Archive Valley, Documentary Film Industry

Interview With Mrinal Kapadia


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In this interview, we get the chance to get some inside information from producer Mrinal Kapadia, who lives in India and runs an Indian production company, producing fiction and documentaries for the Indian and international audience. Mrinal, is at the front-row seat of the industry in India and this is an opportunity to hear the voice of someone who knows well the Indian market and for us to have a glimpse at what is happening in the film and especially in the documentary industry, today and where does it head tomorrow.

Thank you, Mrinal for taking the time to share your vision with us. First, can you tells us about you, your background, what brought you to make films and what is it like to work as a producer/filmmaker in India in 2019?

I had studied Industrial Engineering in the US and my goal during college was to pursue a career as a Business Management Consultant. I tried some internships and a job after college doing exactly that, but I soon left the company. When I was in between jobs and thinking of what to do next, through a series of events I ended up joining my father’s production house as a trainee on a regional Indian feature film. One may (or may not) be able to understand what a learning experience that had been!

Beyond my training on that film, our company has gone on to produce multiple feature films and documentaries, initially for the Indian market but now progressively more focussed towards international markets. There is a huge skew between the number of films & documentaries produced in India (over 2000 per year) and the worldwide market share enjoyed, and that’s where I believe a gap lies that can be fulfilled.

Working as a producer in India is very challenging, of course – the main problem I see is the lack of systems; since barriers to entry in the film industry in India are very low (anyone without a resume / requisite skill qualification can “become” a part of the industry if they have the wish), and this could lead to a product, not at par with the rest of the world. Also, on the production side, for smaller feature films and documentaries, there is very little distinction between Executive Producers, Line Producers, Production Controller, etc., so tasks are not clear at each level and it is tougher to point responsibility. On the other hand, this very lack of systems allows for lower production crew costs, so it must be seen from a wholesome point of view.

In the last few years, especially since digital cameras have made the medium less prohibitive in our ultra cost-sensitive country, people are experimenting more and more with the medium. Also, the internet has made the environment a more equal playing field, and systems by default are getting better and better.

Could you explain a bit how (through which channels) content is distributed today in India (mobile phones, cable networks …)?

The distribution channels, like almost anywhere in the world, have traditionally been theatres and television (satellite, cable, and home video). But in the last 3-4 years, due to smartphone penetration across semi-urban and rural areas, along with huge cellular data limits offered by a new entrant, Reliance Jio (of over 1 GB/day) at very low cost (less than € 2 per month), entertainment consumption on mobile phones has shot up.

Theatres are almost exclusively for larger budget feature films (Bollywood, Hollywood, and regional), of which Hollywood now has a healthy share. India has been exposed to

English for centuries, and is not an insurmountable barrier to overcome, but most big-budget Hollywood features come not only subtitled but also dubbed into Hindi and other major regional Indian languages. Satellite/cable television viewership is dropping in urban areas but rising in rural regions, where many households are still getting their first televisions due to the slow but steady economic upturn across India.

There is a particularly interesting and unique traditional concept of showcasing audiovisuals (films or government-sponsored shorts) in rural areas through ‘tambus’ or touring tents, where a truck goes from village-to-village, but even though it still exists, it is fast disappearing due to easy internet access for entertainment.

Who are the major OTT actors today in India? Are Netflix or Amazon present and highly watched in India? Who do you believe will be the main ones tomorrow and why?

As with many countries, Amazon Prime and Netflix are two of the top players in the OTT space in India. But they currently stand second and third (respectively) in terms of a number of subscribers to HotStar, a subsidiary of Star India (owned by Fox and consequently by Disney), which has the highest number of users by a large margin. The main reasons are 1. It showcases a lot of the most popular sports events and leagues, and 2. It follows a model which is a mix of AVOD and SVOD, a sort of “freemium” model.

There are some more prominent local OTT platforms (SonyLiv, Zee5, Eros Now, AltBalaji to name a few) that follow either the “freemium” or SVOD model, but all have a very low subscription cost. The general trend is that if a platform is part of a media conglomerate group, they would offer their TV soaps, music, etc., for free whereas movies, original productions, and live sports with zero delay would be available with a subscription.

There is no doubt that Netflix and Amazon Prime are here to stay in India, even though they have begun with differing strategies (Netflix charges between €6.5 and €10 per month, whereas Amazon Prime has a low fee of €13 per year, obviously targetting a larger section of the population to allow combining of their other mainstay offerings of free Amazon.com delivery, etc., within it). But leaving them aside, and also the fact that other huge international conglomerates like Disney, BBC, etc., shall be launching their own platforms soon, a lot will probably depend on the cellular data packages that are offered here.

As mentioned above, if the offering by Reliance Jio continues in a similar fashion, and other competitors maintain similar pricing to keep pace, data consumption will keep growing significantly and, as a result, so will online viewership across OTT platforms. If not, overall viewership might not grow much, and the market might hit a saturation point or continue with slow growth.

We start to see more and more Indian documentaries at international festivals such IDFA award for best documentary,  “Reason” by Anand Patwardhan’s. Would you say that Indian filmmakers, like you, have a stronger desire to enter the international market and are they looking to work on subjects connected to India with an international appeal?

Apart from big-budget feature films (Bollywood and regional), funding for other features, documentaries, and shorts is very difficult. Hence funding becomes one major reason for Indian filmmakers to look internationally in order to tell their stories.

Additionally, since English is spoken by many Indians, communication with the West is less of a hindrance. With the exposure/influence of international (largely American) media for the past 25-30 years (news, television, films, etc.), connect with the West and western ideas is quite strong.

With the general influence of the internet being the “democratization” of products, suddenly audiences have the world to choose from and want to find good, engaging stories, gain knowledge about places/people quickly, and from my recent interactions at exhibitions it seems the world finds India fascinating/interesting and wants to know more, adding yet another incentive to like-minded filmmakers to look outside for funding and/or showcasing.

And lastly, with politics in the country (just like the world over) getting more polarizing, irrespective of the outcome of our national elections which are currently going on, there will definitely be more and more filmmakers looking to take their projects to international markets.

In the west, for many, the film & documentary industry is going a “golden age”,  within a very competitive landscape in which producers and filmmakers are being asked to produce more and more content: how would you describe the documentary landscape today in India? Is it facing a similar path or are there other challenges at stake?

Going back in time a bit, India was a closed economy pre-1990, and with the economy not being as large (“underdeveloped” from a capitalist point of view) then, the cost of filmmaking was prohibitive to even most feature filmmakers, let alone documentarians. There was even rationing of celluloid print during this time!

In the past 3 decades, the economy has opened up, the glamour quotient associated with this (film) industry has steadily risen, the number of avenues for showcasing (theatres and especially TV channels) have gone up considerably, and post the rampant adoption of digital technologies in the last 5 years, local filmmakers here to are producing more and more content.

In spite of a large number of local productions, a high percentage of the total money is concentrated on the top few feature film projects with the biggest stars; it is, in general, difficult to get funding for films, and even more so for documentaries.

There is the occasional institute (Jamia Millia, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, etc.) or semi-government body (Public Service Broadcasting Trust [PSBT], founded and run by the amazing Rajiv Mehrotra) that tries funding or training for documentaries, but there are limited local avenues.

How do you see the future of documentaries in India? Do you expect more and more international co-productions or is the local market with all its regional languages big enough to feed the industry?

We have succumbed to a Box Office driven mentality, where whatever makes you a quick return on your investment is the way forward. As with many places, what falls into this category (of getting the largest box office returns), is entertaining fiction with stars. We don’t nourish our culture on screen and don’t portray stories in their truest form since they might not be “entertaining” enough to earn big numbers. As a result, making a project deemed ‘risky’ in India is very difficult, which is where the documentary genre falls.

When it comes to the festival circuit, barring some exceptions, Indian documentaries have not been able to yet navigate the marketplace landscape of foundations, pitching forums, sales agents/distributors, buyers, etc. But again, awareness is ever-increasing.

The future does look bright – apart from taking documentaries to international markets/festivals, the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the host of soon-to-launch international platforms will be good potential fits for well-told documentaries on Indian subjects.

This will probably not happen overnight. We are at the very early stages of OTT dominance in audiovisual media, and since the business model is very different than it has been in the past, dominant international platforms will on one hand definitely want a strong Indian subscriber base, but will also have to work around the complexity of India, and will (to some extent, they already have) begin with trusted partners (many from the West). So yes, it does seem that international co-productions will dominate this space in the near future. And since these international platforms will be calling the shots, it’s not necessarily a question of what the local market feeds the industry; it’s what will work worldwide for the platforms that will determine what gets picked up / greenlit.

Is there a higher demand for documentaries today than in the past?

In the past (post independence in 1947), documentaries were an almost-exclusive domain of the Films Division (FD), the Indian government’s filmmaking unit. Independent documentaries were almost non-existent. FD shorts were compulsorily played before feature films in theatres and by mobile projection vans in villages all through the 50s, 60s, and part of the 70s; and so demand had very little role to play.

As the political climate shifted and technology offered the possibility of moving from celluloid to video in the 80s, and analogue to digital in more recent times, the supply has gone up as can be expected, but demand has been low. The average budget allocated to a documentary by the Films Division today, for example, would be in the vicinity of INR 1 million, which is quite low and would result in below average visual quality. This general trend has led to local audiences equating documentaries with being uninteresting, and demand has remained low.

The best way to address the root cause of this low demand is covered in a very informative book, ‘A Fly in the Curry’ by K.P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro. The crux of the matter is that documentary filmmakers are very vocal about their fight against power, and as a result have found very little support from either the state or the market to make their films. The visual quality continues to remain low, documentaries have remained a niche in the country, and as a result, we have very few internationally recognized documentarians like Mani Kaul or Anand Patwardhan.

The turning point seems to be near though – it’s only a matter of time before we catch up with the rest of the world, and as the world gets more global, India will continue to remain interesting for a while. We should be seeing a host of international projects of either Indian origin or Indian co-production, with the subject centred on India. The worldwide recognition and appreciation of Netflix’s ‘Wild Wild Country’ (the subject is an Indian spiritual Guru and his cult) and ‘Period: End of Sentence’ (based on the taboo surrounding menstruation in India and winner of 2019’s ‘Best Documentary Short Subject’ Oscar) are just the beginning. Many Original projects on India by international OTT platforms (especially Netflix) are today produced or co-produced internationally, but this should change slowly but steadily.

As we are both passionate for archives, could you tell us a bit about India’s relation with archives? Do Indians have a strong interest in their own history, in their own past?

When we talk about India’s film archives, we must start at the beginning. From pre-independence (pre-1947) times, a majority of all official, educational, and amateur films were taken back to the UK, and the BFI National Archive holds a large collection of this time in the country. How much footage erstwhile royal families, old industrialist families, colonial-era institutes, etc., hold is not known.

When it comes to fiction (features and shorts), from the approximately 1,700 silent films made in India, only 5-6 complete ones remain at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). We don’t even have a complete print of our first ever talkie, Alam Ara, released in 1931. The fact is, it seems we’ve lost 70-80% of all film prints from before 1964, the year that the NFAI was established. A lot of these statistics have been collected by the pioneering Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, a filmmaker who has started his own non-governmental film archive in order to help preserve the medium in India. He has made a lovely tribute documentary on P.K. Nair, the founder-director of the NFAI (regarded as the Henri Langlois of India), and it is because of Mr. Nair that the NFAI at least has a considerable collection to begin with.

Films Division have, as per their website, “8000 titles including priceless Indian News Reels, documentaries, short films, and animation films”. This is a vast majority of all the non-fiction produced from the 50s to the 70s, and it seems they still haven’t got the funding to restore these titles.

The Indian Government is extremely apathetic towards our history and archives. As per a recent report, in the process of digitizing the list of records of the NFAI holdings, almost 31,000 (24%) of all the film cans/reels were found to be lost/damaged. More surprising still, about 5,000 reels which were not listed in the register were found! This indicates major bookkeeping and cataloguing errors, and possibly not an actual loss of stock, but the fact is there is rampant apathy.

When it comes to an individual Indian’s point of view, there is a sense of pride in our history, in our past glories, etc., but those are restricted largely to story form. Restoration, conservation, cataloguing, etc., as processes are just not a part of our training as in the West. Since I am involved in the antique visual art space, I know that many Indian antique booksellers, for example, would not fully understand the difference between selling a good versus poor copy, and their prices would reflect that lack of knowledge. The concept of provenance, which is of prime importance to a rare book, would not be of much importance here. So in conclusion, we appreciate our past, not necessarily our heritage, but this can largely be attributed to our ignorance and lack of awareness, and can definitely be changed with education / knowledge.

Are archives today in India easily accessible? Tells us a bit about the archive project you intend to pursue/build?

Government archives are, as stated in the example above, notoriously difficult to navigate. At the National Archives of India (NAI), according to a 2017 findings, eight in ten requests for access to papers, microfilms, etc., are turned down for ridiculous reasons (‘in search’, ‘tracing’, ‘destroyed’, etc.) On the other hand, the same researcher spoke of damage due to negligence on the part of staff and scholars (dog-earing, annotating, haphazardly filing, etc. of original historic material) The need of the hour is definitely education on preservation for future generations before too much is lost.

Important private archives (high net worth, industrialist, or erstwhile royal families) have been cataloguing and preserving their collections for some years. They are largely professionally run and approachable.

I recently had the privilege of producing a crowdsourced documentary to commemorate the 100thbirth anniversary of the renowned yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar (which we have just licensed to an American OTT platform), and for this project we got to work quite closely with their personal archive; sifting through thousands of images and many videos, matching the material to the specific emotion being conveyed was quite a challenge at times, and overall the outcome was very rewarding.

The project you are referring to is one I’ve been working on for the last three years. I have begun a small but (if I may say so) culturally significant focussed collection of antique Indian visual art, which has been steadily growing, and I have been cataloguing, restoring, digitizing, and preserving it along the way. Our weather makes it difficult for preservation, and digitization must be given utmost importance. My long term goal is to create a digital depository / archive of antique Indian visual art, and an extension of this would be an audiovisual archive (of material that is available, of course.) We shall have to see where life takes us! Thank you for this opportunity to speak on your platform.

Documentary Productions, Licensing, The Right Footage

Fair Use in Documentary: Understanding the Costs


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‘Fair use’ is a term used in the media industries in many countries. However in the United States, ‘fair use’ refers to the doctrine in US copyright law allowing the use of short verbatim excerpts of copyrighted material for a range of “transformative” purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, research, and even parody without permission from the copyright holder. Countries such as the UK and France have their own fair use laws with specific language and guidelines, but these are ultimately quite similar in purpose to American fair use doctrine. In countries where fair use is permitted, this legal framework can be a valuable tool for filmmakers, especially fair use in documentary. However, in some cases, claiming fair use on footage used in a project can present editorial and aesthetic constraints, as well as pose a legal and financial burden to a production.

Here are a few things to remember when considering claiming fair use of copyrighted footage in film and television productions. (more…)

Documentary Festivals, Documentary Film Industry, Documentary Productions

The Documentary Film Industry in 2019: Insights from Peter Hamilton


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Recently, we had the privilege to host Peter Hamilton. Peter is an executive producer and senior consultant to industry leaders, governments and nonprofit organizations in the non-fiction television sector. He is the founder/editor/publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, the indispensable weekly newsletter on the non-fiction TV business where he sheds light on current trends in the documentary film industry. Here we discuss the pros and cons of the rise of powerful SVOD channels with the capacity to reach a global audience. Here’s the interview our CEO, Melanie Rozencwajg had with Peter.

Peter, you are a major expert in the documentary film industry and it is a real privilege for us that you are sharing your vision and insights with Archive Valley’s international community. First, can you tell us a bit more about yourself, when was your blog born and how many years did you have the privilege to work and witness the industry changes from inside?

Thank you, Melanie. I have always loved History since I was a little boy, growing up in Victoria, Australia. My mother liked to take me on week-long trips around the bush in her Morris Minor, with a thermos of tea and a package of roast lamb sandwiches on the back seat. She would stop at deserted graveyards and decipher for me the stories behind the migrations, epidemics and shipwrecks that she read in the gravestones. Her curiosity ignited my love of discovering the past. As a young reporter, I became thrilled by how the film archive brings stories from the past to life. I have served as a senior consultant since 1987. My specialization is marketing and business development. One of my first projects was to help plan and then launch Discovery International. Before that, I was an executive at CBS in New York.

Back in 2010, I decided to share my expertise and industry analysis in an online newsletter. I saw a gap in the trade press for revealing the ‘business of the documentary film and unscripted business.’ I’ve been excited to support Archive Valley’s creative solution to archive research since I first met your team at MIPTV 2018 ( you can find the key takeaways from our panel talk here).

Your blog offers a broad perspective on how and what are the reasons for the current shift and changes in the non fictionindustry. Latelyyou’ve elaborated a lot on the changes and challenges the SVOD channels brought to the industry: how does it affect the broadcasters’ business? and does the rise of distribution channels lead to a rise in content/shows/ documentary productions in order to feed all the different distribution channels?

We are about to enter a time when the pipeline of unscripted programming will be cut back. The rise over four decades of hundreds of Cable / Satellite channels drove a massive increase in commissions because each channel needed a certain number of fresh hours, as many as 600 a year, to fill their schedules, particularly their primetimes. And viewers watched repeats in great numbers

Enter online video platforms led by Netflix: Viewers can now watch want they want when they want to. Binge-viewing scripted series became the preferred way of consuming video.

U.S. channels are quite rapidly losing subscribers and viewers, particularly of repeats. Facing declining revenues, many networks have cut back their acquisitions of original unscripted series and specials. This trend will be replicated worldwide, although with the most resistance occurring in Western Europe and UK.

Netflix’s strategy involves a shift towards commissioning feature documentaries that cut through the clutter by involving ‘auteurs’ as directors, and A-Listers as executive producers, talent and often as subject material.  It’s the Hollywood scripted model applied to unscripted, and it most resembles HBO Documentaries’ longtime strategy.

So the non-fictionbusiness is in flux, things are changing, new structures are developing. What’s your view on the global temperature of the non-fictionbusiness overall?

The new global documentary commissioning pipeline is, therefore, a narrower one, with fewer originals flowing through it. But it involves more “Blue Chip” productions, often with much higher budgets than characterized the Cable / Satellite era. Netflix and Amazon are such dominant players worldwide that I don’t see many competitive SVOD platforms emerging soon who will fill out the demand lost as channels cut their budgets and volume.

So my #1 Takeaway: Fewer projects overall. But more big budget documentaries involving A-Listers, and that are developed along the Hollywood model with agents as their packagers.

Is there, in your opinion, a risk that the distribution channels (svod, broadcasters) will suffer like other industries from industry concentration and monopoly?

The new online video model is a duopoly: Netflix and Amazon dominate, with Hulu chasing them. They are evolving to become platforms that offer subscribers everything from $200 million budget star-studded movies to the NBA and Premier League. Amazon enjoys the most sophisticated model because, as Jeffrey Bezos says, “Video helps sell shoes.” The center of power in video entertainment has shifted: It was shared by LA and New York, with London important in many genres, particularly documentaries. And Washington, too. Now, nearly all cellphones are dialing LA. Disney, Comcast, Apple, Facebook and YouTube are also in the picture. They enjoy tremendous resources, but they have been left behind by Amazon and Netflix.  The BBC plus French and German and several other European public broadcasters will remain important commissioners of unscripted programs as they retain strong tax-based funding and loyal if ageing audiences.

In your own words you said that “Despite the challenging business environment, the global documentary film industry and unscripted sector is responsible for $ billions in annual productions and sales”. Will the competition landscape open up new opportunities and raise the quality bar and the amount of content (shows, films, documentaries…) produced to feed the viewers’ appetite for good shows ?

Industry veterans became certain that our sector would grow forever. The shock of this decade is that the boom came to an end. But it’s not a bust. The global unscripted business will remain a huge mega-billion dollar industry compared to its size back in the early Eighties before the Cable / Satellite boom. It will be somewhat smaller, with more high-quality projects eating up the total pie spent on the genre. Channels will continue to commission originals, though fewer of them and with tighter budgets.

Netflix and Amazon are in a growth spurt, spending furiously to grab market share everywhere. Their hectic spending on original, A-Lister commissions will become more selective as they reach maturity. And new entrants to the online video business will chase them, providing new opportunities for filmmakers, including for specialists in archive-base History.

What are in your opinion to you the next big opportunities and challenges producers/ filmmakers will face with this current industry shift?

Oscar-nominated directors or producers who are working with celebs and A-Listers are finding open doors at the SVOD’s, particularly if they are represented by a credible agent.

The mid-size producers who did well with Cable networks will find the going tougher, but they are still earning commissions. Europeans with strong relationships with public broadcasters will continue to do well.

And outside the commercial economy, the documentary film is one of the most prestigious forms of creative expression today. Governments, foundations and the super-rich together spend billions of dollars every year on feature docs. Their motivations range from winning awards and ten minutes of fame to changing minds. The creative talent involved is often amazing, with the art of documentary story-telling forever finding new ways to compel viewers.

Archival documentaries seem to be experiencing a golden age right now – if we add to that market shifts – it looks like archive sources can gain a lot by connecting with international filmmakers who are looking for new ideas and fresh local perspectives on historical events. Is that your reading of the situation? And what opportunities do you believe are out there for them?

Topics that rely on the archive are hot and are features of Netflix’s list of originals and top-performing commissions. Celebrity bio-docs, portraits of great musical artists, True Crime involving unheard of cases: these are among the genres in great demand. The celebrity bio-docs are particularly high-budget projects, often in the $5-10 million range, because of the cost of clearing the archive and music.

Many mid-priced commissions will rely on resourceful directors and researchers to efficiently discover fresh archive sources.

My final Takeaway is that the SVOD leaders are going global, and they are being challenged by local platforms. Giants like Netflix and their local competitors will all need regional productions to win and retain subscribers. We can see this trend in dramatic series created in Turkey, Israel, Scandinavia, India and more territories. Soon there will be an growth spurt in spending on local documentaries, and archive-based History will be one of the preferred genres.

Peter Hamilton is a senior consultant who specializes in business development and marketing for the unscripted video industry. His clients have included NBC, A+E Networks, National Geographic Channels, Global Canal+ and BBC; the Rockefeller Foundation; and governments, notably Singapore’s IMDA. He has planned and helped launch dozens of channels, notably for Discovery International. Peter is the founder, editor & publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, giving weekly insider analysis to 20,000+ executives and producers worldwide. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987.

Documentary Productions, Rare footage, The Right Footage

“BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND”: Interview with Chuck Smith on his new film


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We were thrilled to meet brilliant director Chuck Smith last November at Doc NYC 2018 to talk about his new documentary film, BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND. More than simply a retrospective into the work and legacy of Barbara Rubin, a pioneer of underground cinema, the film recounts the wild-child life of Rubin as she experiments with drugs and sexuality before becoming a Hassidic Jew. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and many more influential artists and musicians of the time all inspired by Rubin, this documentary explores the budding underground movement of 1960s New York City. BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is also a beautiful tribute to Jonas Mekas, the Godfather of avant-garde cinema and the gatekeeper of Rubin’s archives, who passed recently. 

Could you tell me a bit about you? About your work? Your career as a filmmaker?

I wasn’t one of those kids who was fascinated with films and started using a camera at an early age.  Yes, I liked watching films, but I never saw myself making films until I met some friends who had a Super 8 camera.  Then I played around with the camera, but only for fun, still never thinking I’d do it as a career.  Instead – I thought I would “change the world” by working for Greenpeace and saving the planet from environmental destruction.  But, when I started working in NYC for the Department of Environmental Protection, I discovered that change can ONLY come from people who are inspired and the best way to INSPIRE people is with stories.  So, I began working on documentaries that dealt with nuclear disarmament and other causes.  Then, I slowly moved into telling all kinds of stories and being fascinated with telling them visually mostly for TV.  I worked in TV doing all kinds of shows based on reality for National Geographic, Discovery, etc. Only later did I start to make my own documentaries so I could spend time with stories that I love.

Chuck Smith

What made you want to tell this Barbara Rubin’s story?  

I’ve always been fascinated with “larger than life” characters who seem to have been forgotten by conventional history. Sometimes the most interesting and inspiring people in a historical moment are dropped from the historical narrative and replaced by others who carried their inspiration forward. These people are often a little too “crazy” for mass consumption, so their art/music/filmmaking or whatever needs to be adapted by slightly more conventional or stable artists.  Barbara Rubin was clearly one of those inspirational characters who was too unconventional to “succeed” in a traditional sense, but her ideas and energy were crucial to the development of other artists’ works and to the culture of the 1960’s underground in New York City.  And, of course, it’s always the “underground” that ends up influencing the larger cultural scene eventually.  Another interesting aspect of Barbara’s story was the fact that she was a creative woman at a time when women as a whole were not seen or treated as equal as men.  The 1960’s were a time of great change and freedom, but it was still a very male-dominated world that didn’t begin to change until the 1970’s – and some would argue that it STILL hasn’t changed enough. Barbara was trying to succeed in a world that was stacked against her, but, the important thing is that she never felt like her sex kept her back.  She never let the fact that she was a woman hold her back, and I think that’s why the powerful, creative men she was friends with (like Dylan, Ginsberg, and Warhol) were drawn to her.

For how long did you work on this project? Were there any major challenges financing the project?

From my first idea to the finished film took over 5 years. I didn’t work exclusively on BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND for that whole time, but it was a “labor of love” that I kept coming back to.  When it came time to edit the film, that’s when I spent a solid year working on it. I don’t believe in waiting around to get financing before starting a film. I always just start by self-financing the project and spending as little as possible. Then, when others see what I’m doing, they become interested in contributing either with their time, talent, or money. For this film, I received one major grant about half-way through the process that helped a lot, but basically it was a low-budget, self-financed film.

What was more important for you: telling the personal trajectory of this strong woman, showing her contradictions (from a free spirit feminist to a hassidic wife) or painting the portrait of a visionnaire, an artist, the motor of this New York creative scene?

Barbara Rubin’s life had a lot of fascinating aspects that intrigued me, but the most important part of her story from a filmmaking perspective was the fact that she had a personal transformation. All the best stories have a twist, or a moment when the “hero” goes through a life-changing event.  Without this drama, it’s very hard to sustain interest in the narrative.  For Barbara, the fact that she became a Hasidic Jew at age 23 is crucial. It gives her life a trajectory that is both inspirational and tragic in some sense. I wanted to understand – and help the viewers understand – how someone can make such a change in their life.  I’m not sure we can ever fully know why Barbara had to evolve that way, but I think my film helps explain it a bit.

Barbara Rubin

You had access to the archives of Jonas Mekas, who is preserving part of the Barbara Rubin’s Heritage and who’s is also working very hard to preserve avant-garde cinema through Anthology Film Archives. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration?

Jonas Mekas was crucial to the making of my film.  Without Jonas’ support and love I couldn’t have done the film. Not only did he give me complete access to his archives, but he opened his heart to discuss and remember a woman (Barbara Rubin) who meant a great deal to him. 

The role of the researcher is essential in archive driven documentaries. How did you work with Rosemary Rotondi? What was your process?

Yes, archival research was critical to my film and Rosemary was very helpful.  Since, I started the film with access to all of Jonas Mekas’ footage, and the Warhol films and archive, I had a good head start on period archival footage that either featured Barbara Rubin and her friends or was shot by Barbara.  But, once I had the basic story of her life down, I had to fill in all the gaps with more basic archival footage such as Queens, NY in the late 1950’s, or Vietnam War protest footage.  For that, I used Rosemary who was very familiar with what was available from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

Bob Dylan

While Immersing yourself in personal footage and archives of Barbara’s work, what did immediately catch your attention?

What caught my attention about the footage that Barbara shot in the early 1960’s was that it was so ALIVE with energy. She was using a 16mm camera like an iPhone! At the time, it was probably seen as erratic or shaky camera work, but now it seems very prescient of how fast our eyes work these days. I also was impressed with her use of super-imposing images.

How did you conduct the interviews? Did it take a lot of preparation or it was more a natural, intuitive process?

For my interviews, I had a few basic questions and an outline written down, but more often then not, I forgot all about the “planned” interview and followed the subject where they led.  Intuitive interviews are always better then sticking to a script. Certainly, with Jonas Mekas, I had absolutely NO control over where he would go or what he would talk about.  He heard my questions and then always said whatever he felt like.  Although he did read certain letters and pieces of his writing for my camera when I asked him to.

How did you combine visual creativity and storytelling?  Could you elaborate on your artistic choices?

Since BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is based on history and a particular period in experimental filmmaking, I tried to take all of my visual storytelling cues from the footage and films of that period.  Since Barbara often used multiple screens and double projections, I wasn’t afraid to use these techniques as well.  I also tried to give my documentary a very tangible “film feeling” – showing sprockets, actual film, and projectors when appropriate.  Maintaining the same “film feeling” while working with various film/video sources helped me give the documentary a more unified look.  I even layered film “headers” which had nothing on them over some of the still photographs in the film to give the stills an active look.

Barbara Rubin thought that the act of filming could change the world. What would be a good example for that today?

I still think that filmmaking can change the world. For Barbara Rubin, it was the boundary-pushing aspect of film to change the culture and then the world. If she could make people see radical images, then their understanding of what’s appropriate would change and so would their attitudes.  Today, I’m not sure that filmmakers can still find aesthetic and content barriers to break like Barbara did, but there’s no doubt that powerful images can still affect people.  If you film a lonely polar bear on an iceberg that is floating and shrinking, a viewer will be forced to confront the reality of climate change and will hopefully act on that. Film and moving images, in general, are still a very powerful force in the world.  Barbara would be happy about that.

Documentary Film Industry, Documentary Productions, The Right Footage

Interview With Tom Jennings, 1895 Films


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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.

Tom Jennings, 1985 films

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.