Every week Link TV's Documentaries team gives their unique insight into the doc industry, and also Link TV's own programming. Look for notes from Lorraine Hess, Link TV's VP of Acquisitions and others working to bring you the world's best films.
This week’s topic: How do networks develop and green light new programs?
The program development process is a huge and complex topic. Each year, hundreds of channels worldwide commission thousands of factual entertainment programs at a cost of several $U.S. billions.
Commissioning practices differ widely from channel to channel, and even from project to project within a channel.
This is therefore our first post on Development practices, and definitely not the last. Your feedback will shape our future coverage the subject.
Who Develops Programs at A&E and Bio?
* 15+/- executives form the combined Development department for A&E and Bio. A separate Development team is responsible for History and its sister channels.
* The A&E/Bio team meets every other week for 2-3 hours to consider new ideas for Specials and Series.
* Members of the A&E/Bio team enjoy relationships with producers and agents. Each team member juggles around five projects that are either in the advanced stages of development or are in production, as well as another 10-20 projects that are in the conceptual stage.
* A&E and Bio draw on a sizeable pool of producers. For example, Bio’s Biography series alone relies on a dozen or so production companies to create 50+/- hours each year. Several new producers earn Biography commissions in a typical year, replacing a handful of established producers who rotate off the list.
* The A&E/Bio executives advocate for their producers during the Development process, and then they become their production supervisors when projects are green lit. They liaise between the producers and AETN’s Programming, Business Affairs, Accounting and other departments.
Project budgets must fall within broadly accepted cost benchmarks. In previous blogs, we examined the ‘Sweet Spot’ for production costs for A&E (March 3) and Bio (March 17):
($’000 / primetime hour)
Sweet Spot $325
Sweet Spot $175
How are Ideas Originated?
* Around 25% of the ideas that are considered for development are generated internally.
* The History series Ice Road Truckers is an example of an AETN hit that evolved from the inside. IRT originated as an episode of History’s Modern Marvels series. During repeat broadcasts over several years, the episode continued to deliver a pop in the ratings. History’s Development team commissioned Original Media to expand the episode into a series. (Original Media are producers of many notable series, including Discovery’s long-running hit Deadliest Catch.)
* The other 75% of new ideas considered by A&E/Bio are generated externally, principally by producers.
* Producers initially pitch their concepts to their A&E/Bio contact at conferences like Real Screen, via email and phone calls, and during regular meetings about ongoing productions.
* AETN/Bio Development executives pride themselves on the wide net that they cast for new ideas. However, the pitches that are most likely to get their full attention are those from producers who are enjoying current ratings successes.
* Established producers also offer Business Affairs and Accounting personnel who are well-known to their peers at the network. This ‘back office comfort factor’ really matters when it comes to accepting new prorgamming partners!
* Although it does happen, it is very unlikely that novice producers or ‘average Joe’s with a great idea’ will succeed with their projects. The inexperienced person who has a strong concept is advised to align with an established producer.
* Agents are involved in fewer than half of the projects pitched to A&E/Bio. There is no single talent agency with special access to the AETN team.
Getting ready for the Development Meeting
* An A&E/Bio Development executive who likes a concept encourages the producer to invest in a presentation for the twice-monthly Development meeting.
* The producer develops the story, secures the talent, drafts an initial budget and creates a brief demo or ‘sizzle’ real.
* The A&E/Bio Development exec helps the producer to pull together the package, anticipating how to convince the meeting that this is a viable project that will deliver a desirable audience.
* An inexperienced producer who brings a great project to A&E or Bio is usually paired with an established production company or a proven show runner.
* A&E/Bio execs promote their own and their producers’ ideas at Development meetings.
* It takes around three months for an idea to advance from concept to presentation. The A&E/Bio development pipeline is packed with the several ideas that each of the 15 +/- execs is either championing or wants to float with the team.
* The execs have only a few minutes to present the concept, characters and format, including screening the demo reel, answering questions and agreeing on Next Steps. Some projects are dealt with in 2-3 minutes, and others can launch a heated 20+/- minute discussion.
* A great title really helps. Celebrity Ghost Stories had the Bio team hooked on the title, and Bio quickly committed to a pilot.
* The A&E/Bio Development team doesn’t look for unanimity in the meeting, but rather for a general consensus before approving a project.
* Unique projects can bypass the regular Development team process. For example, the hit series Steven Seagal Lawman was pitched to an A&E senior executive, and then accelerated into production.
When is a ‘Green Light’ Really Green?
* The Development team green lights episodes within existing strands, but not series.
* New series that are approved by the Development team are presented to AETN senior management, including Ad Sales. With senior executive approval, the project is considered ‘green lit’ and the Development team has permission to incur expenses to create the Series.
* Once a series concept and budget is approved, the first step is to commission a pilot or demo tape.
* Completed pilots are sometimes later scheduled as Specials if they don’t work as Series. Other pilots are written off.
* A project rarely bypasses the pilot phase and goes straight from concept to Series. It may happen, for example, if there is a competitive offer from another channel, or if a proven star like William Shatner is attached.
* Budgets are more likely to be closely vetted if they are for pilots for new series or if they are submitted by new producers.
* Contracts are executed by AETN’s Legal & Business Affairs department.
In future posts, we will track network practices for the later phases in the production process: Pre-production, Field Production, Post-production, and the increasingly vexed subject of Digital Deliverables.
Next week: (You’ve been asking for it!) The ‘Sweet Spot’ at National Geographic Channel U.S.
Coming soon: HBO, Scripps Networks, Smithsonian, WeTV, Spike, Canadian channels, BBC, Arte, Music Rights, Who Watches Documentaries and Factual Programs?, Digital Deliverables and much, much more.
Note on Sources
The data is taken from recent interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from recent conference presentations and published sources. Actual development processes, budgets, rights and deliverables vary from project to project and from network to network.
Gratitude to Link TV for syndicating us on the excellent Doc360 site.
Continuing thanks to our friend Melissa Houghton, executive director, WIFV, Washington DC, for recommending us to the vibrant WIFV community.
And to Tom White and Tamara Krinsky for sending a note about us to International Documentary Association members.
Many thanks for your feedback! You are network executives, producers, distributors and creatives, and also administrators, attorneys, agents, educators, students and fans of the doc sector. Thanks for forwarding DocumentaryTelevision.com to your friends and colleagues.
This article was originally published at DocumentaryTelevision.com on March 24, 2010.
The ‘Sweet Spot’ for Bio – A&E’s Junior and Growing Brand
In our two previous posts, we analyzed the ‘Sweet Spot’ for production budgets at channels owned by AETN, led by A&E and History. (See Archives: March 4, March 11, 2010).
This week we look at Bio, the junior brand in the A&E family of channels.
While Bio is not a Top 20 U.S. channel, it is an important network because of the scale of its distribution and audience, the total original hours it commissions, and the $25+ million it spends on new productions.
Bio was born in 1999 out of A&E’s long-running Biography series, and is a rare case of a channel brand that successfully evolved from a single series.
Bio is now distributed to nearly 60 million of the 115 million U.S. TV homes.
In 2009, the channel averaged 200,000 total viewers in prime. Big ticket shows delivered 400,000 total viewers or better. Celebrity Ghost Stories is Bio’s top-rated series.
Bio is an Adult-targeted channel that is slightly female-skewing (58%). Bio executives say: “We’re watched by women, but we differ from Lifetime or Oxygen because we may be watched by men as well.”
Bio’s branding message is “True Story: Truth is more entertaining than fiction ... we can’t make this stuff up”.
The channel aims for strong, ‘emotionally-backed’ story-telling that is connected to pop culture. Bio programmers distinguish between their focus on lasting pop culture icons versus the celebrity flavor of the week.
Biography is Bio’s leading series, and tells “True stories about fascinating people”, including both celebrities and the infamous.
Bio sees its principal competitors as TLC, TRU, E!, PBS, TVLAND and Nat Geo Channel.
And now for the numbers:
($’000 / primetime hour)
Sweet Spot $175
Note on Sources
The data is taken from recent interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from recent conference presentations and published sources. Actual budgets, rights and deliverables vary from project to project.
What the Sources Say about Bio...
* Bio is a junior network to the A&E flagship, and the network management teams overlap.
* Bio is an important, growing and distinct brand, but it is secondary to A&E in terms of senior executive focus and resources.
* The AETN rights model applies to Bio. All AETN channels obtain rights for all territories and platforms, forever.
* The few exceptions might hinge on obtaining access to a story, or for rights to footage and music – for example for the music cleared for the 2010 Biography Special on Jimi Hendrix. Even in those rare cases, Bio requires U.S. rights for 7-10 years.
* The AETN model is that commissioned programs are work-for-hire projects for which producers rarely retain any rights or equity.
* Bio can be a place to incubate a great show concept. While rare, it’s not impossible for a series like Psychic Kids to make the trip from Bio to A&E.
...the Bio Pipeline...
* Bio will commission around 160 original hours in 2010, of which 125+/- are for series.
* Fifty hours of commissions for the Biography series are comprised of 40 one-hour episodes and 5 two-hour Specials, including profiles of Rodney Dangerfield and Jimi Hendrix.
* Amongst other series, Bio commissioned 18 episodes of Celebrity Ghost Stories for 2010, up from nine in 2009.
* The remaining 35+/- of the 160 original hours are for Specials, one-offs and mini-series.
* Of Bio’s 160 original hours in 2010, 30+/- are budgeted around the ‘High’ Level, 100+/- near the ‘Sweet Spot’ and 30+/- close to the ‘Low’ benchmark.
...and Bio’s ‘Sweet Spot’
* Bio’s ‘High’ production cost estimate ($250) is for a successful prime time Factual series.
* The key criteria for Bio to invest in a program at the ‘High’ level are: expected solid ratings, ad sales appeal, and significant PR interest. For example, Scott Hamilton’s return to ice skating after a brain tumor scare was featured in a two-part Special that was scheduled on Bio during the Vancouver Olympics, where Hamilton was serving as an NBC host.
* William Shatner is involved in two Bio series: Shatner’s Raw Nerve, an edgy talk show, and Aftermath, which examines the lives of survivors of pop culture events like the Jessica Lynch rescue and the UniBomber attacks. The indefatigable Shatner is a PR magnet who commands atypical talent fees, and his series are budgeted at the higher end of Bio’s scale.
* Bio’s top-rated series is Celebrity Ghost Stories, which is delivered near the ‘Sweet Spot’ of $175. In each episode, 4-5 celebrities describe their brushes with the paranormal.
* Also near the ‘Sweet Spot’ is I Survived, a non-celebrity show that tells the stories of people who defied long odds to live. I Survived: Beyond and Back extends the franchise to the people who experienced clinical death and returned to life.
* Bio’s Inside Story two-hour Specials are about the making of memorable movies as told by the participants. Inside Story ticks two Bio boxes: ‘Celebrity’ and ‘True Story’ and yet they are budgeted somewhat above the ‘Sweet Spot’ on an hourly basis. Pangolin Pictures produced the Jaws and Caddyshack specials, with Stage 3 amongst the producers delivering Animal House 30th Anniversary Special and Specials on Silence of the Lambs, Halloween, and more.
* The ‘Low’ benchmark ($125) is the approximate cost for Mobsters, a series that relies on archives and fair use to contain costs. The Mobsters genre is not particularly ad sales friendly, creating pressure to keep the budget low.
Bio’s ‘Hail Mary’?
“What needs to be added to the mix to break the status quo and move Bio up to the next level?”
“A fresh, loud, buzzy show or mega-Special in the celebrity space that feels unique and has breakout ratings potential. The show would probably feel risky vs. current offerings as most breakouts do. What Queer Eye was to Bravo or what Ruby was to Style: we’re looking for a show that becomes part of pop culture, not just capitalizing on existing pop culture. It cannot be ad-sales repellent.”
NEXT WEEK’S SPECIAL
How Do Networks Develop New Productions? Case Study #1: A&E / Bio
Our first in a series of detailed case studies on how networks go about refreshing their schedules. We track the commissioning process at A&E and Bio ... from identifying a competitive need or a pitch opportunity through Development, Pre-production, Production Supervision, Post and Delivery. Don’t miss it!
Coming soon ... more ‘Sweet Spots’
Nat Geo Channel, Nat Geo Television, HBO, Scripps Networks, Smithsonian Channel, Discovery’s Science Channel, PBS, Canadian channels, BBC, Arte and much, much more.
* Gratitude to Neil Seiling, Anne Kovach and Lorraine Hess for posting us on LinkTV’s excellent Doc360 site. LinkTV is a unique and valued source of uncompromising documentaries. We’re honored that Doc360 is our first syndication partner!
* And continuing thanks to our friend Melissa Houghton, executive director, WIFV, Washington DC, for recommending us to the vibrant WIFV community.
* Many thanks to our readers for your often detailed feedback! We update a post if we either get it wrong ... or not right enough.
* Our site is reaching further than we expected. You are network executives, producers, distributors and creatives, and also administrators, attorneys, agents, educators, students and fans of the doc sector. Thanks for forwarding DocumentaryTelevision.com to your friends and colleagues.
This article was originally published at DocumentaryTelevision.com on March 17, 2010.
The ‘Sweet Spot’ for History
In our previous post, we recapped the concept of the network ‘Sweet Spot’, and analyzed A&E’s commission costs. (See Archive: March 3, 2010).
This week we look at the U.S. History channel, which is also owned by AETN, and its sister brands History International and Military History.
History is distributed to more than 98 million of the 115 million U.S. TV homes.
In recent years, History’s program mix has turned away from pure history documentaries to a mix of history and ‘American Originals’ series (dubbed ‘History Made Every Day’), led by Ice Road Truckers.
History carefully distinguishes between the ‘American Originals’ category, which evolved from the classic observational documentary, and semi-scripted ‘Reality’ shows like MTV’s Jersey Shore.
In 2009, History tied for #7 in Adults 18+ among all ad-supported cable networks in primetime, with 1.1 million viewers. History also cracked the Top 10 for the first time ever in its target Adults 25-54 demo, finishing #9 with 598,000 viewers.
History was the home to two 2009 Top 10 Non-fiction cable series amongst Adults 18+, including: Ice Road Truckers (#7, 2.5 million) and Pawn Stars (#9, 2.3 million).
In 2010, Pawn Stars rocketed into the #1 spot for Non-fiction series amongst Adults 18+, with 3.9 million viewers. American Pickers (3.0 million viewers amongst Adults 18+) is #3 overall and the #1 new cable series so far this year.
History’s principal competitors are Discovery, TLC, Food, SYFY, Spike and Nat Geo.
And now for the numbers:
($’000 / primetime hour)
Signature >$1.25 million
Sweet Spot $300
Sweet Spot $120
Reruns and acquisitions
Note: This data is taken from recent confidential interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from published sources. Actual budgets and deliverables vary from project to project.
What the Sources Say about History...
* When an AETN network like History commissions a program, it is a work-for-hire project for which producers rarely retain any rights or equity. The AETN model is to obtain rights for all territories and platforms, forever. There are few exceptions.
* History commissions more than 400 original hours a year.
* History’s ‘High’ production cost estimate ($425) is for a successful prime time ‘American Originals’ series.
* History’s ‘American Originals’ genre closely matches A&E’s ‘Real Life’ category, though AETN insiders strictly apply these terms to each distinctive brand. (Check for comparable A&E ‘Sweet Spots’ in our March 4 Post.)
* As with A&E, History is likely to increase its budgets for shows that are firmly established, but that face furious competition.
* Line items where costs may be increased for a successful ‘American Originals’ series include: longer shoots to capture more challenging sequences, extended time in post-production, an investment to clear a popular music cue, and stepped up payments to producers and key talent to reward them for their performances.
* History’s ‘Sweet Spot’ ($300) is for a rock-solid documentary series like The Universe or an ‘American Originals’ series that delivers week after week.
* The ‘Low’ benchmark ($225) is the ballpark cost for an entry-level ‘American Originals’ series or a formatted documentary series, like Modern Marvels.
* History’s 2010 ‘Signature’ documentary series is America The Story of US. The CGI-rich budget is said to be around $1.25 million per hour for 12 x one hour episodes.
* In 2011, History will test the Non-Fiction category with the release of the mini-series, The Kennedys.
* History’s move away from a schedule populated by classic history documentary series may have created an empty niche for emerging history-focused channels like History International and the Smithsonian Channel.
...and HI and MH
* History International schedules programs from the History archive as well as from History’s numerous international channels.
* HI enjoys distribution to around 60 million U.S. homes.
* HI commissions a handful of original programs, such as The Naked Archaeologist an irreverent, hosted Biblical Archaeology series.
* HI’s audience skews strongly male. According to HI, “February 2010 was HI’s best month ever in primetime with all key demos: A25-54 with 132,000 impressions; M25-54 with 92,000 impressions and A18-49 with 95,000 impressions.”
* Military History is a rerun channel with limited distribution and has no budget for original productions.
This article was originally published at DocumentaryTelevision.com on March 10, 2010.
The ‘Sweet Spot’ for A&E
In our previous posts, we examined Discovery’s ‘Sweet Spot’ for commissions. (See Archive: February 17 and February 24, 2010).
This week we look at A&E, the flagship and parent of the AETN family of channels that includes History, Bio, History International, the digi-nets Crime & Investigation (CI) and Military History, and since 2009, Lifetime.
A&E is distributed to more than 100 million U.S. homes. It is ranked #5 amongst all U.S. cable networks for adult viewing and #4 for adult women.
A&E is the home of many leading non-fiction series, including three Top 20 adult-targeted shows Hoarders, Steven Seagal: Lawman and Intervention. However, A&E is not a dedicated Factual channel: more than half its prime time schedule is dedicated to scripted series, including reruns of The Sopranos and CSI.
A&E’s Factual pipeline (less than 300 new programs a year) is therefore significantly narrower than non-fiction specialists like Discovery Channel (900+) and TLC (800+/-).
A&E describes its principal competitors as USA, TNT, TBS and FX. Individual A&E factual programs compete with offerings from Discovery, Bravo, Lifetime, TLC, Food, SYFY, Spike and several other networks.
A&E’s digital offspring is CI network, which reruns A&E’s Crime inventory. CI is currently distributed to fewer than 15 million U.S. homes.
Recap: What is the ‘Sweet Spot’?
Every network is steered by an annual programming budget that establishes or implies a “Sweet Spot” for an hour of original programming.
This benchmark is based on investment strategies, revenues, the competitive situation, contributions from co-producers and partners, and more.
The ‘Sweet Spot’ is the cost that the Director/VP of Development / Programming is comfortable presenting to the final decision-maker, expecting buy-in for an approved idea that meets the channel’s on screen standards.
Channels will pay more (‘High’) for premium, promotable programs, for example to anchor the Sunday night schedule, or to remedy a weak rating during weekday primetime. Cost items that push programs into the ‘High’ category include: talent, CGI, extended dramatic reenactments, and payments for access to people, places and archives.
An otherwise standard series could vault into the ‘High’ cost category due to a single line item. For example, The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty proved to be both a costly investment and timely opportunity when A&E secured the rights to classic Jacksons music and stock footage.
The ‘Low’ commission cost could be the bargain rate sought by program executives while maintaining their on-screen values. Or the ‘Low’ cost could be achieved by favorable production conditions – for example, for a format that requires a small local crew versus a large crew that works in harsh and remote locations.
We know of cases where the ‘Low’ benchmark represents a loss leader for a new producer who deficit-funded a production to establish a track record with a channel.
High-cost ‘Signature’, ‘Event’ or ‘Showcase’ programs anchor a channel’s major promotions. These are programming events that may occur occasionally or seasonally. Think of the upcoming 12-part History franchise series America The Story of US.
And now for the numbers:
($’000 / primetime hour)
Sweet Spot $325
Crime & Investigation (CI)
Reruns of A&E Crime series.
Note: This data is taken from recent confidential interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from published sources. Actual budgets vary from project to project.
What the Sources Say about AETN...
* For decades, AETN has relied on a work-for-hire model for non-fiction commissions, rather than acquisitions or co-productions.
* AETN differs from many channel operators, notably Discovery Networks, in its approach to production supervision. Discovery employs a production management department to closely manage budgets.
* The AETN model is a legacy of its early practice which was to rely on huge output deals with the BBC, Towers Productions and other suppliers. Individual production budgets were not closely supervised.
* Although its sources and channels have since diversified, the AETN legacy of output deals still frames the company’s practices. AETN teams establish, in advance, a rock solid ‘Sweet Spot’ for a series that is affordable for the channel and that properly rewards the producer. AETN commissioners tell their producers to ‘make it work for that cost!’ AETN doesn’t audit productions and collect underages – but watch out, producers, if you incur overages!
* The digi-nets Crime & Investigation (CI) and Military History are rerun channels that do not commission original programs.
* AETN maintained a capable internal production team to create specials and reversion programs for the digital channels and websites. However, the unit was closed in 2009 and the work farmed out to less costly 3rd party producers.
...And Specifically about A&E’s Sweet Spot
* A&E’s ‘High’ production cost estimate ($500+) is for an established and successful prime time Reality series.
* Success brings opportunities to expand budgets and improve the on air deliverable. For example, when a Reality show is firmly established, A&E is more likely to approve longer shoots to capture more challenging sequences, step up its payments to key talent, extend time in post-production, or invest in clearing a popular music cue.
* And television programming is a vicious, competitive cycle. Success quickly brings on imitators, driving up original budgets to protect the loyalty of the established audience and keep one step ahead of the competition.
* A&E’s ‘Sweet Spot’ ($325) is for a rock-solid Reality series like Intervention that delivers week after week.
* The ‘Low’ benchmark ($225) is the ballpark cost for a Makeover format, like Hoarders, A&E’s hit new (2009) series about ‘people whose inability to part with their belongings is so out of control that they are on the verge of a personal crisis.’ Note: we’re not reporting that Hoarders enjoys a $225 budget, but rather that primetime Makeover shows like it are benchmarked around the $225 level.
* A&E does not create occasional ‘Signature’ or ‘Event’ series, unlike The Discovery Channel (Planet Earth, Walking with Dinosaurs) and History (The Universe, America The Story of US).
* AETN will invest in original programs for CI as its distribution increases. AETN sees an opportunity to chase the success earned by Discovery’s Crime-targeted ID network.
Takeaways for Factual Producers
* The bar is extremely high at A&E. The pipeline is narrow because Scripted Entertainment populates about half the schedule. And the non-scripted half is dominated by a handful of series, leaving no opportunities for producers to create single episodes or limited series within established thematic branded strands.
* The upside: the A&E programming team is fully alert, hunting for the needle in the haystack – that fresh, new idea for a series like Intervention and Hoarders that can excel in a fiercely competitive schedule.
More Sweet Spots
Next week: History, Bio, History International and Military History.
Coming soon: Scripps, Nat Geo, Smithsonian, Canadian Channels and much, much more
This article was originally published at DocumentaryTelevision.com on March 3, 2010.
The ‘Sweet Spot’ for Discovery’s Digi-Nets
In our previous blog (February 17, 2010), we examined Discovery’s ‘Sweet Spot’ for commissions by the ‘Big Four’: The Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet and Discovery Health, which will be relaunched as OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
This week, we look at Discovery’s ’Digi-Nets’ – so named because they are not yet fully distributed to the U.S. multi-channel market.
Discovery Networks U.S. Commissions: The Digi-Nets
($’000 / primetime hour)
ID Investigation Discovery
Sweet Spot $200
Sweet Spot $100
Discovery HD Theater
Note: This information is taken from recent interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from published sources. Actual budgets vary from project to project.
What the Sources Say
* The Digi-Nets bring many benefits to the Discovery Networks operation. For example, they add leverage to negotiations with distributors, advertisers and vendors; they prevent the competition from dominating a factual genre; they rerun Big Four inventory which bolsters the return on program investments; and they serve as a farm system for executives and creatives, including producers, talent and formats.
* There is constant ferment amongst the Digi-brands: ID is headed for a brilliant career in an extended Big Four. Discovery Kids disappointed its parent, was sold (for $300+ million) to toymaker Hasbro in 2009, and will be rebranded in 2010. The other Discovery Digi-nets fall somewhere in between.
* In 2008, Discovery repositioned its Discovery Times channel as ‘ID Investigation Discovery’ to fill the Crime slot abandoned by Turner after it acquired CourtTV. The reposition paid off: in 2010, ID regularly earns bigger audiences than many of its fully-distributed competitors.
* Like the Big Four, ID relies on work-for-hire commissions rather than acquisitions or co-productions.
* ID’s ‘High’ production cost estimate ($250) is for a prime time Crime show with a proven track record. As its ratings and distribution surge, ID may commission more costly ‘Signature’ series hosted by big, built-in talent.
* ID’s ‘Sweet Spot’ ($200) is for a rock-solid Crime series that delivers week after week.
* The ‘Low’ ID benchmark ($175) is for a commission assigned to a new producer who is prepared to work for a meager margin, or who operates from a small shop with low overhead.
The ‘Sweet Spot’ Framework Breaks Down for Digi-Nets Due to Their Lack of Scale
* The Big Four are distributed to around 100 million homes. They green light 800+/- new program hours each year. Their scale allows useful cost benchmarks. ID is approaching this category.
* Science, Military, Planet Green and HD Theater lack such scale, and they use their scarce resources to commission a fraction of the programs green lit by a fully-distributed channel.
* Because of their relatively narrow program pipelines, the costs listed here for Digi-Net commissions are useful, but they are less predictive than the benchmarks for the Big Four and ID. (See Blog #1: What Are Networks Paying for Programming: Discovery’s Big Four).
* To overcome their incomplete distribution, low audience awareness and very tight budgets, Digi-Nets may decide to concentrate a year’s spending and promotions on a handful of franchise series or specials, filling the remainder of the schedule with reruns and acquisitions.
* The Digi-Nets may consider co-productions, because they deliver on-screen values that exceed the network’s investment for U.S. rights.
* The digital channels are also more open to acquisitions.
* Programs are occasionally bartered for Direct Response inventory or other benefits.
* Discovery’s Digi-Nets can serve as the minor leagues for the Big Four … places to try out new producers, formats and talent.
* They create cost savings from the use of Discovery’s expanding footage amd music libraries.
This article was originally published at DocumentaryTelevision.com on Feb. 25, 2010.
Over the next few weeks, Doc 360 presents the on point blog of documentary media analyst, Peter Hamilton (documentarytelevision.com). Ten years ago, Peter was a key player in the development of what became WorldLink TV and is now Link TV. Today, a media consultant in demand, Peter covers the world of documentary culture from the premium echelons of HBO, PBS and Discovery to the "feed the beast" tiers on basic cable outlets and everything in between. We are delighted to welcome him back home and to present his recent findings.
The 'Sweet Spot'
Every network is steered by an annual programming budget that establishes or implies a "Sweet Spot" for an hour of original programming.
This benchmark is based on investment strategies, revenues, the competitive situation, contributions from co-producers and partners, and more.
The "Sweet Spot' is the cost that the Director/VP of Development / Programming is comfortable presenting to the final decision-maker, expecting buy-in for an approved idea that meets the channel's on screen standards.
Channels will pay more ('High') for premium, promotable programs, for example to anchor the Sunday night schedule, or to remedy a weak rating during weekday primetime.
The 'Low' commission cost could be the bargain rate sought by commissioners while maintaining their on-screen values. Or it could be achieved by favorable production conditions – for example by requiring a small local crew versus working in a harsh and remote location.
High-cost "Signature" or "Showcase" programs anchor a channel's annual or seasonal promotions. Think of the BBC / Discovery franchise series Planet Earth.
And now for the data.
Discovery's Sweet Spots
Following are cost benchmarks for the "Big Four" at Discovery Networks. Maybe it's the "Big Three and a Half" right now as Discovery Health prepares for its relaunch as OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
Discovery Networks U.S. 'The Big Four'
($'000 / primetime hour / commissions)
The Discovery Channel
Sweet Spot $275
Sweet Spot $250
Sweet Spot $250
Discovery Health (soon OWN)
Sweet Spot $175
Note: This information is taken from recent interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts. Actual budgets vary from project to project.
What the Sources Say
* The majority of Discovery Networks' projects are work-for-hire commissions. There are fewer acquisitions and co-productions.
* For co-productions, the benchmarks represent the net cost to Discovery rather than the total project cost. The benchmarks do not include contributions by international partners, sponsors, ancillary marketers and others.
* The Discovery Channel premieres about 1,000 hours each year, spending more than $200 million. Less than half of the new hours are for Daytime.
* The Discovery Channel commissions fewer than 20 projects a year at the "High" or $600K level.
* The 'Showcase' blockbusters are contributed under the BBC / Discovery joint venture.
* TLC enjoys a comparable pipeline, though with a more diverse schedule than The Discovery Channel's. For example, TLC features Lifestyle programs that offer cost efficiencies due to their multi-episode scale and highly formatted character. They are balanced by more costly docu-soap formats.
* The Animal Planet schedule ranges from "pet teaching" formats at the low cost level to a handful of premium specials and limited series. The AP pipeline is narrower than Discovery's, though AP plans to spend around $100 million on commissions this year.
* Discovery Health will be relaunched in January 2011 as the lifestyle channel, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. Watch this blog for information about OWN's emerging economics.
* Most Discovery commissions are directed to established, successful producers. (Watch out for my forthcoming blog: "Top Ten Producers: Share of Primetime Commissions for U.S. Channels.")
This article was originally published at DocumentaryTelevision.com on Feb. 18, 2010.
I love film festivals! I went to my first one in the early 1970s, entering what I thought was a documentary into a Student Fest. Oddly, it won the prize as an experimental film. Since then, I’ve tried to figure out what makes festivals tick, tick, tick. Over the years, I’ve been to hundreds of festivals, as a filmmaker, juror, critic, or programmer. The films I’ve made with my friends have won at least 100 prizes. I’ve advised festivals from Australia to Prague, Thessaloniki to Montreal. I’ve worked at festivals, including the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA). In the proto-days of the internet, between 1994 and 1996, I co-created the innovative online Virtual Film Festival (VFF), which emulated the real thing. It had a screening room with mpeg video clips, online chat, a colourful magazine and even a place for gossip in the Omni-sexual washroom. Just like a real-life festival. Our team led the earliest forays into webcasting at the Berlin, Sundance, Toronto and Oberhausen festivals. Although we closed up shop just as the venture capitalists started to take interest, the VFF was a webplex that remains unequaled today, a dozen years later.
My love of festivals is unequalled, and hardly unrequited. So is my enthusiasm for docs and fests, so please excuse my hyperbolic taste for numbers. If I say 10,000 and the true figure is closer to 1,000, it’s only because I believe in virtual reality.
There are, by my count, 3,600 festivals accessible on meta-portals like filmfestivals.com. Fests specializing in human rights, music, psychiatry, mountains, bicycles and several hundred wonderful documentary festivals. They’re blooming in all corners of the world. Encounters in South Africa. It’s all True in Brazil, Yamagata in Japan, Cinema Verite in Tehran. From Beirut to Taiwan via Adelaide. The most important international fiction festivals now all have significant documentary sections. Increasingly, there are a number of web-based fests, including a festival dedicated to cell phone cinema.
By my estimate, there are about 10,000 significant social, political and cultural documentaries made each year. So one might think that there is a film for every festival and a festival for every film. But no, there are way too many films for the finite number of slots available at this infinite number of festivals.
To make sense of this all, I decided to bring together some of the best minds in the fest world around a cyber-table. I electronically posed questions, seeking answers, aphorisms and utilitarian advice on the big picture to illuminate the pros, cons and joys of festivals and markets.
So how are we all to negotiate this giant maze of festibilities? What is a doc-girl or media-boy to do? Where do we start?
“When you start planning your production keep in mind which festival you would prefer to launch your film at,” says Joan Morselt, who has worked at IDFA and the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC). “To start your festival strategy a few weeks before you have finished your film is too late. Be honest with yourself. Not every documentary deserves an international audience or belongs in theaters.”
“Most buyers plan their festivals way in advance,” adds Hussain Amarshi, head of Mongrel Media. “So you need to start building the buzz for a film in earlier markets via trailers, posters, sales sheets, etc., to get on people’s radar. For example, if you are planning to launch a film in the Toronto International Film Festival, then you should be doing all the prep work in Cannes to create excitement and anticipation for the film's launch in Toronto.”
“The goal of any filmmaker at a festival should be to garner as much attention for his or her film while spending as little money as possible,” says Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). “But I truly believe you have to spend some money to be visible. Whether that’s through a basic grass-roots poster and flyer campaign or a more extensive marketing plan, you should use every resource possible (friends, family, actors, friends who make posters, neighbors who prints t-shirts ... anything) to keep your costs low and the exposure high.”
“Are the professionals you are interested in attending?” asks Claas Danielsen, Festival Director at DOK Leipzig, the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. “Do they take the time to watch films at the festival? Many commissioning editors travel to festivals just to meet colleagues and producers and to attend pitching sessions. When you ask them how many films they watched, you won’t get an answer.”
Greg Sanderson, the Deputy Commissioning Editor at BBC’s “Storyville”, warns not to “presume the big fests are the only way forward,” a suggestion that US Filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) agrees with based on past experience.
“I have come to think that filmmakers need to pick the festival that is the best match for the film,” says James, “instead of just aiming for the Holy Grail of a premiere at Sundance or Toronto or Hot Docs. For example, we submitted The War Tapes to Sundance in 2004 where we were one of 20 documentaries on the war submitted that year. We did not get selected. So, instead we submitted the film to Tribeca, which gave The War Tapes the kind of profile within the festival that would have been impossible for Sundance to do. It ended up being the best thing that happened to the film. It got great press in New York and won a major award, which led to theatrical distribution... The lesson here is that sometimes its best to be a bigger film in the right festival pond than one of many vying for attention at Sundance.”
The doc industry is divided on the benefits and drawbacks of fests. Asking my cohorts what they think of festivals and markets these days, most maintain that the experience has no substitute.
“Interaction is the key,” asserts Mark Atkin, the London based programmer and international documentary Acquisition Executive for SBS Television in Australia. “It’s what can’t be replaced by the web. You find out what other people are up to, bump into someone at a drunken bash and end up collaborating for years afterwards, talk about the industry over dinners. The best fests offer surprises: a film you didn’t know about, bright ideas, new methods or definitions of what you do. They can be very stimulating and regenerating, setting you on a new path. I don’t just go looking for stuff. I can do that on-line.”
Executive Director at Hot Docs, Chris McDonald insists that festivals are still important, “because our industry is in a constant state of flux. The smart festivals/markets are those that continue to evolve and respond to this change,” says McDonald. “As this happens, some festivals will drop off the radar as others emerge, and the public and industry delegates will vote with their feet and attend those events that best respond to their individual needs.”
Shaowen Ho is a manager at GZDOC, the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival in China, and he feels like an “amazed young boy who steps into a new school” when attending international film festivals. “I think that the big thing about festivals are their diversity and democracy, their respect for art and academic value, and their tolerance and support to the young emerging new filmmaker ‘toddlers’ who are stepping in the field.”
Ikka Vehkalakti, Commissioning Editor at YLE TV 2 Documentaries in Finland, concurs with Ho’s assessment of the respect for art that is maintained at festivals. She has spent most of her years at international pitching forums and commissioning events, and finds film festivals to maintain a freshness that seems lost everywhere else. “Festivals absolutely are still dealing very much more with the art of documentary and film-making,” says Vehkalakti, “while (pitching) forums are more to do with television and documentary slots. These are falling under more and more pressure by the changing character of television and the demands to get a bigger audience for broadcasts. In other words, in a festival you can still look at films as films; and at forums you look at films as products.”
Some celebrate film festivals for themselves and not for the twiddling opportunities of broadcast or distribution. My filmmaker friend Avi Mograbi from Israel jokes: “I see festivals as a tool to expose my films. What does expose mean? I wish I could expect festival exposure to lead to commercial success. My experience is that festival exposure leads to festival exposure, but it does not lead, in my case, to business-doing.”
For Steve James, festival exposure is a good thing, even if it is the only thing. “I’ve come to think of festivals as a substitute for the theatrical release for documentaries,” says James, “especially as more and more distributors are pulling back from doing genuine theatrical releases of documentaries because of poor box office performance. Festivals may be a poor substitute for theatrical, but at least the filmmaker has the opportunity to see their film play in theaters before live audiences and extend the life of the film out there in the world before it goes to television or DVD where too many essentially disappear.”
John Anderson, film critic for Variety and The Washington Post (among others) shares James enthusiasm for festivals. “Speaking strictly as a critic and feature writer, I see festivals as more important than ever,” Anderson insists. “How else would I be exposed to eighty-percent of the films I see (or want to see)? The market being what it is, some films play out their entire life on the festival circuit and as sad as this may be, it’s where film culture largely exists for me at the moment. I realize this isn’t good news for those filmmakers who see festivals as the six-lane highway to El Dorado, but for me it’s essential. It’s also a way to make face-to-face contact with directors, which in my case at least has often led to articles, reviews and other forms of ink.”
UK filmmaker and long-time festival maven Luke Holland is probably one of the moat adamant supporters of a festival for festival’s sake. “Festival attendance, whether it is IDFA, Sundance, Doc/Fest or Hot Docs, affirms membership of a community,” proclaims Holland. “That is its principal virtue. It is an opportunity to take the documentary pulse, to emerge from the isolation of the sometimes lonely creative and commercial struggle, to find new allies, co-conspirators and very occasionally, money! It is also a chance to see great films on a big screen in the company of others. Of course, screening one’s own work to peers and to a critically engaged festival audience is a further core pleasure – offering more immediate rewards and lessons than are afforded by the strangely anti-climactic outcomes of national TV broadcast.”
Of course, for every benefit there is an equal drawback. Critiques vary. For some producers, festivals are only ego trips for needy directors in search of validation. Indeed Sanderson might point at Holland’s praise when he calls out a festival’s “tendency to become navel-gazing and self-congratulatory”. “What they shouldn't be,” warns Sanderson, “is a chance for us all to tell each other how wonderful we are, a pointless competition for premieres or an international circus.”
Jean-Jacques Peretti is a festival manager at Sunnyside in La Rochelle but he speaks for himself when he cracks the whip against the festivals. “Everyone is struggling to survive, find sponsors, therefore everything is the same,” says Peretti. “Everything is so politically correct, it’s very boring. ... The producers are afraid to lose their customers, the distributors also. The commissioning editors are afraid to lose their jobs. No one takes risks any longer! The difference between festivals is now like the difference between political parties!”
Others proclaim festivals to be money-losing ventures, which take away real dollars better spent by paying customers in a theatrical launch. “I’ve also had the double-edged sword of too much success at the festival,” recalls James. “STEVIE drew great crowds at two regional festivals leading up to its theatrical release in those cities, which caused the theater booker to assume the audience for the film had been tapped out. They promptly canceled the theatrical run.”
As a result, high powered producers are beginning to charge festivals for the privilege of screening work. Others have no leverage to do so. For broadcasters, a premiere at a festival may diminish press attention for the television launch, thereby decreasing ratings at the expense of the very broadcaster who paid for the film.
“With very rare exceptions, and contrary to the beliefs of a lot of producers and distributors, festivals bring no benefit to broadcasters,” argues “Storyville’s” Sanderson. “In fact, festivals normally just seep away any press coverage we might recover, so they can be detrimental. Considering that, it can sometimes be quite frustrating when a producer seems to care more about the audience of 200 people in a cinema than the hundreds of thousands who will see it broadcast - particularly when the viewers have paid for it.”
There are other logistic, timing and structural problems with festivals, along with criss-crossed rules, regulations, and policies. For example, there’s a tremendous amount of inter-fest rivalry competing for world and international premieres (where a film has only played in its own home country). Some festivals demand world premieres and exclusivity. Some festivals blackmail filmmakers into excluding their films from the competition’s competition. In life, as in festivals, formalistic criteria seem to contradict a passion for the films that all stakeholders profess. Rigidity sometimes results in mediocrity.
“It was previously possible for a film to play a series of festivals over a year,” reminds Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting in Santa Monica. “This has gotten increasingly difficult as festivals have become more premiere-centric. Too many festivals would prefer to play a mediocre film that has not been seen before rather than an excellent film that has.”
“Does it really matter if a film at IDFA was in Sheffield?” asks Atkin. “If I saw it at Sheffield, I’ll tell people at IDFA to see it. If I missed it at Sheffield I’ll see it at IDFA. The main point is exposure. And from the point of view of a broadcaster I have to say ‘Who do you think you are festival director X, to say when I can program a film that I have put money into?’”
Esther van Messel of First Hand Films in Zurich and Berlin concurs with our criticism against the premiere policy. She points out how it is “utterly misplaced in times where Film Subsidy Boards in each country carry a heavy load of the film’s financing plan and do need for the finished masterwork to be also seen at home.”
“Premiere rules tend to benefit festivals and their directors rather than filmmakers,” argues Heather Croall, head of Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK. “I have heard it said by those festivals who are strict about premiere rules that their driving reason is to (a) attract the buyers and (b) attract the press. Where does the filmmaker feature in that mix? I would like to see some real auditing on whether (a) and (b) actually stand up. Do the buyers really go because of the premieres? Do they go to the screenings? Or are they there to find new projects?”
Sanderson has some answers to such questions: “I think the problems surrounding festivals as industry events now stem from two misconceptions. One is that the buyers view a lot of films at festivals. Most of them don’t have time (they're in back-to-back meetings). Another is that audiences really care about premieres. ... If festivals are about audiences (and I think they should be, buyers view things on DVD now) then I think obsessive infighting over premieres is unfair to everyone. It makes life very difficult for producers, who are often caught in the middle of the holdback fights. It means audiences don't get to see the best films, because they're being held back for a competition in a faraway country. The industry as a whole suffers.”
Our virtual roundtable—getting quite heated-over self-indulgent premiere-rules—would rather have festivals focus on ways to sustain the industry. “Clearly its time for festivals to become even more proactive in generating funding,” says Sean Farnel, Hot Docs’ Director of Programming. “Not just facilitating the market, but directly supporting the kind of work that has driven the growth of the festival business.”
Amarshi supports Farnel’s suggestion. “If your film’s main audience is the ‘festival audience’ then you want to play your film in as many festivals as possible,” says Amarshi, “and ideally you should get a piece of the box office that the festivals are collecting. In the old days, festivals were cultural events, but that is no longer the case. Most festivals have become corporate players putting on an ‘event’. Seen in this context, one has to negotiate with these ‘events’ for what you want.”
As for suggestions for festivals in the future, the online option keeps coming up with various ways of being put down. “Pitchings and market screenings can be done online to a certain extent,” suggests Danielsen. “This will do good to our planet and reduce global warming. But again, it's a people’s business and the personal contact is most important. We need to meet from time to time. The best ideas come and many deals are done when you sit together in a relaxed atmosphere after work is over.”
However, Mark Atkin isn’t totally against the online idea. “I would happily create an avatar and send my rabbit into a virtual pitching room with various dinosaurs, lizards and door mice,” jokes Atkin. “But to be really effective there would need to be a sub-channel through which I can pass secret notes to my colleagues. And how can we get drunk together afterwards?”
Central to my ongoing theory of festivals, is the seven-year cycle. It takes seven years for a new festival to establish itself; the seventh is the make or break year. If it hasn’t done it by then, the festival doesn’t serve any purpose and should commit festicide. Then after each passing seven-year cycle the managers and directors of the festival, their advisors, boards and sponsors should allow their fests to renew themselves. Festivals and filmmakers need to adapt to the times. They need to reconnect with the street, adapt to new taste and technologies, monitor the evolution of image making, and the changes in audiences and the industry, where a generation is measured in months instead of years. Some fests fail to renew themselves, some just fail. Some become decentralized. Others find strength in central vision. To each their own festival.
“Festivals have become entrenched in the business of film so I don't believe they are going to go away,” adds Harmashi. “The key is to recognize their place as another avenue to get your film seen, and use the festivals to leverage it for your interest, be it other sales; or as a launch pad for your film; or to get awards and recognition; or to get laid. None of these are mutually exclusive goals but you need to know what your priorities are.”
Peter Wintonick is a DocAgoran operative and the international editor of POV magazine, about the art and business of documentary film, where this blog first appeared. POV editing assistance by Marc Glassman and Radheyan Simonpillai. This was additionally published on Fest o’ Fools, an articleblog for the DocAgora Webplex on the current state of documentary festivals.
Nuno Vieira Faustino
I have a terrible memory. It’s not unusual for me to start reading a book and only realize when I get to page 153 or so that I’ve read it before. By that time it’s too late to put it aside and why would I do that if I can’t remember how it ends anyway? When I watch a fiction movie, it’s the same thing. More often than not I will sit through an entire film trying to recall where I saw the character before. My neurons working over time on that bugging question until I realize that I saw the very same film four or five months ago.
I used to think that I had very little space in my brain for storing insignificant data. I thought that that precious real estate up there in my brain was reserved for more creative neurons. But I had to admit unfortunately that there were no scientific studies to back that one up. That’s okay though, I’ve learned to live with the fact and most of all, enjoy it. Think about it though: do you remember that amazing feeling of satisfaction you experienced when you watched your favorite movie for the first time? Or that the thrilling sensation of devouring the pages of your favorite book without knowing what’s going to happen next? You probably watched that movie and read that book again, but it was never the same the second time around. Well, for me, it is the same, over and over again. In a way, I’m like that guy with the short term memory from “Memento,” with the exception that I didn’t kill anybody - as far as I can remember, of course.
When I watch a documentary though, something different happens inside my hippocampus (or wherever it is these things happen). It’s as though my brain functions on a different level. For some reason, the information from a documentary gets directed to some secure location, registers and stays there. Again, I’m no brain scientist or anything, but my theory is that I retain the information I get from documentaries because, more than just watching events unfold, I end up experiencing them. In a way, it is a lot like traveling, I guess. I can read 400 pages on the Mayans, but I will never register that information the same way that I would by going to Mexico and climbing a Mayan pyramid.
So, for me, a good documentary is the one that takes me on a trip, whether it be to the Amazonian forest, a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, the trenches in Iraq, a madrasah in Pakistan or even inside somebody’s mind. Fiction films just don’t do that for me. I rarely get drawn into a fiction movie the same way because, as a film student, I’m always analyzing camera angles or cinematography aspects, and as a scriptwriter, I can’t stop myself from analyzing the narrative structure or the quality of the dialogue. But with documentaries it’s a very different story. Even if I try to analyze them, I soon get swept inside and forget all about the technical issues.
That’s why I decided to volunteer for the documentary division of Link TV. Every minute of my time I spend screening documentaries, is a minute of knowledge I’m gathering and storing for my entire life. That is something invaluable, especially when all the documentaries shown on Link TV speak about issues that should never be forgotten.
Nuno Vieira Faustino is a film student at the New School, a screenwriter for Portuguese television and Intern Extraordinaire for Link TV. He is currently on vacation in Costa Rica.
-Posted August 28, 2009 by Nuno Vieira Faustino
For many of us, we move through summer at a seemingly slower pace than we normally do through the rest of the year. It may just be the warmer weather caressing us with gentle breezes that slow us down in our attempt to make them linger. Or it may just be an oppressive heat that makes movement of any kind an unpleasant activity. Whatever it is, for many of us, summer somehow affords us time to catch up on things we cherish but barely have enough time for like vacations or gardening, idle time on the beach, visits with loved ones or getting to that reading list we’ve been compiling over time or a chance to revisit that literary classic we once traveled through that shaped our lives. While there is still a whole month left to this summer I will take this opportunity to suggest a Link TV documentary viewing list for those of you whose tv watching pilot might still be burning for some very engaging documentary viewing.
For starters, if you haven’t been tuning in to Link TV’s original series Global Spirit, now is the time to do so. Summer is the perfect time to travel and for an eco friendly, cost saving trip why not journey inward? And what better way to do so than by watching Global Spirit? Where else will you find programs that ask questions like “Does the creative spirit lie within the artist, or is it channeled through the artist from a higher power?” Hailed by the New York times, this extraordinary series journeys deep into the experience of human consciousness offering a host of film clips and full-length documentaries that are framed and deepened by engaging interviews with filmmakers and related guests. This month beginning on August 2, Global Spirit features From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brother’s Warning a poignant film that asks us to give up our self-destructive ways and honor the planet, before it is too late, and beginning August 16, Rumi Poet of the Heart, a lively and provocative exploration of the genius and timeliness of the extraordinary poet. August is also the month when our documentary series African School passes the baton to India. On August 11 we bring you the first episode of the 10-part series Indian School. This series focuses on the lives of students and teachers in two very different private schools in the growing city of Pune near Mumbai. This extraordinary series gets on the inside of India’s middle classes, exploring their dreams and anxieties in a world that seems to be changing every day. Also new this month is NORA! A short film that celebrates Nora Pouillon, a remarkable restaurateur devoted to educating Americans about the benefits of healthy food and sustainable living. In1999 Nora opened Restaurant Nora, the nation’s first certified organic restaurant.
If you have any regrets about missing broadcasts of films you wanted to see on Link TV, August is the month when you will have the chance to catch them again. For example, if you missed seeing Doc Debut films on their debut night, don’t miss this month’s rebroadcasts of Yang Ban Xi, Souvenirs, The Prisoner or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, Saz: The Palestinian Rapper, Words of My Perfect Teacher, Harsh Beauty and the hilarious doc about a crazy new sport American Shopper. Now the Link TV summer viewing list would not be complete without mention of a few feature length documentary favorites of mine. Dame La Mano by the great Heddy Honigman will have you up and dancing the Rumba in your living room; The Corporation one of the most provocative films of our time provides an astounding analysis of the corporate institution, raising significant questions about corporate accountability and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, from Japanese director Kazuo Hara, a compelling look at the impact of war and war crimes on the veteran psyche and how vets grappled with war trauma long before the diagnosis PTSD was invented.
During the month of August be sure to check the listings for broadcast dates and times for these shows as they will repeat. And as you make a point to catch up on some of these extraordinary documentary films, keep in mind that we are working on bringing you some more new films this fall to add to your list. So keep that pilot burning and keep your channel tuned to Link TV. Happy summer viewing everyone.
-Posted July 28, 2009 by Anne Kovach, Acquisitions and Scheduling
A basic tenet of most media making over decades has been that being independent is the great goal for filmmakers great and small, But, as digital technologies allow for far easier image capturing, processing, and delivery, exponentially more media works are being made and distributed via an exponentially larger range of venues to connect the works to audiences, as well as great changes in the financial models and criteria for value and success that drive media makers. And the various technologies and processes involved in media making have also become vast and difficult to fully comprehend.
In such a context, the vaunted independence so long sought after by media makers has proved to be less of a utopia than originally thought. How media makers respond to these changes is interesting to watch, and many makers have asked for more trusted guides and honest brokers in the digital media universe as they figure how best to navigate the bewildering digital media culture.
There has been a recent trend toward interdependence and other modes of aggregation of media works, tools, and delivery platforms.
Link TV itself is a hub or aggregation of fine documentary work that would otherwise not have a home. And the Linktv.org Documentary website and DOC360 blog space is also intended to draw people’s attention to useful news, analysis, and opinion on the documentary media field. So it’s quite appropriate for us to use the DOC360 space to suggest that readers find their way to web-based groups that are putting forward useful hubs of knowledge, opinion, and resources to help people navigate their way though the digital media milieu.
One recent group is the Workbook Project, a group founded by filmmaker Lance Weiler, with a goal of creating “a free resource for content creators that will become a user-contributed repository of information.” The Workbook Project is an “open source social experiment” that is meant to be spread and edited. Content creators can add their own information, with the hope that the workbook can grow as a resource as people add what they feel is important. The information has and will cover a wide range of useful information about a variety of subjects, such as:
Another group that is also something of an open source social experiment is Docagora, a small group based in Canada and The United States. DocAgora was built as an open space to consider new forms, new platforms, new tools, and new ways of financing creative and socially engaged documentary media, for what is called docmedia. Docagora tries to connect “new and established docmedia makers, producers, distributors, funders, broadcasters, niche-casters, webmakers, creatives, crews, festivals, markets, sales agents, foundations, institutions, educators, students, viewers, producers, NGO's, non-profits and marketeers - into one progressive place.”
The name Docagora is derived from the Agora of ancient Athens. The Agora was a meeting place, a market place, a public place, where there was a spirit and commerce, community and renewal, and the WebPlex being developed by Docagora is an interdependent web-based equivalent of the Agora.
The DocAgora WebPlex is a practical knowledge base and information system open to all producers, creators, funders and distributors of cross-platform documentary content. The DocAgora WebPlex is cooperatively developed, and enables members and partners to populate a richly structured web-base with useful information, tools and resources on topics in five initial areas of interest: Funders, Events, Distribution, Tools, and Concepts.
As the Docagora Webplex is populated with content by members and partners, access to the system will be open, collaboratively filtered, and will allow members of the documedia community to contribute items, ratings, reviews, and feedback on the various elements of the database. These user contributions ar edesigned to reveal what entries are of greatest value and what ones are better to avoid. Over time, this library of information will grow as a collaborative enterprise to serve the entire non-fiction cross-media community and industry, which deserve better and more accurate information and analyses. The idea is to have the WebPlex function as an honest broker, offering the documedia community an unbiased review of the opportunities, partners, and tools currently available in the ever-changing mediascape.
The Docagora WebPlex is very early in its development, but an idea of what is in store can be seen in the Distributor section of the Resources area. There are almost 500 entries and that amount will no doubt go well over 1,000 in the near future
(Note: Neil Sieling works with Docagora as a part of his work as a New Media Fellow for the Center for Social Media based at American University in Washington D.C.)
-Posted July 9, 2009 by Neil Sieling
Earlier this month, Link TV was in attendance at Hot Docs, Toronto’s International Documentary Film Festival, where we met up with Erin Donovan, writer, editor, documentary film distributor and friend of Link TV who was there on a press pass and agreeable to contribute her take to Doc 360. Erin is the founder of A Million Movies a Minute, an independent documentary distributor specializing in short films and the editor of Steady Diet of Film as well as a contributing writer for Greencine. We are grateful to her for this review.
Inevitably at the end of every big film festival I go through the same parallel Kubler-Ross process of reconciling all of my new experiences, knowledge and feelings. In one week at Hot Docs, the largest documentary film festival in North America, I've been amazed, infuriated, saddened, shocked and ultimately hopeful when I see the incredible drive, determination and creativity in this business we call show. Even as the odds seem to exponentially mount against our industry, film-makers are finding new methods and frontiers for documentary story-telling. The emotional, intellectual and physical reaches film-makers go to tell new and important stories never ceases to amaze.
One film that keeps coming to mind as I watch the screaming talking heads of cable news is Ian Old's (Occupation: Dreamland) Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. The film recounts the story of the kidnapping of an Italian news team that ended in the negotiated release of a western journalist and the murder (by decapitation that was then broadcast on the internet) of two Afghans including 24-year-old Naqshbandi. Similar to Werner Herzog's 2005 doc Grizzly Man the film relies heavily on a wealth of informally shot footage by an American journalist who partnered with Naqshbandi six months prior. The story encapsulates the seemingly impossible road to forming a national identity facing the Afghan people.
Documentary film has the unique power to take the viewer places they didn't even know they wanted to go. For instance, this year into the dark psyche of convicted rapist/heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson in James Toback's new film Tyson. Entirely comprised of archive footage and a no-frills, staring straight into the camera interview with its subject, the film is an oddly engaging meditation on masculinity, poverty, violence, misogyny and how the insularity of wealth can worsen mental health issues.
Another place I never thought I'd care to be taken to is the rarified world of international high art. As we sit with the world crumbling around us due to backroom dealings and concentrated wealth, it might've been hard to become emotionally invested in the collection habits, petty squabbles and political shenanigans of the uber-wealthy. But Simon Backès' Stolen Art crafts a fascinating thriller out of the life and work of Pavel Novak, a meticulous replicator of cherished paintings. Now wanted by the FBI after a wealthy collector determined Novak must have actually stolen an original piece from his (one might think well-secured) home. Similar to the better moments in Amir Bar-Lev's 2007 My Kid Could Paint That, the film goes out of its way to be accessible to art newbies and explains many interesting concepts of art appreciation and interpretation in the midst of a Usual Suspects-like mystery that also plays like a comedy of errors that is international copyright law.
Shadow Billionaire, a directorial debut from Alexis Manya Spraic is a genuine discovery. The film examines the complicated life of DHL Founder Larry Hillblom who upon dying in a plane crash redefined the term 'eccentric billionaire' when it was discovered he had a secret life of shady business dealings, underage prostitutes and a very poorly-executed will. Spraic, hot off winning Best Editing prize at SXSW for her work on Cat Dancers, uses insight, grace and a meticulous sense of pacing to craft a moving story from the life of a man who was essentially a drama-addicted pervert who lucked into massive wealth.
Documentary film-makers are also working to challenge the way we think about the genre itself. In Paris 1919, Paul Cowan combines the first motion film captured of the world leaders involved with the creation of the Treaty of Versailles and supplements it with dramatized scenes of the dealings that led to one of the most long-lasting diplomatic failures. The film is more successful as historical drama than as mediated record, but the film has to be admired for its scenes of cartographers burning the midnight oil ala a teen comedy study montage. Coco Schrijber's Bloody Mondays and Strawberry Pies examines boredom and the lengths people will go to to avoid it. Narrated by John Malkovich with music provided by Johnny Halliday the film is a bit of a baffler. Deliberately sedate in pace and coarse in its humor (the film ultimately surmises the happiest among us are the prison population, but I've seen MSNBC's Lock Up and humbly disagree) there are moments that are similar to Hartmut Bitomsky's delightful microhistory, Dust. But watching long shots of a dessert factory worker decorating an endless line of decadent cakes or the railroad gates closing for a train that never comes is an immersive experience that can be difficult to slow down and enjoy in this workaday world.
Easily one of my favorites of the festival was Peter Kerekes's Cooking History. Boasting the tagline "6 Wars, 10 recipes, 60 million dead" the film examines wars of the 20th century through the lens of the food soldiers ate and the people who prepared it. The film blends horrific testimony and visual whimsy with the black humor that can only come from career chefs. We meet a Russian woman who claims to have made 11 million blintzes for soldiers, an escaped concentration camp prisoner bent on seeking out SS officers who evaded Nuremburg to poison them and an Hungarian chef whose personal allegiances never changed but wound up cooking for several different armies as battles were fought and lost throughout World War II. In one scene harrowing scene, a former soldier walks us through a cornfield he was once chased through by German tanks and quietly reminisceces, "they could have run me over and not even noticed". It's a moment similar to the orchard scene in Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, here with a much greater sense of introspection.
For the lovers of esoteric art films I've been recommending the surprisingly accessible Oblivion. In Heddy Honigmann's (Forever, O Amor Natural) latest documentary she tackles the last forty years of Peruvian government corruption through an apolitical lens. By training her focus exclusively on people working in the service industries that cater to the elite, she allows their experiences simmer over beautiful, contrasting images such as the plush restaurant (complete with dolphin tank) where one man has been waiting tables for over twenty years against the dark, cement block building he calls home.
And while profit is rarely anyone's primary motivation for getting into documentary film, it's hard to look at this enormous slate of films and not think about what they'll do and where they'll go over the next 6-18 months. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Magnolia Pictures' Tom Quinn who chided a group of us to never dub a film "This year's [insert successful film title here]" I see a lot of the same promise in Aron Gaudet's The Way We Get By that was present in Stephen Walker's doc Young at Heart (which garnered a none too shabby $7M at the box office in 2007). Gaudet's directorial debut follows three elderly Troop Greeters in Bangor, Maine who since 2003 have volunteered countless hours to welcome and send off American troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan with respect, appreciation and affection. The three subjects joined by such a specific calling couldn't be farther apart in personality, background or motivation but as in Young at Heart, each deal with the frailty of human life, loneliness and how tenuous the feeling of a meaningful existance can be with an openness that will touch even the coldest of hearts.
Hot Docs is also the largest convergence of documentary film-makers and financiers in North America. Most documentary film-makers possess a PT Barnum-like ability to re-frame their enormous labors of love into can't miss deals when opportunity arises. I met a handful of film-makers who were there to present at the Toronto Documentary Forum, a 2-day forum for a select group of producers with projects in various states of completion to present their case in front of 150 broadcasters, third-party financiers and commissioning editors. This year kicked off the first partnership between Hot Docs and Good Pitch, which is similar in format to the TDF but matches social issue films who need financing with NGOs, foundations and corporations looking for a socially conscious tax write-offs.
But I also met a lot of even scrappier film-makers who were not included in the TDF but chose to make the trek to Toronto anyway to hustle the hallways, parties and even restrooms to get their work noticed. Their perspiration is my inspiration, and I'll try to remember them and the stories they are fighting to tell the next time I have the urge to complain about 10 am screenings, bad hotel coffee or cash bars.
Knowing I'll be afforded many more opportunities to catch them, I have yet to see any of this year's superstar documentaries. Sundance favorites like Gary Hurstwurst's (Helvetica) Objectified, Ondi Timoner's (Dig!) We Live in Public, Doug Pray's (Surfwise, Scratch) Art & Copy or Kirby Dick's (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) incendiary expose on closeted politicians Outrage all played to sold out crowds at Hot Docs this year and will no doubt have much continued, deserved success.
- Posted May 28, 2009 by Erin Donovan
For those of you who visit our website regularly, you may have noticed that we just released a brand new original series on Link TV called Global Spirit. This unique 'internal travel' series is the brainchild of Link TV's Director of Original Programming, Stephen Olsson, and is co-produced by Lorraine Hess (yours truly), with invaluable contributions from Associate Producers Joe Kulin and Adrianne Anderson, and series host Phil Cousineau.
The idea hatched over 2 years ago when we discussed the idea of having a series about human consciousness and spirituality with a global sensibility. From the terrific viewer response and positive feedback to the groundbreaking docs like Ayurveda: The Art of Being from director Pan Nailin, and Doing Time, Doing Vipassana from directors Ayelet Menahemi & Eilona Ariel, we sensed a growing interest in programming of this genre. So we thought about how great it would be to create an original show format with in depth conversations between people - with first hand experience and different world views about universal themes like forgiveness, ecstasy, oneness and so on, and blending it with powerful international documentary film segments that would compliment the theme. We then thought how great it would be to compliment these conversations with full length films that spoke to the specific theme. To go one step further, we would also interview the filmmaker.
The result is a rather eclectic, original and fascinating series of 10 new programs that include documentary segments from films like 'Dance with Ecstasty' and complete documentaries like Rumi, Poet of the Heart from director Haydn Reiss and Breakng Bows and Arrows by Liz Thompson, a Link TV classic, including a US broadcast premiere of the acclaimed documentary, From the Heart of the World - the Elder Bother's Warning from director Alan Ereira.
Since the launch of Global Spirit on April 12, the response from our viewers and from the press has been amazing. And we are delighted to share with you the reviews we have received from both The New York Times and Spirituality and Practice.
Global Spirit airs on Link TV every Sunday at 6pm Pacific / 9pm Eastern with a rebroadcast every Thursday at 8pm Pacific / 11pm Eastern. For additional broadcast times check the Link TV program schedule. Though we are still in the process of acquiring streaming rights for some of the docs, most of the series can now be streamed in its entirety on the Global Spirit website at www.linktv.org/globalspirit.
To find out more about the Global Spirit series or to join in the spirited conversation, visit our Global Spirit page where you can see clips, whole programs, or donate!
We hope you enjoy this transformational journey into the Global Spirit!
-Posted April 21, 2009 by Lorraine Hess
We are pleased to present a landmark television series entitled Trails from the East, a 13-part documentary series that chronicling a train voyage from the East to the West, through fast-changing societies, along the birthplaces of five world religions.
The series tackles some of the great questions of today’s world. How do people cope with the continuing globalization? Is it a threat or an opportunity? The series presents local people on and off the train, on an epic journey of discovery that passes through many towns and villages unknown in the West on this 12,000 mile "road movie". The relaxed anonymity of a train proves to be a perfect setting for travelers to reveal perspectives on their world, as they learn to cope with the relentless battle to preserve unique religions and traditions in the face of pervasive globalization, consumerism and the prescribed Western lifestyle. The train setting provides a sanctuary from all manner of social, economic, and familial control and the train passengers seem to leap at the chance to express themselves.
The Dutch creator of Trails from the East is Rob Hof, a trained social anthropologist as well as an experienced filmmaker, and whose work benefits from speaking eight languages. Hof has a unique ability to find interesting people riding on trains and to get them to open up for the camera. ‘It is almost as if you’re in the train yourself’, many viewers said after watching ‘Trails from the East’, when it was broadcast in Europe.
Trails from the East is divided into thirteen episodes that generally correspond to train journeys taken from one end of a country to the border with another country. Link TV will be running all of the episodes and we’re also pleased to announce that the Linktv.org website will also have all thirteen episodes available for online viewing.
While any of the individual programs can be viewed in any particular order, I recommend beginning with the first episode that starts in Vietnam on the Chinese border and which is called The Reunification Express. The episode after that then moves to Cambodia, and then to Thailand and so on. Tracking the Trails from the East series in this way is a kind of reverse Marco Polo effect in that it goes from East to West and culminates in the Balkans, very near to where Marco Polo began his epic journey in the 13th Century. And Trails from the East is also less of a fantastic spectacle than the documentation of Polo’s journey, but the Trails from the East series captures the rich inner lives of so many people along the way.
The following are the episodes that will be broadcast and are also available for online viewing:
1) Vietnam: The Reunification Express
2) Cambodia: Country of Scars
3) Thailand: The City Calls
4) Malaysia: Knowledge is the Beginning
5) Myanmar and Bangladesh : Behind Closed Doors
6) India: Religious Conflict in a Time of Change
7) India: Indian Paradox in the 21st Century
8) Pakistan and Afghanistan: A Country of Two Faces
9) Iran: In the Land of the Ayatollahs
10) Syria and Jordan: The Great Enemy
11) Israel: Them and Us
12) Turkey: Towards Europe
13) The Balkans: Europe’s Blind Spot
Director Rob Hof is currently in production on a comparable series to Trails from the East, which is entitled The Future Express. The following is a short statement of intention for the new series:
The aim of the Future Express is to debunk stereotypes about people in different countries in the world. In the new series, the train will travel through 26 countries on six continents. We will talk to common people in the train, looking for inspiring and authentic stories of how people cope with these demanding times. ‘We do not want to focus on conflicts and sorrow, but rather ask people about hope and love and finally reach the topic of worldwide partnerships’, director Rob Hof says.
Please share your thoughts about Trails from the East as your feedback is greatly appreciated and will inform the new series as well. We’re particularly interested in those of you who manage to take all 13 rides on Trails from the East!
-Posted January 6, 2009 by Neil Sieling
I thought I would take the time to list a few programs that really made me think over the course of the year. I hope you enjoy them too. A Happy New Year to all!
Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story
I have heard it is difficult to explore troubling subjects with mirth. Perhaps, but some people find a way. Pieter Dirk may make school kids laugh with his antics but his message is clear: Protect yourself, practice safe sex. Instead of battering kids with the mechanical obey-or-die approach, he charms them, treats them as equals, and wins. Oh, this is what he does now. Not too long ago, Pieter was lampooning the South African regime for practicing apartheid. A hopeful film about an inspiring man.
All White in Barking
In an age where political correctness is the norm, people are normally extremely careful on camera. But in the English district of Barking, the rush of new immigrants is causing some people to openly air their grievances. It would be fair to assume so much uninformed finger pointing helps in identifying the villains. Not so simple. Director Marc Isaacs’s careful approach ensures his participants aren’t stereotypical avatars of the big-bad xenophobic neighbors. What we see aren’t rabble rousing old timers but scared folk unsure and terrified that their homes are being taken over by “foreigners”. At the other end of spectrum sit people who have left their homes far behind in search of something better.
Abel Raises Cain
Alan Abel looks directly into the camera with a seriousness Winston Churchill would have admired. Then as casually as a walrus might trim his tusks with an electric drill on a patch of ice, he informs the viewer that he believes there is so much protein to be had in munching hair. The man then attempts to coax his little girl into eating a hair sandwich. Enough said. Ladies and gentleman, the one, the only -- Alan Abel!
Bro'Town (Season 2)
It’s brash, vulgar, tender, funny, and made in New Zealand. Bro’ Town also hits a nerve. The characters deserve to be in a raunchy Broadway musical. But behind the cultural naughtiness, there is heart that cannot be missed. A work of satirical genius, its intelligence tempered significantly by nonsensical plot settings that will, I promise you, leave you befuddled Full-Monty-like and in a state of high only possible after hyena-like chuckles. Okay, I admit it. I like this show. And for those in the know: Morningside for life! By the way, you can watch this online.
No Past to Speak Of
It is difficult to watch something when it so clearly is about infant rape. However this film moved me immensely in tackling a subject few people are willing to touch. When a five-month old baby girl is brutally raped in a South African slum, there is clearly very little to say. However there is a lot to do. For one woman, Claudia Ford, it starts with adopting the little girl and nursing the child back from a state of violence into one of trust and hope. It starts with confronting a society where there is genuine belief that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS. It starts with refusing to be ashamed in being the victim and hiding away. And through it all, slowly, a woman becomes a mother and a victim of abuse a child.
-Posted December 26, 2008 by Deepak Unnikrishnan
A political figure is open to public scrutiny. Comedians rarely forget that. Tina Fey’s spot-on caricature of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has possibly been ensconced in political folklore forever. Brutal without being malicious, witty Fey turned a bumbling interview into a disturbing character sketch that had the Palin camp squirming. The lampooning of political figures isn’t new. Birbal, the legendary advisor in the court of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, was famous for dissecting chicanery with careful wit and charm. Fast forward to present times where cyberspace wrestles with television and we have “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” making comic-meat from carefully selected spin. And right when television established itself as the behemoth it is now, there came a man named Alan Abel.
Alan Abel, who we get to watch in Abel Raises Cain, this week’s Doc Debut, belongs with the best, his sketches sometimes as outlandish or vicious as Dave Chappell’s. If he is not on a campaign to stop women breast feeding, he is busy petitioning people to cover up animal genitalia, unless he is campaigning for a fictitious female presidential candidate or is held up promoting the positives of eating hair. Abel’s mission is no different to any academic’s: pinpoint the ludicrous and rethink absolutes. However he doesn’t have his own TV show or do his pranks belong in the same league as Ashton Kutcher’s (Abel’s is better). And perhaps his prime is long past. But yes, he has been on television, has been written about, and been photographed. So what if he was rarely credited as Alan Abel! A master prankster baiting media through sensationalism to give it a well-deserved kick up its own backside, Abel thrived in scenarios where the confounded – allowed the right press conference – could be made believable and therefore could be toyed with.
The artist Ron English, a disheveled lost musketeer look-alike in glasses would confirm. In Popaganda, The Arts and Crimes of Ron English, we see a man on a mission to literally stick his point on billboards across the nation. He needs to upturn what he finds the absurd need to pander to marketing giants by infringing on their property and painting what he really thinks about the product. Almost like an animal soiling on a piece of unappreciated furniture or guest. Often his work is stark, to the point: his lamentation over the quiet culling of liberty, for instance. Other times the billboard he has fiddled with seems untouched, like the Coca Cola advert he retouches in the film (As you look closer, on the bottom right, you see the bold scrawl under the Coke can: “It makes you fart”). The English street artist Banksy comes to mind.
In 2006 comedian Stephen Colbert turned the screws on President George Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Annual Dinner. In his boisterous portrayal of a sniveling pundit defending his president’s policies, he roasted the highest power in office in full view of his entourage. In his delivery, straight-faced as always, you couldn’t tell if he was serious or he was not, whether it was comedy or it was not, whether it was political or it was not. Quite frankly, it was a bold and calculated piece of satire. When you watch Alan Abel in “Abel Raises Cain,” there are moments when you aren’t sure why Alan considers this his calling. And then as you watch gag after gag where he dupes the media into believing his outlandish scams, you think – why not?
-Posted November 26, 2008 by Deepak Unnikrishnan
The Satmar Hasidim are one of the most conservative groups in all of Orthodox Judaism. Descending from the Hungarian village of Szatmár (now Satu Mare, Romania), their largest population today resides in Brooklyn, NY with settlements in the suburban towns of Monsey and Monroe, just north of New York City.
The extreme anti-Zionist views associated with the Satmar are based in the orthodox belief that God promised to return the Jewish people to the Land of Israel with the coming of the Messiah. One of the core principals for this belief comes from the Talmud teachings of the Three Oaths which state that the Jewish people "are bound by three strong oaths not to ascend to the Holy Land as a group using force, not to rebel against the governments of countries in which we live, and not by our sins, to prolong the coming of messiah." Opposed to the state of Israel, the Satmar today operate in Iran and Yemen (and throughout South America) condemning the Zionist state while persuading Jewish refugees with promises of a better life (with housing and education for their families) in return for immigrating to the United States. Much like the Amish in America, the Satmar thrive in isolated, self-sufficient communities. Devoted to the study of the Torah they are bound by tradition in their manner of dress and the propagation of big families.
In Satmar Custody airing this week on Link TV is a gripping documentary that follows the tragic plight of a young Yemenite couple, Yahia and Lauza Jaradi who sought the promise of Satmar operatives and moved their family of four to a Satmar community in Monsey, NY. Like most refugees under Satmar guidance, Yahia surrenders his passport to Satmar authorities and with a student visa engages in the exclusive study of the Torah. Allowed to learn only Yiddish the family is required by Satmar law to lose their Yemen language and culture - in order to assimilate into the Satmar Community. Their only income being a small percentage of charitable donations that Yahia solicits from wealthy Jews for his own cause. Several years and a few children later the Jaradi's lives take a very dark turn. On a typical morning in 1998, Lauza is feeding her children when an accident happens that leads to false accusations of abuse, the loss of her children to the custody of the Satmar Community and the mysterious death of one child.
In this chilling investigation, Director, Nissan Gilady weaves a film noir tale from personal testimonies that unravel a complex case in the shadow of the Satmar-Zionist conflict. The film begins with a series of photos of Yahia and Lauza, bulleted from the long lens of a press camera as the couple respond to questions about the accident, posed by a local newspaper reporter. Throughout the film, Gilady employs a sharp contrast of dark and light that suggests perhaps the extreme sides of this case. The questions of right and wrong and the forces of good and evil at play in this tragic tale. For example, the Jaradi child is buried at night by gravediggers who are spot-lit by the headlights of an idling car. What appears as a clandestine burial arouses suspicion of a "cover up". And as viewer we turn voyeur as we watch Lauza through the crack of a closet door, receive guests at her home while she sits Shivah. In another scene, we are with Lauza inside a car that travels a winding road and emerges from a dark tunnel to a blinding haze of bright light that obliterates our view. A brilliant device that conveys the haze of confusion and loss of hope that Lauza must be experiencing as she is whisked away by a Yemen activist who helps her flee a pending jail sentence. In Satmar Custody quickly draws us in with painful testimonies from the Jaradi's, the Yemen activists working to help them, a medical examiner and other Yemeni Jews who claim to be victims of similar Satmar control
Today, when the internet makes it possible for websites like www.jewsagainstzionism.com to post a color coded "Zionist Threat Alert" scale, one might wonder what motivates Satmar attempts to derail and prevent further immigration to Israel. Nitzan Giladi questions the Satmar motive but he does so with testimonies from only one side of this case. Clearly, there were no Satmar members other than Yemeni refugees interviewed for this film. In Satmar Custody, is a well crafted thriller that is ripe for a prime-time episode of Law & Order, Criminal Intent. But the questions it raises still remain questions unanswered.
In Satmar Custody will be rebroadcast this week on Link TV. Please see the Link TV online schedule for broadcast times
-Posted November 19, 2008 by Anne Kovach
-Posted November 7, 2008 by Neil Sieling