Filmmaker Notes from Orientation, Summer 2011

Posted on August 1, 2011

Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein attended ITVS’s latest producers orientation for Open Call funding and was kind enough to share his notes.


We're producers. We're used to 13-hour days, right? Actually, I heard nary a complaint. Instead, what I heard was praise and genuine joy for an opportunity to be with fellow filmmakers in an atmosphere of celebration and camaraderie. Take day one of orientation, for example. After a breakfast that included vegan granola (it is San Francisco, after all), we were whisked away into workshops and meetings that were all about the money. Financial reporting. Budgeting. Contract negotiation. 

It was a lot to absorb and my brain was mushy by 5pm when we gathered to walk over to the Dolby Lab. Dolby's screening room is not what I expected from the millions of promo trailers I've seen and heard in movie theaters — you know, the ones that culminate in something like the sound of broken glass shards raining over you. The room is like a 1970s revival of a 1920s deco theater — but the sound is pristine. Every film’s five-minute cut was great, from the story of America's first gay bishop to the story of a family trying to do Christmas without products from China. 

ITVS had prepared a program to hand out and staff introduced each film. Filmmakers did Q&A. I felt deeply respected and maybe even a little coddled as they introduced our film, As Goes Janesville, one of several that received funding after multiple tries. Most importantly, the evening reflected the sincere support ITVS conveyed all week. Not only did they successfully create a supportive, collegial space for us to balance contract numbers with content ideas, but they helped us understand how we fit into their broader mission. Just look at us and our film topics. We are from New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Bay Area, Milwaukee, Austin. We are Jewish, Chinese, African American, Native American, Indian-British, LGBT. We are old and young, men and women, veteran and emerging. We — and the staff of ITVS — are truly diverse, fulfilling a mission originated in the 80s to respond to a report by the Carnegie Foundation that bemoaned a public media system without innovation and diversity. No tokenism here. ITVS is serious about supporting a wide array of filmmaking voices. 

The only buzzword as potentially hollow as diversity is innovation. But ITVS is serious about substance in this area too. We learned about FUTURESTATES, short fiction films that imagine a social problem as it plays out at some point in the future. And we learned about Project 360 enhanced, an innovation initiative that supports ITVS filmmakers in creating technology projects that address issues raised by their films, from games and apps to anything you can imagine. Companion websites are so two-thousand and late. I had not expected to see the intensive three-day orientation through the lens of age, but somehow that's how it came into focus for me. I had been around ITVS before, first as a producer at Lumiere Productions throughout the 90s, then in 2005 as part of the LINCS initiative with my film, Almost Home. Many of the ITVS staff are still here from each of those times. I chuckled at the references they used during presentations. While one of the more "mature" (as in my age) staff members used a Tom and Jerry reference, another who was likely born around the time I started working in film referenced He Man, a character I had to look up on Wikipedia to discover that it was a popular cartoon in the early eighties. 

But this observation is trivial compared to the change I noticed since I was here five years ago. Last time around there was tension over the contracts and especially over distribution strategies. Five years ago filmmakers in my LINCS group felt overwhelmed, even a bit assaulted, by the sheer size and demands of the ITVS contract and what was perceived as a lack of concern for festival and theatrical releases. But this time workshops and one-on-one meetings made the contract transparent and understandable. What's more, ITVS’s lawyer (whom I shall not name here) is a kind, gentle, dare I say, baby-faced man who makes contracts go down like honey. And ITVS is light years ahead of other outlets with whom you may have negotiated when it comes to distribution. Instead of arguing over release windows, the entire team is ready to work with filmmakers to devise a strategy that helps our films reach audiences through festivals, PBS broadcast, outreach and community engagement activity and public relations. 

We met with each department over the course of three days. If anything, I felt like I would struggle just to keep up with ITVS's support for our film. I wish I could be more critical, if not ironic. Yet I can’t. The orientation days were long, yes, but they were lovely and I left energized to make our film and very happy to know a fantastic bunch of filmmakers well. I wish I could find something to complain about. Okay, I know, the room we were in most of the time had no windows. C’mon ITVS, can you work on that?    


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