In this interview, we get the chance to get some inside information from director Tom Jennings, a Peabody and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker. He has written, produced and directed more than 400 hours of programming on a variety of topics, including politics, religion, history, crime, sports, mystery and travel. He has produced documentary films all around the globe, always looking for new ways to tell stories that are informative and entertaining.
Tom lives and works in LA, he’s at the front-row seat of the heart of the industry in the US. This is an amazing opportunity to hear the voice of an acclaimed filmmaker who knows the industry inside-out has and witnessed how it changed and evolved in the past 15 – 20 years.
First, before all the questions about the industry that we have for you – can you talk a bit about you, your work and where it all started for you?
My first job was being a newspaper reporter. I have a degree in journalism from Kent State University in Ohio. I wrote for papers in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles before changing careers to write television documentaries. I made that change in the late 1990s, right as cable networks were taking off. Production companies needed people who could write and thankfully my background made me a good candidate for telling stories that were to the point and easy to understand. When executive producers saw that I could write scripts without much trouble, they started sending me out to do interviews with film crews. I had no idea how film shoots worked, but I knew how to interview people from being a journalist. The film crews I worked with in those early days taught me a lot about production – how to light, how to shoot b-roll and how to be sure I had the proper coverage to tell a story. Those crews were like my film school. I became a director after that and in 2004 I sold my first series to Discovery Channel and I’ve had my own production company ever since. We do films that exist somewhere between pure journalism and television documentaries. It’s a great fit for me and I really love what I do. I’m very lucky.
You’ve been working in the industry for the past 15 years, what are the big changes you witnessed in the past 5 years as an insider?
The changes going on in our industry are coming very fast. There are huge changes in the technology we use to create films. Editing systems are more powerful. Access to images from around the globe are nearly instantaneous and our ability to do everything in-house, including mixing and color corrections now possible because systems are more affordable. At the same time, selling programming to networks has become more challenging and confusing. It’s always been difficult to find the sweet spot of what a network wants, but with the advent of streaming services and other internet platforms, there’s a certain chaos going on now. Everyone is trying to figure out how to “cut through the noise” of an immense amount of content out there. My job is to constantly monitor who is buying what, what types of programs do well, what is in the zeitgeist for audiences and can I blend all that together to make films that we find fascinating. So far, we’ve been lucky, and I hope we can continue to make the kind of programming we love, whether it be for cable or streaming.
In light of today’s competitive landscape and the rising demand for content: do producers and filmmakers, like you, feel the pressure to produce more and hence the need to constantly find new ideas?
We are ALWAYS on the lookout for new ideas. Fortunately, for me, coming from a journalism background I have a pretty good instinct of how to find them. When I was a newspaper reporter we had a city editor who would say, “Slow news day, get out on the streets and find me a great story”. It was great training for finding ideas for documentaries. However, I know I have to tailor ideas to what networks want. I may find something that is amazing, but if no one is buying that kind of material than it remains just that, a great idea. I often joke with my staff about how we have to strike a balance between great ideas for films and making sure those ideas fit what can sell. “I could have an interview with Jesus Christ himself,” I tell my staff, “And a network will say, ‘Sorry, we’re not doing religion shows right now.’” Regardless of the idea, any idea has to fit to have a home, or it won’t go anywhere.
Do you think that today’s competitive landscape for broadcasters raises the bar in terms of quality (for documentaries) and does it also require bigger production budgets?
This is a double-edged sword, to be sure. Budgets have always been tight. I’ve never talked with a producer who has said, “We had more than enough money to make that show”. For premium content, especially with international travel or purchasing very expensive archival images, networks acknowledge that the budget has to be big enough to handle those costs. However, even when budgets are small, the expectation of quality is high. We’re always looking for clever ways to stretch our dollars to be sure everything is on the screen.
What does it take to have a good idea for a documentary film? Do unique archives play an important role in the construction of a film?
It takes having a great story, unique access, unseen images, great storytellers and sometimes a well-known actor to host. There are dozens of things that go into getting a show on the air and the alchemy in that process is finding the right balance of all these factors. Depending on the story, archive can play a tremendously important factor. But it’s not like 10 or 15 years ago where old black and white images were used as “wallpaper” (as we say) to help illustrate what someone being interviewed is telling us. Today, our use of archive has to be more vibrant, an integral part of the fabric of the story. Many of our films have ONLY archive in them, which makes a lot of what we do unique. We use the images and sounds from events of long ago to bring those stories back to life in ways that no recreation can. But with archive, there is either too much material or too little. We can spend weeks going through images and footage of well-covered events, but when we need to illustrate a particular moment, often we can’t find anything that fits the narrative. Regardless of how archive is used in a film, if you’re going to use it, use it well.
How do you look for new ideas? Have you built strong relationships with archive sources? Do archive sources come to you to let you know about their unique collections? or do you often look for them?
Great ideas are everywhere. I tell my staff that every day in The New York Times there are 25 ideas for documentaries – and they are NOT in the headlines on Page 1. You have to keep your eyes and ears open. Ideas will come to you, but you have to learn how to recognize them – and to dig them out when they are not obvious. Sometimes I’ll just go on the Wikipedia main page and hit the link to “random article”. You would be amazed what can pop up. And though those links aren’t often a perfect documentary idea they can get you thinking about things that may seem random, but suddenly make perfect sense. I’m always reading general interest magazines and newspapers. I listen to as many radio programs and podcasts that I can. I look at what books are selling on Amazon. I keep up with what’s being researched at universities to see if there are new discoveries coming out. I always check in with sources for past films to see what’s new in their lives and ask if they have heard of anything great coming their way. I love going to libraries and just walking through the stacks looking at book titles. I think about all the things happening in the world and wonder what stories are out there that no one has thought to pursue. And suddenly, a light goes off in my brain and says – “That one could work!” And then the hard part starts – research, making sure it hasn’t been done before, and seeing if my bright light moment is something that will fit with the buyers.
When you pitch to broadcasters is the promise of accessing unique archives a selling argument, in order to build original documentaries and captivate a wider audience?
Many of the broadcasters to whom we pitch are extremely interested in hearing about long-lost or never-before-seen footage. The networks definitely use this as a big selling point. I can’t blame them. It gives them marketing leverage in a highly competitive market place. But it pays to know your history when it comes to programming on cable and on streaming. I can’t tell you how many times I see commercials for programs that claim, “never before seen” or “never before heard” and I know that my company or someone else’s company did that same program five or ten years ago. Memories are short these days. Having a background in journalism, I’m always sure that when I bring the networks something special that I know it really is something never before heard or seen. And this works for the audience, as well. If they think they are going to see something new about a story they thought they knew, they’ll be intrigued and hopefully tune in.
Is there a higher demand for documentaries today than in the past?
Yes. A few decades ago, there were a handful of people making feature documentaries. Major network news divisions had documentary divisions and there were places like National Geographic Films, which existed longer before the channel. PBS was also a place to sell documentary programming. But in general, the options were limited (and I have to add the caveat this was before my time in the documentary business). When cable television got really going in the 1990s, places like Discovery, History and others wanted a lot of hour-long documentaries to put on their airwaves. It was a bit of a golden age. I worked for several documentary companies during that time and my work took me all around the world to places I thought I would never go, and to meet people I thought I would never meet. Then reality television came along, and let’s face it reality television is basically a hijacked version of the documentary format. But audiences loved those shows and the demand for long-form television docs started to dwindle. About five or six years ago, we were convinced we would have to start producing programming in the reality space because that was where all the work was. And then something happened. I’m still not sure what, but audiences grew weary of reality programming and circled back to wanting better stories and films that felt more unique. Suddenly, the type of films we make are in vogue again. I’m grateful for that.
What makes a documentary project appealing today for US broadcasters and so streaming channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu? (does it need to be international, have already a huge community base of fans, have unique angles, archives etc…..)
Nearly every broadcaster we deal with wants programming that can “travel”, meaning it can be shown anywhere on the planet and people will still find it interesting. To help them with that, we are tasked with often finding new angles on well-known stories that nearly everyone knows. Our film about Princess Diana for National Geographic was one of the highest-rated films the network has ever had internationally (besides doing well in the United States). Her story is one that is known worldwide, so getting people to tune in is easier. The trick is to have a story that is so good that those viewers won’t change the channel. Another network once told me, if you’re going to pitch me a shipwreck story it had better be the Titanic. Even though we have found dozens of great shipwreck stories, many of them with unbelievable archival footage connected to them, I’ll have a much better chance of making a sale if I find something new about the Titanic.