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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.