Wrapping Up 2021 Independents Summit: What Does "Now" Look Like for Doc Makers

By Craig Phillips and ITVS Staff
Posted on September 2, 2021
Summit 2021 hero image with light blue and text

ITVS wrapped the intense, two-day 2021 edition of its Independents Summit, which was jam-packed with panels, all with the running theme, to borrow a phrase from narrative storytelling, of "that was then, this is now." What does the "now" look like for documentary makers in this rapidly changing, challenging media landscape?

Independents Summit, a once-a-year gathering of ITVS-funded filmmakers, industry partners, and thought leaders, asked and answered this pressing question, honing in on both the opportunities and the pressures facing independent filmmakers to bring diverse and meaningful stories to public media.

In one of our most robust Summits to date, our virtual panelists belonged to all sectors—from PBS programming to industry funders, from filmmakers and producers to an audience research analyst—and approached this question from each and every angle: How can the documentary field redefine success beyond audience reach (and the number of festival laurels on a film poster)? What do caring, generative relationships look like between filmmaker and documentary participant? What will—or should—the independent film ecosystem look like by 2051?

The collaborating, questioning, and brainstorming doesn't stop when Summit ends. So, in that spirit, we’re sharing some of our favorite highlights, powerful moments, and choice quotes, panel by panel:

Keynote with PBS's Sylvia Bugg

After an inspiring introduction on the state of things from ITVS President Sally Jo Fifer, Summit kicked off with a highly illuminating conversation with PBS's new Chief Programming Executive and General Manager Sylvia Bugg and ITVS’s own Sherry Simpson, Sr. Director, Engagement and Impact Innovation.

Bugg has only been in her role for a year but, as she noted, it was a year in which "every imaginable event that could take place across the nation and globally, has taken place." Amidst all, she has been guided by two north stars when it comes to program content and development: why this content, and why now?

These fundamental principles serve as a powerful reminder of the trust that public media has built with audiences. Bugg elucidated on how this trust sustains the public media system: 

"What is it that enables [content creators] to be able to go into places where they get access to storytelling, access to experts, access to everyday people who are willing to share stories with the larger community, with national [or] sometimes global audiences? Trust, it has always and will continue to be—[it is why] people come to [public media] knowing they are going to get more than just the headline as part of the storytelling."

Audiences on the Move

Following the keynote, Lisa Tawil, ITVS VP of Marketing and Communications, and Allan Cook, Deloitte’s Digital Reality Business Leader, took a deep dive into changing media consumption habits during the pandemic, distilling some of the key findings of the fascinating, comprehensive 15th annual Digital Media Trends report, which we highly recommend combing through. In a year where we mostly lacked the option to literally have "water cooler conversations" with colleagues, did the isolation change our viewing habits?

Cook spoke to the rapid changes in digital media consumption over the last year plus of sheltering-in-place. “Consumer behavior added a lot of entertainment services across the board," he explained. "So people started subscribing more to video, music, gaming, news, audiobooks and the like [resulting in] a dramatic increase in churn among services as consumers became more aware of their financial outlays, as well as just economic concerns brought to the forefront."

Even more, Cook shared specific insights that have implications for every filmmaker in search of today's seemingly elusive audiences on the move. 

Marketing for streamers during this time of "churn" demands different approaches to different generations' diverse viewing habits. "I tend to like knowing that I have these various options on my screen and the fact that one would be on or off again would just drive me nuts," Cook said. "I just want to be able to open my TV and see content. Whereas my younger millennial friends are really happy to have an 'in again, out again' [frequent] stopping experience. Part of that is having grown up with social media and other types of more instant feedback and integration." He added that "what we tend to find in each of these studies is [that] younger generations don't tend to change, but all the other generations tend to follow their example."

The discussion also explored the future of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in non-fiction, and its potential to engage users or to solve problems, things that might be out of the consumer space but more in the partnership-building realm. One plus of AR is that any person with a smartphone can get access, arguably making it a more efficient tool than VR as a branding and gaming tool. Cook brought up the recent example of  CNN using AR to show potential
 floodwater levels after a storm. "You had the reporter standing there and then a wall of
 water was around them just to demonstrate what ten extra feet of water flooding would look
 like. [That had] a tremendous amount of impact." 

Docuseries Demystified

Moderated by ITVS VP of Production Royd Chung, the filmmakers of the Independent Lens docuseries Philly D.A.—directors Yoni Brook and Ted Passon, and producers Nicole Salazar and Michael Gottwald—focused on just how they made the leap from feature films to episodic storytelling. They were joined by PBS Senior Director of Programming & Development Wendy Llinás and Topic's Director of Non-Fiction Programming Jeff Seelbach, both of whom provided insights on their considerations when programming docuseries.

One of the conversation’s biggest takeaways was the age-old adage about the importance of form fitting content. The Philly D.A. trio noted that there were many political and policy dynamics that a feature couldn't explore as extensively. "It wasn't automatic to make it a series, we had our own debates [and] weren't looking for an excuse to make it a series,” said co-director Yoni Brook. "[But] that's what the story required." The team talked about cracking the code creatively of what a feature would be that could do this story justice, but found a multi-arc story worked well as a series.

Producer Nicole Salazar added, "None of us had made a series before." They were "intimidated and excited in terms of storytelling, but in terms of how you'd make it was daunting and scary." 

As far as advice to other filmmakers considering the docuseries format, Ted Passon, who noted he was making the jump from short-form content right into docuseries, said, "Storytelling in a series versus a feature is similar, but with more story arcs to think about, more to do." He added that the "hardest thing was having the time to have eyes on eight hours of story. Rough cuts start coming in after about two hours into the beginning, and [you have] to watch these cuts and give notes by the next day." So he suggested divide and conquer. "It's a lot to keep your eyes on. Because there were three of us, we could divide that work."

Yoni shared, “I would encourage other people to try to fight for that element of being able to watch your series the way the audience member will," as the Philly D.A. team took one week to do just that. They watched rough cuts for the most part, "but it was helpful to do that from the remote team collaborative perspective [where] we all got to watch stuff together and chime in. Just to ask ourselves the question, 'If I'm only watching this series this way, I'm not just popping in for episode six, how does that feel?'"

And as far as pitching a docuseries to PBS, Wendy Llinás bluntly urged producers to ask, "Why should this series be on PBS? We are unique in the things we present and think are important to the public. There are many times you see the same topic [explored], whether on Discovery or whatever network and it works and it's great." But, she adds, "If you see it on PBS, it will have the extra layer of education—[that] is our mission, to do it in entertaining ways. It always depends on the topic. We have content priorities for the next few years but we have flexibility within." Some of those topic priorities she mentioned include art, climate change, criminal justice reform, and the state of democracy.

Seeking Justice, with Belly of the Beast

The first day of Summit wrapped up with a roundtable discussion moderated by Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Executive Producer, with Belly of the Beast director Erika Cohn, producer Angela Tucker, documentary participants Kelli Dillon and Cynthia Chandler, and ITVS Research and Evaluation Director Grace Anglin. The panel discussed the mission-driven engagement campaign for Belly of the Beast and specific ways in which the film and its impact team didn’t just educate audiences, but inspired viewers to take action. For a film project that this team acknowledged took anywhere from five to 15 years to come to fruition, it was a "story that was bigger than us," Kelli Dillon said.

Beyond highlighting the campaign's many successes, the panelists provided two key frameworks for thinking about engagement. Throughout the panel, the speakers stressed that the impact campaign is part of a film’s lifecycle, just as pre-production and editing is, and, even more so, that it should be conceptualized from the film’s inception. 

Belly of the Beast’s engagement team also highlighted that a film’s impact campaign is additive, building on the work already being done on the ground. Dillon put it best, when she shared, “The work was already in progress,” but the film and its campaign helped amplify the work of the changemakers (without, as the panelists frequently reminded, falling into the trap of direct lobbying or advocacy).

What Matters Most to Documentary Funders

Representatives from several funding organizations talked with ITVS Sr. Director of Production Dave Eisenberg about what has recently shifted in their missions and visions for the future of our field. How do funders now evaluate the concept of “value” when considering projects? How can filmmakers best communicate that value in light of how organizations are evolving and reflecting?

Talking to Eisenberg were Caroline von Kuhn of Catalyst, Chi-hui Yang of the Ford Foundation, Carrie Lozano of Sundance Documentary Fund, and Poh Si Teng of the IDA.  

"As funders, we surround ourselves 
with filmmakers who are also very close to what
happening, in terms of the 'fire,'" Po Si Teng of IDA said. "The changes are in not so much what we are 
curating, but changing our systems to make sure 
 the process is more fair and equitable." And each funder emphasized how their programs are interested in and highlighting inequality. 

Have the funders adapted their application process to reflect evolving times? Sundance's Lozano said they recently made changes to their application's synopsis in order "to acknowledge that maybe this is not a linear story, it does not have to be narrative or three-act structure. We really are open to a variety of storytelling forms [and] culturally resonant to different communities, cultures, and countries.”

Measuring success—how to and what that even means—was also something that came up from several of the panelists. Catalyst's Von Kuhn talked about shifting the measures of success to ensure "that investors are very understanding of the financial risk and the rewards of financing." 

The funders also shared directly what they are looking for in a project. Here’s what to remember:

  • Be clear about the film’s strategic goals;

  • Share honestly about the film’s challenges and unanswered questions in the funding application;

  • Make sure the work sample and and the written material in an application are complementary;

  • Practice humility and being transparent with the funders about where you are.

Back to the Future: The Evolution of Just Filmmaking

Last year, a group of colleagues from the documentary field came together to craft a framework for values-based filmmaking. At Summit, members from the Documentary Accountability Working Group—ITVS's Sherry Simpson, producer and teacher Natalie Bullock Brown, Senior Fellow with the Perspective Fund Sonya Childress, Working Films co-director Molly Murphy, and educator and filmmaker Bhawin Suchak—shared this new framework, which is centered on anti-oppressive practices, the importance of transparency and positionality, and the need to prioritize the wellbeing of the people associated with your film.

The working group addressed the challenges of incorporating this framework, but stressed that the best way to operationalize these values is budgeting for additional costs and time upfront. This could mean adding a line item in your budget for a mental health professional to meet with film participants after sharing a traumatic story in an interview, or providing more time for cuts so that participants could watch and provide feedback.

The conversation also touched on addressing something not touched on enough: ethics in documentary filmmaking.

"We thought that the missing element in the debate in our field was a discussion of the values and ethics that shape a filmmaker's practice," Sonya Childress said. "In the absence of an agreed-upon code of ethics that lawyers have, that journalists have, that doctors have, our field does not have a code of ethics. In the midst of increasing pressure from market forces that now dominate our field, filmmakers are often pushed to operate and make films that are extractive and unethical." 

One key takeaway ultimately, especially after the challenges of 2020 exposed so many cracks in the system, is, as Childress commented, "the effects of unethical filmmaking on film crews, on the documented people themselves, on the communities that are documented, and on audiences."

Artist Spotlight: Pete Nicks

Summit concluded with an honest and heartfelt conversation between ITVS Vice President of Content Noland Walker and filmmaker and Head of Nonfiction at Proximity Media, Pete Nicks (The Waiting RoomThe Force), a wide-ranging chat that explored everything from the power of location-based filmmaking to the role Pete’s upbringing has played in his career. 

He also name-checked a diverse group of creators who had an impact on his work, from groundbreaking LGBTQ+ filmmaker/artist Marlon Riggs and documentarian/teacher Jon Else, to journalist/producer David Simon ["a white journalist but expert at telling the story of that place (Baltimore)"] and Bay Area indie-turned-Marvel director Ryan Coogler.

Pete touched on having to deal with a horrific tragedy in his own life while shooting his new documentary Homeroom —and how having something so meaningful to work on while reeling from a death helped him process while keeping him occupied.

A touchpoint throughout the conversation was the importance of the filmmaking community. When asked for his advice on dealing with challenges when making a documentary, Pete shared, 

“I was grateful or fortunate to be exposed to a couple different communities. The first was NAHJ [National Association of Hispanic Journalists]. It gave me the feeling that I am not alone in there, something [is] happening bigger than me. Being at Berkeley underscored that and in a little bit more of an intimate way. Having peers and friends and colleagues around you is the real support, because you have those moments where it's like, ‘I want to give up.’ Whether it is because you don't have any money or it's just because you are emotionally not sure.”

Descending the Summit, for Now

Pete's powerful words were a fitting way to end the 2021 incarnation of the Independents Summit. This last year has been depressing, confusing, stressful, draining, enervating and messy. 

But, by bringing together ITVS-funded filmmakers and industry leaders, Summit made it that much less lonely. And even more than that, this gathering built on the work that is already happening in the field of making the documentary world a more equitable, collaborative, and a loving one.

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