patience.  Far from stifling my spirit, they helped file copyright paperwork to prepare the distribution agreement and kindly waited and assisted as I cleared some music that needed to be extended for the new contractual period.  They understood that we indie filmmakers are overworked and offered help so that I did not need to completely pull my attention away from my current project to file paperwork and bug Warner Chappell for 3 songs.  I call this partnership and support, and I appreciate it.

My experience is the exact opposite of the charge that “anything that could place a public television broadcast in jeopardy—including a community screening or appearance at a film festival—may be problematic or prohibited under the terms of the agreement.”  I am sympathetic with filmmakers desperate for a theatrical release who butt heads with ITVS (or any television broadcasting entity) that takes the position that such a theatrical run will rob audience from the broadcast.  I think the opposite is true; that theatrical builds buzz for the broadcast and that audience building is not a zero-sum game.  My impression from examining the PBS schedule is that the PBS system is much friendlier to this point of view than in the past.  Each year brings more and more shows to PBS after their theatrical or festival runs.

ITVS strongly supported my pre-broadcast non-theatrical community screenings.  In addition to helping us to organize a Capitol Hill screening of Almost Home, they also organized about a dozen pre-broadcast screenings across the country through their Community Cinema program.  (That program has grown by leaps and bounds, now.)  They supported the outreach / engagement screenings we did around the country through our national outreach partners.  We gave away roughly 1800 DVDs prior to broadcast for such screenings.  Our partners and their constituencies screened the film for audiences as small as 5 nursing assistants in a nursing home and as many as 700 people at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging national conference.  We did workshops and talkbacks at dozens of these screenings.  Most proceeded without us.  ITVS was encouraging, and it paid off for both of us.  Almost Home’s January broadcast was unceremoniously canceled at the last minute when President George W. Bush scheduled his State of the Union for the same night.  ITVS acted swiftly, securing 2 new dates for the broadcast on Independent Lens.  They got on the phone and worked like mad to contact all of the stations to reprogram our new dates.  Meanwhile, I activated the network created by our outreach campaign and free screenings.  In a matter of two days we were rescheduled on almost every station and the station programmers were pleading with us to call off the dogs, the thousands of people calling and emailing their stations to reschedule Almost Home.  I was on the phone hourly with ITVS and they were completely responsive.  Again, they were helpful, committed and fulfilled all of my expectations of a healthy partnership.

My whole career has mostly been with the PBS system and there are two charges I’ve never understood.  One is that PBS films are conventional or boring.  People always bring up Ken Burns, but god bless him.  He has a large audience.  For the more adventurous, how long until you souls realize that every Tuesday features the same fare you’d find at the big and the local film festivals?  ITVS supports or helps to present films like this season’s Helvetica, Doc, Order of Myths, and Chicago 10.  Every year a slate of ITVS films are featured at Sundance, South By Southwest, Tribeca.  Tuesday nights are as indie, eclectic, political and engaging as it gets on American TV.  True, some filmmakers might not like working with public television.  The deliverables are decidedly voluminous.  The timing of the show is exacting.  PBS prefers you cut your feature to an hour.  But, I’ve never encountered the attempts to assert editorial control that have been suggested by some filmmakers.  Sure, ITVS staff reviewed my rough cuts and provided notes, but the notes were offerings without specific obligations beyond the good faith effort that we address them.  Payments are timed to stages of production and post-production, including rough cut review.  That’s typical in the industry.  In my experience, notes were gently and thoughtfully given, respectful of my vision, and in many cases very helpful.  No different than the notes I might receive from trusted colleagues.

The article pits ITVS against HBO.  Certainly HBO projects get healthy budgets and might take advantage of the sweet digs at HBO’s office.  But I’ve heard similar complaints from filmmakers who have had their shows reviewed, and in some cases recut by HBO.  We are lucky that HBO is such a major sponsor and promoter of indie filmmaking.  One major advantage of public television, though, particularly for filmmakers who wish to make an impact, is that ITVS’s outreach mission supports efforts like Community Cinema screenings around the country, website promotion and joint development of online educational resources.  In my opinion, neither ITVS nor HBO is better or worse than the other; they’re just different and different films are suited to one or the other.  After these two outlets, there is paltry support for indie filmmaking from American broadcasters.

I’m very familiar, too, with the charge that DeeDee Halleck writes, according to the article, that “ITVS programs must be offered to public television and the PBS administration, and the local stations are loath to support this rogue entity. So ITVS bends over backwards to please the stations (and Congress), and very little authentic alternative programming gets produced through this organization.”  Now, I’m not naive and I know that the fight to establish the “rogue entity” of ITVS was hard and bloody.  I am grateful for George Stoney and a slew others like DeeDee who fought that fight.  I know that not everything goes on PBS.  But take a sober look of late.  Where else on American television are you going to find stories about people of color, gay, lesbian and transgendered people, immigrants from all over the globe and other generally underrepresented Americans and visitors to our country besides PBS?  Go up and down the dial and, besides Sundance and HBO and Cinemax, you’ll only find melodramatic reality shows and soft-pedaling sponsored-entertainment or bio-docs when it comes to non-fiction programming.  POV and Independent Lens have done more to bring underrepresented groups’ stories and tales from the far reaches of the earth, the disempowered in our society, or of the unusual   to a wide audience than any other television entity in the US, and most of this programming has received support from ITVS.

ITVS stepped in right after 9/11 to support projects like Caught in the Crossfire, a show about Arab New Yorkers that I produced with David Van Taylor and Lumiere Productions, where I worked at the time.  ITVS stiffened its spine when the Anti-Defamation League publicly denounced our film, ITVS and PBS for including a segment in which one of our main characters, Pastor Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian Lutheran minister living in Brooklyn, recalls being tortured by Israeli soldiers.  I had done the due-diligence to confirm the story, and ITVS stood behind me.  They never backed down.  We were front page news for several days in the New York Sun, and the story had legs, particularly with Jewish groups around the country.  ADL attacked PBS and it’s funding, per usual.  But there was never any discussion about pulling the show from the air or altering the final cut.  None.  There was a second contraversy over the maps of the Middle East on the Independent Lens website.  In this case, ITVS revised the maps, but, again, never punished us or tried to shirk their responsibility.

Sure, there is bending going on, but not just in the direction of perceived pleasing of PBS administration or Congress.  I had the privilege of serving on an ITVS panel judging finalists for LINCS support, and what I observed was heartening to me as an indie filmmaker.  I was one of only two filmmakers on panel and amazed at how seriously the programmers, PBS system funders and distributors around the table took my opinion and that of the other filmmaker.  They listened closely as we talked process, story and suggested how a project should be supported, perhaps with the condition that a more experienced filmmaker come on board as an executive producer.  (Poor Sam Pollard, he was suggested over and over again.)  I was heartened by how often we refreshed our commitment to the mission of ITVS, particularly in bringing alternative (yes, alternative) fare and voices to television.  I was impressed by the absolutely strict neutrality of the ITVS staffer in the room.  He was there only to answer policy questions, like a good judge in instructing the jury.  I was surprised and thrilled by the give and take of our discussions.  I recall one application in particular, an experimental fiction triptych of gay encounters that challenged some of the programmers in the room on many scores, especially form and content .  Still, at the urging of others, particularly we filmmakers, the reluctant programmers bent in our direction and took a chance.  They agreed that the work was intriguing, that it promoted voices not heard elsewhere, and that it would not find support from other broadcasters besides PBS .  We bent, too.  We took seriously the concern programmers in more conservative areas expressed about maintaining local support for series like Independent Lens and POV.  They were compelled to balance their desire for challenging and unique programs to see the light of day with their desire to maintain local support for keeping Independent Lens and POV on the air at the prescribed time of carriage in prime time.  I learned a lot from the panel, particularly the multiple pressures and points of view that comprise the PBS system.  It made me more empathetic with the people often sitting across the table from me when I’m working on a film.

Indeed, understanding multiple pressures and points of view is one of the central skills a documentary filmmaker must develop in order to make work that reflects the dynamism of the human experience, on an intimate and global scale.  It’s unfortunate that PBS has been cajoled by national party politics into promoting a policy described as “fair and balanced.”  Unfortunate, not just because this is the disingenuous slogan of Fox News, but it is also impossible to constrict standards for broadcast-worthiness into a slogan.  My politics are left.  I voted for Obama.  I’ve made films about Attica, domestic violence, discrimination against Arab-Americans.  Still, I can appreciate the difference between a flat film that only sings one tune – that of full-on advocacy, and a rich, multivalenced film that navigates the complicated human dimensions of an issue, reaching beyond easy judgements to take the viewer to a deeper, often unresolved, understanding of a topic.  I wish I could say that I always succeeded at this.  That’s for others to decide.  But I appreciate the need for ITVS and the series on PBS to seek such programming.  Such programming cannot be expected to meet any formal, standardized test for journalistic or storytelling standards.  Certainly, such judgement can’t be reduced to a slogan.   Every program is unique, and every judgement is subjective in the end.

That said, there is a place for all kinds of filmmaking, including hard-nosed advocacy.  But not every kind of filmmaking is appropriate for ITVS support.  I’ve heard many complaints from filmmakers who conclude that they did not get support because their show was “too hot to handle.”  My impression is that this might be a credible conclusion in some rare cases.  But I’ve had a chance to see some of the “too hot to handle” films, and I’m here to tell you that many need a great deal of work before they can be considered worthy of support precisely because they are either too one-note and flat, they are shoddy in their production values, they are poorly edited and confusing, or just plain dull.  It’s hard to make a good film and easy to complain.  At the end of the day, I often hear the voice of editor extraordinaire, Tom Haneke, who simply puts his head down and goes back to work after we get negative feedback and says, “Okay, let’s make it better.”  One of my mentors, Cal Skaggs, said it over and over:  “Filmmaking is hard work.”  Again, complaining is easy.

Some of you will probably say that Lichtenstein is just kissing ass here.  Full disclosure, I’m under contract now for research and development on my next project, What We Got.  Dismiss my experience as sucking up if you wish.  Or take me at my word.  I think ITVS is trying to contend with difficult pressures from Congress, CPB, filmmakers and the PBS series, and yet remains one of the  strongest supporters in America for fine independent filmmaking.

They are also moving boldly into the multiple platform digital space, but that’s a blog for another day.

I welcome your comments and reactions.  And happy filmmaking.