Notes from Orientation: Producers Learn the Ropes at Camp ITVS

Posted on August 3, 2010

ITVS’s Open Call provides finishing funds for single nonfiction public television programs on any subject and from any viewpoint. Last week, ITVS hosted nearly a dozen filmmakers who were recently awarded Open Call funding. Among the troops was Andy Schocken, producer and director of photography, of The World in a Room. Here he wraps up ITVS’s crash course in producing for public television. 

Somewhere between our discussion of Canadian retransmission royalties and the percentage-of-completion method of contract accounting, it hits me that I’m not at film school anymore. Looking around the room at a remarkable group of filmmakers whose work I’ve long admired, I accept that there’s a time and place for six-hour Frederick Wiseman marathons and roadtrips up Highway 1 with nothing but a Bolex and a dream. I’m here at ITVS orientation to hone my skills as a producer for public television, and this is right where I want to be.

I’m here with The World in a Room, a documentary that I’m producing with the director Tanaz Eshaghian, which was selected for funding through ITVS Open Call.  Our film follows the unfolding stories of students at Ellis Prep, a New York City high school for recent immigrants and refugees.  Through the eyes of students from Sierra Leone, Yemen, and the Dominican Republic, we see how their encounters at school, at home, and in their new neighborhoods shape their identities as Americans. From the outset, it’s been clear that public television is the ideal outlet for our film, and that our creative approach serves the PBS mission to spark civic dialogue and give voice to underserved communities.  

Moving the project from this alignment of values to a broadcast slot in front of a PBS audience is where ITVS comes in.  In addition to providing the crucial funding that is so scarce for public-interest films, they empower filmmakers to overcome the technical, legal, and content-related hurdles that stand between our creative inspiration and the PBS programming pipeline.

At orientation, recently funded filmmakers are here in San Francisco to learn how to more effectively produce for public television, and to understand recent developments that impact our work.  Some of the more exciting developments we’re learning about come from ITVS Digital Initiatives. Through the new Project 360 program, films like The Way We Get By and Deep Down have extended their stories across new-media platforms, using the particular strengths of non-broadcast media to channel engaged audiences into real-world action. ITVS has also developed Community Classroom, a program that pairs specially edited film modules with educational curricula, empowering teachers to integrate the vital social issues of our stories into their lesson plans.  

One thing that becomes very clear here is that ITVS staff members have an array of specialized skill sets in various fields that allow us to amplify the impact of our films, and to make them more relevant and long-lasting than they could ever be through a simple television broadcast. I won’t sugarcoat the reality that a lot of what we’re doing here is coming to grips with the accounting methods and reporting requirements that will guide our production management process. 

As documentary filmmakers, it’s tempting to immerse ourselves in the dramatic lives of our subjects, focusing on the creative process to the exclusion of these pesky real-world concerns.  ITVS makes sure that we’re also engaging with our roles as television producers, ensuring that our projects serve the needs of public television, and ultimately find the audience that we’re looking to reach.


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