Good news for documentary filmmakers.
If you want to make documentary films, you have a compulsion to do
almost nothing else. No matter your situation, you pursue your dream
because it gets into the blood and stays there. Today the tools for
making these films are cheaper and accessible to most people. More
people are producing documentary films than in the past. Their numbers
seem to grow bigger by the minute. Despite this, there have been fewer
venues available to show independent documentary films, especially on
TV. One possibility for bigger audiences, or any kind of audience for
that matter, is to find a way to broadcast these new films and to give
older films another site, and in some cases a second hearing. The
answer might be to become a broadcaster if you care about the genre.
Then you can show as many films as possible to feed the widening and
increasingly hungry audience that those in the documentary world
believe is there for the finding. Discover a way to show films that
have a point of view, that tell the truth, that are about worlds and
people not readily available in mainstream movies or on mainstream TV
is the challenge for anyone who cares about the genre.
This is precisely what Tom Neff, the founder and CEO of the
is doing. Mr. Neff says that a 24 hour channel “exclusively devoted to
showing documentaries is an idea whose time has come.” He is convinced
people will watch what he programs. Mr. Neff says, “We want to show
the best documentaries to as many people as we can. Often these films
are seen a few times at festivals, and then no more. We will show good
films from anywhere. That way we will support the independent
filmmaker by providing a new source of revenue that might even allow
them the money to make their next film.” Full disclosure: in March the
channel played the Douglas/Steinman production, “My Grandfather’s
House: The Journey Home,” four times.
Though only a few months old and so far only on EchoStar’s Dish
Network, many of its viewers are already affectionately referring to
the channel as “Doc.” You can find it on DirecTV 197, between CNN and
Discovery, what Mr. Neff calls a “a great neighborhood.” He is not
resting until he has other outlets, meaning a spot in the cable
universe, probably on the digital platform, where his channel will be
available to all who want to see documentaries 24/7. To that end, he
asks that anyone who cares about documentary films, “write their local
cable providers asking them to make room for his channel.” It is an
effort I support.
Here is why. The problem with documentaries on broadcast or cable is
that programmers desecrate independent non-fiction films. Except for
rare occasions, frequent commercials, and what programmers call
“business,” usually self-aggrandizing promotions, interrupt the flow
of the film by breaking it into six, seven or eight minute segments.
IFC and Sundance Channels show some documentaries, but these are few
and when shown, nearly impossible to watch. Their flow, constantly
broken up, makes for uneasy viewing. But in their defense, though
limited, these channels do try to give some independent films and a
few documentaries a rare showcase.
The Discovery Channel recently played “Grizzly Man,” a powerful,
unique, sad and quirky film that I found impossible to watch on TV.
This was not only because of short sections separated by frequent
commercials, but also because of the self-satisfied hype about what a
wonderful job Discovery was doing by showing this film. Commercials
are important to sustain cable and broadcast television. But the
integrity of a personal film such as “Grizzly Man” suffers
monumentally when the commercial interruptions are all we recall about
Now, with the Documentary Channel, there is an opportunity to see
again films, including “Grizzly Man” and maybe even “Murderball” –
recently on A&E also with commercials, and thus unappetizing – the way
the filmmaker meant you to see them.
Tom Neff says, “There is also a huge number of documentaries that no
one ever sees.” And he is correct. Many go into a bottomless pit from
which they never emerge. A few get distributors, and despite that,
they too end up in never-never land. Thus, the need for a venue to
show these films, Mr. Neff says, that are “uninterrupted by
commercials except for minor editing to comply with FCC regulations.
There will be no commercials inside the films. Sponsors will bookend
each showing, meaning the commercials will appear at the beginning and
the end of each presentation.” In many cases, a single sponsor will
surround a film with its commercial message.
Recently the Documentary Channel started producing its first original
series, DocTalk@USC, a half hour interview program with filmmakers
conducted by Mark Harris of the USC’s School of Cinema-Television. The
series, taped at USC with a live audience, will start playing in the
Tom Neff, CEO, is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Working
in the field for more than twenty years, he recently completed his
latest feature-length documentary film in Nashville called “Chances:
The Women of Magdalene.” He produced and directed the film in High
Definition (HDTV) about an organization that helps prostitutes move
successfully back into the mainstream world. “It began and ended as a
labor of love. I worked on the film for two and half years and I am
now sending it to film festivals and trying to get people to see it,”
says Mr. Neff. He is doing what filmmakers everywhere do to get their
work noticed. Despite his new position, the life of a documentary
filmmaker never changes. Tom Neff knows this well. It will always be
this way for anyone in the documentary world. Perhaps that is why Tom
Neff is working hard to make The Documentary Channel successful. After
all, it does take one to know one.
At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief
in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote
and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced
and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the
History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a
National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold
Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and
has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in
Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My
Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in
Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story",
"Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First
War: A Saigon Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.