Notes from Orientation 2011: A Filmmaker’s Take

Posted on February 23, 2011

Doc filmmaker Reuben Atlas reflects on ITVS’ latest producers orientation for Open Call funding

I heard the letters I-T-V-S for the first time about three years ago, sitting in the audience at a panel on documentary financing. One of the panelists, an Oscar winner, had just responded to the question of how he financed his film by holding up his MasterCard. The moderator then asked, “Have any of you received funding from ITVS?” The crowd collectively gasped and all side conversations paused. A few people raced for the Q & A line. The young woman next to me flung open her Mac laptop and braced her fingers at the keyboard. “What’s the acronym stand for?” I whispered. Keeping her shoulder’s facing forward, she swiftly turned her head towards me. “ITVS?” she said. “It’s the Holy Grail.” A man next to her immediately scoffed, letting us know he felt quite differently. Four Open Call applications, many proposal revisions, and countless work sample cuts later, and here I am, a first time filmmaker at ITVS’ Open Call Producers Orientation.

It's day two and I thought the ITVS staff would at least exude a mild air of superiority, having produced a large number of powerful films, but the entire staff has been welcoming and engaging and seems genuinely excited about everyone’s projects; even the business and legal team approached me with kindness, seeking to lend support and guidance. I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey and now live in Brooklyn, and don’t trust this West Coast charm. 

Day three, the last day, and I’m sitting around the ITVS conference table, part of a group of producers whose Harvard and Yale degrees only received mention at the end of bios that include an Academy-Award nomination and a Peabody win. None of them, though, acted above the presentation on the history of public television, or the descriptions of ITVS’ extensive services, from digital initiatives to community engagement. Everyone listened intently to the discussion on PBS broadcasting trends, and since the members of the staff put their creative dexterity into the power points, even the budget and financial reporting talks had listeners. 

But during one of the sessions I drifted. I remembered something I’d heard one of the other filmmakers say during a speech at the memorial service of a documentary luminary and mentor to many. In front of the thousand-plus crowd at the church, he commended the late filmmaker for embodying the principle that “we can’t be the only one up here,” that in this competitive, isolated, and ego-driven business, we could only create change in the world as a group. The point roused a booming applause. 

During the low points of learning to become a documentary producer and director, I’ve often felt disconnected and on a selfish quest. After attending ITVS orientation, though, and encountering so many others with a similar commitment to producing and promoting independent films, and who seem to genuinely believe in the power of a community of independent filmmakers, I feel differently. I feel (as trite as it may sound) part of the collective effort to enact the public television mission.


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