Brad Lichtenstein’s blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Ghosts of Attica

Draft 5 of my Sundance Documentary Fund proposal

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Even me, Mr. Commons-Guy, is feeling a little wary about sharing this.  Not only might there be things like typos (ee-gads!) but maybe just a bunch of silly ideas.  Oh, and I’ve got that knee-jerk, old school reaction — are you going to steal the movie and make it yourself?

The magnificient Seattle Public Library downtown is a common!

The magnificient Seattle Public Library downtown is a common!

Well, okay…what the heck.  Here goes.  Let me know what you think.  Seriously, from the littlest thing to the most devastating critique, I’d appreciate it.

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 time and space to show him all kinds of commons that we share, making the case that some things like water, the sky, DNA, public land, the Internet and our public domain must be protected from privatization.


The Point of What We Got
Unbridled 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.  Unchecked privatization also threatens our created commons: collective social enterprises like the Internet, scientific progress, traditional knowledge, and music, art and culture in the public domain.  The plunder of our commons by private enterprise is happening right now, right under our noses; and if we don’t set out to restore balance between markets and commons, markets will consume our commons.  Failing to sustain our commons jeopardizes future generations’ survival. WHAT WE GOT harnesses the power of media, technology and storytelling to name, claim and protect our commons before it is too late.

What is a commons?
We can’t protect our commons unless we first name and claim them.  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? Libraries?  Parks? Indigenous traditional knowledge?  Scientific discovery?  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 previously sustained 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 private plunder is calculated and deliberate, as in the case of Disney’s successful effort to extend the term of copyright to keep Mickey Mouse from becoming public domain, patents that restrict other researchers’ access to genetic code, or the bottling of water from the world’s aquifers and public water systems.  Other plunders are the result of wanton neglect, such as 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 ferocious appetite can’t help but consume our 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 is fair game for unchecked global capitalism, a lion whose metabolism needs gazelles to survive.  It’s not that capitalism is innately evil.  In fact, it is good.  It simply needs to be held in balance by robust protection of our commons.  To extend the metaphor, if we run out of gazelles, the entire system collapses.  Unchecked capitalism is unsustainable.

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 under attack, 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 our transportation system to schools to the stock exchanges themselves.  Commons are everywhere, yet often invisible.  Our imperative is to make commons visible.

This is urgent work.  Our commons are under attack.
In Nepal 8 million people depend on nearly 50% of the land held in commons for their survival.  Similar circumstances exist in Liberia, Afghanastan, Sudan and other less developed countries.  All in all land commons support 2 billion of the poorest people on earth. Capitalist adventurers who aim to exploit the timber, minerals, oil, fisheries, wildlife, and water threaten these ancient commons.

Private development, often with the support of tyrannical governments, are destroying indigenous communities at a pace that threatens to destroy up to 90% of the world’s languages by the end of the 21st century, obliterating precious cultures and a wealth of traditional knowledge along with them.  Much of what we know about plant species, biodiversity, and the medicinal benefits of certain plants comes from indigenous people’s traditional knowledge stored in obscure languages. Pharmaceutical companies know this, routinely patenting such knowledge and species then, ironically, enclosing those healing powers from the people who discovered and freely shared them 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, mostly to support the 8.8 billion-gallon bottled water industry.  Bottled water is a double catastrophe, consuming 1.5 million barrels of oil for plastic bottles, and more to ship them.  The great majority of the bottles contribute to the 3900 million pounds of un-recycled plastic that piles up in landfills and swirls amid a floating dump in the north Pacific Ocean, estimated to be more than twice the size of Texas.

On dry land Monsanto undermines the common practice of cultivating and saving seeds by monopolizing the seed market and cajoling farmers to sign exclusive contracts to use Monsanto’s genetically modified “terminator” seeds that “turn off” (don’t germinate) after a single season and require Monsanto’s pest control products.  Monsanto seeks and sues farmers who grow their seeds without a contract, even when wind carries their seeds into unsigned farmers’ fields.  Monsanto’s intervention into traditional farming practice is so dire in parts of India that some commit suicide rather than comply and face destitution.  From America’s giveaway of public lands to mineral mining companies to  China’s proliferation of coal plants, the forces of privatization are consuming our natural commons.

The looting is not confined to our natural commons.

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 may be considered a public utility within our lifetimes.

In the past 100 years, intellectual property holders have succeeded in extending 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 express purpose for copyright: “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 in its plunder of our cultural commons, leading the charge for copyright extension through 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act right before Mickey Mouse was to have become public domain, yet building one of the world’s largest media companies by exploiting public domain classics like Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.  Over-aggressive copyright enforcement scares girl scouts away from singing copyrighted songs around campfires and requires anyone using “Happy Birthday To You” to pay Time Warner for the rights.   The Recording Industry of America sues willy-nilly the name of artists, netting grandmothers and even dead people in a wild effort to prevent copyright infringement.  To date, not a single penny from these lawsuits has made it into the pockets of musicians.  What irony that the Smithsonian Museum — James Smithson’s gift to America — has pimped its archives to the highest bidder, agreeing to a “first look” deal with Viacom’s Showtime network for use of it’s historical movie footage collections.

It’s no secret decades of eroding public funding has forced universities to look to corporations to subsidize their operations. The quid pro quo is that private corporations dictate substantial parts of public universities’ research agendas, and not just in America.  Most egregious is companies’ practice of 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 commons, 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 the earth’s diseases, most of which afflict the world’s poorest populations that offer no incentive to corporation because they hold no purchasing power.

The Ownership Society at home

The current economic crisis radiates from the United States and it’s faith in “the ownership” society.  Before the economic collapse the American government was on the verge of turning sacred commons like social security over to private interests, and to privatize the healthcare system further individual savings accounts tied to the US stock market.  Imagine the folly had such measures passed.

Seeing Commons Everywhere
Once you know how to look, you can see the plunder of our commons everywhere.  No cataloguing can be sufficient to the task of grasping the extent of this plunder.  Sharing — the gift economy — that has fueled scientific and creative progress since the dawn of humankind has been weakened by thirty years of market fundamentalism and overindulgent individualism.  It will take a cultural shift of equal magnitude to restore our commons to their proper station.

Wait a second. It’s not all doom and gloom.  There’s good news!

Commons are on the rise.
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 at least as innovative as 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.  NASA set up an open system to harness the power of amateur stargazers to chart the sky.  More and more of us are coming to recognize our environment as a commons we all share. 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, Warren Buffett, publicly disputed the myth of the “self-made man”, arguing that private wealth would not be possible if not for common wealth.  Listen closely.  Mainstream political leaders are using the language of commons.  Terms like commonwealth and “the common good” are returning to America’s political discourse.

Name it.  Claim it.  Protect our commons.
And that’s the point.  You cannot protect what you cannot name. WHAT WE GOT unites a variety of movements to protect what is ours by resurrecting and reinventing 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, 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.  Our 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 discover the commons we wish to show.  The main character, of course, is a proxy for the audience, also likely unaware 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 magic “DJ powers” to remix reality, and lead Samir on a journey through time and space to discover commons.  I 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, where indigenous people successfully fought back against 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 the 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, so to speak.  We get a compelling narrative that delivers the full scope of the exploration of commons that 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.  An essay that highly influences our approach is An Ecstasy of Influence by novelist Jonathan Lethem (Harper’s Magazine, February 2007).  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 trace the influence pedigree of our movie quite explicitly, sometimes onscreen, and certainly online.  It is no  accident that we chose a DJ to be one of our main characters, the embodiment of the artist who remixes our cultural commons to make something new, and then offers it back for further remix.  Our aesthetic, then, is “commons”: a  mash-up of documentary and fiction forms, and a mix of our material and material contributed by our online community.  WHAT WE GOT marries aesthetic and content in it’s approach to it’s story.

With this in mind, we invite you to read about the narrative we are creating.  It is a work in progress.

WHAT WE GOT is the story of SAMIR ANSARI, a self-made biotech-capitalist wunderkind whose company, Advance Idea Mechanics (AIM), is sitting on a patent of 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, must decide whether or not to release access to his patent on the eve of his company’s going public.

There is pressure on Samir to give up the patent.  Protesters led by a woman Samir knew in college dog Samir by appearing at his pubic events, even pieing him during a speech.  Employing the conceit of a documentary crew that follows Samir’s every move,  we follow the action leading to his IPO when a strange turn of events unfolds.  The real-life  DJ SPOOKY, whom Samir has hired to DJ his IPO celebration party, uses magic DJ “remix” powers to lift Samir from his reality, about to announce an IPO, and lead him on a wild ride through time and space to discover our commons and, hopefully, change his mind.

During his journey:

• They visit the Human Genome Project, where they’ll learn that patent applications for certain gene sequences privatize publicly funded research, anger scientists and stymie research and innovation.
• They travel to 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 and his colleagues’ intentions with original copyright and patent law.
• Indigenous people in Kerala, India show them 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 his own wealth was created by connections and resources created by others.
• A mindless sip of bottled water transports Samir to the islands of Fiji to explore the pillaging of the natural water table by the eponymous bottled water company.
• India’s  farmers recount suicides in response to pressure to grow genetically modified crops with terminator seeds.
• The Penan of Malaysia show how corporate operations to deforest 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 warning.

Spooky returns Samir to the present just as Samir begins to realize that the market and commons do indeed need to function in tandem.  He attempts to speak out in favor of this by suggesting the release of his patent, but loses his nerve under the gaze of his business colleagues and an adoring audience.

Spooky quickly swoops back in to send Samir to one final stop in the journey, a dystopian future, part live-action and part animation, in which he discovers that, in addition to the horrors of an overly enclosed Balkanized society, Beka has died as a result of not having had access to a therapy derived from the patent.  After pleading with Spooky to send him back to the present so he can make good, Samir finds himself returned to his party, again at the moment in time when he’s to make a speech announcing his IPO to the audience.

To everyone’s surprise, Samir announces AIM’s intention of open-sourcing their genetic discovery, rather that patenting it.  They’ll still partner with businesses to offer support services, a la IBM with the Linux operating system.  They hope to make money, but also to speed production of life-saving drugs for poor populations and to assert that the human genome is a commons and return the DNA he privatized 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, 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.  Our process has included 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 (not related), writers David Bollier, Lewis Hyde and Jonathan Lethem, and production 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 aim to transition into active production in the fall or 2009, shoot for roughly three months and hope to complete post production by the middle of 2010.


(***please note that this section is combined with Outreach and Engagement since the filmmakers feel the two 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.

A transmedia enterprise might sound complicated, but it’s really rather simple.  It’s facilitating 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 shared all the time.  While we hope WHAT WE GOT will be associated with every effort connected to our movie, we are not 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.  It’s a “toy” 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 marries 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 coming together in summit at least twice to learn, network and strategize.  Disparate organizations will discover affinities

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 before the movie’s release.

Key Creative Personnel

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 was born in New Jersey in 1971 and has lived in Brooklyn since 1997. He is a playwright, screenwriter, and WFMU 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

About the Sample Work

Almost Home is a feature-length, cinema verité film (Independent Lens) that rescues the real stories of aging from an exile of denial. Shot over the course of a year at a retirement community in America’s Midwest, Almost Home follows one couple bonded by their struggle with Alzheimer’s and another divided by the challenges of Parkinson’s; children who are torn between caring for their parents and caring for their own children; nursing assistants who must do unsavory work for poverty wages while juggling precarious lives at home; healthy elders who fear the day they may have to move to the dreaded nursing home; and a visionary nursing home director who feverishly works to alleviate such fear by transforming the impersonal, regimented hospital-like institution into a warm “home” that promotes autonomy and inspires independence rather than fear. Though quite different in form from WHAT WE GOT, ALMOST HOME demonstrates my ability to address social issues without predictable didacticism by delivering a strong, clear story with multiple levels of narrative and captivating characters; central goals for WHAT WE GOT.


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.