TVS, PBS, Independent Lens. How would you describe these individual parts in the documentary support chain?
ITVS, or Independent Television Service, is a funding organization. It was formed in the late 1980s. There was very little funding for US filmmakers, independent filmmakers and especially documentary filmmakers. It was founded by a group of filmmakers from across the US formed a group and went to Congress and basically demanded that there should be public funding for independent producers and filmmakers. It took several years and then the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created. ITVS was formed out of that; it's one of the ways the CPB gives money to support independent filmmakers. ITVS was actually born in 1991 and it was primarily for US filmmakers and producers, until maybe four years ago, it was all for all for US filmmakers and producers.
Once funded, all films go to public television, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) has its own public broadcasting system which is a collaboration of 356 independent PBS stations across the US. Several prime-time programmes go to all of the PBS stations, e.g., Independent Lens, P.O.V., American Experience, Frontline, etc.; PBS stations can also buy locally. The films funded on the US side go to one of these strands or the stations can pick them up themselves through acquisition but each station acts independently.
Four years ago, the International Fund was born at ITVS but we're not part of the CPB and our money doesn't come from there. Our initiative is foundation-based, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The funding fluctuates every year. With our International Fund, we don't accept any US stories, we're looking for really international content, untold or little-known stories, a completely different point of view that the US audiences might not know. We essentially work as the US co-production partner and take the US television rights for 7 years, we talk to each project about their new media rights and our mandate is to find a perfect home for each film on US television. We can give out up to US$150,000; we have a catalogue of 75 films at the moment at various stages of development. Almost all of them are international co-productions.
As a characteristic feature of your support, you don't assume the right to influence the final shape of documentary projects...
If you look at our submission guidelines, international projects actually go through five phases of thorough selection process. By the time that we greenlight projects, we really know who we're working with. Part of the mission of ITVS is to support the filmmakers' vision of the film they want to make. We certainly look at cuts and we might suggest adding a certain kind of context that would help illuminate the US audience. The biggest danger of television is the zapper, the remote control, and people can change channels so fast that I prefer having some context so that audiences can connect with the story immediately. Or we may help different channels and suggest different versions and help to reversion the film. But we're not going to interfere with the artist's vision. We certainly offer for you to make a festival version and if you get a cinema release, we would be happy to amend the contract and help you with the release.
The system of creative documentaries and television co-productions in North America is very different from the one applied in Europe. What are the main differences in your opinion?
It is different than Europe and it's sometimes hard to pinpoint it. In the US it's also widely different from broadcaster to broadcaster. What we like to do when you're applying to our fund is that I generally want to see want to see the original version in the original language with subtitles. We do less dubbing if possible, more and more people are wanting to show films in the original language with subtitles but that's not always the case in the US. We also have a smaller market for international documentaries, which is a pity. Every year it differs, certain years there seems to be more slots or strands for international documentaries, and other years there's less.
For example, Sundance Channel DOCday is a strand that initially showed more international documentaries than US-made documentaries but that's changed somewhat. But we actually work with them to give them some of our films that we fund, also to HBO, Cinemax, all the PBS strands - Independent Lens, P.O.V., Wide Angle. By the way, Wide Angle is an example where sometimes the versioning for international documentaries is widely different because they don't want to do a 45' version and they generally want to have a strong narrative voiceover.
So working with the different channels can be as different as working with different countries in Europe. For example, if you work with Discovery, they may have a particular production executive that will work with you to make sure that the film has a real look and feel of the Discovery stamp on it. ITVS is pretty much made up of people who have gone to film schools, who have been filmmakers and producers so that they understand that side of things. There's nothing better than supporting the vision of the filmmaker and seeing it completed.
In an interview with Tue Steen Muller, we discussed some of the problems that European broadcasters have to face today. What are some of the most problematic elements within the US system of film support?
It will be interesting considering the ongoing financial crisis to see what happens. Also, another thing is that different administrations have a different focus so it'll be interesting to see how it develops after November 4. The whole situation in France and Europe is very daunting for us, without our European partners. It limits what all of us can do. We really like those close international collaborations, like the kind displayed in Village without Women and many other projects so it's a little scary right now, especially when you come to strong forums like this and you feel like you should provide a more robust support to all these wonderful projects.
You also supported two projects that attended the Ex Oriente Film workshop and that were presented at the East European Forum, i.e., Cash and Marry by Atanas Georgiev and Sinisha Juricic and The Last Two Tightrope Dancers in Armenia by Inna Sahakyan and Vardan Hovhannisyan. Why?
We knew Vardan's previous work. Even everyone on our very critical panel was thrilled, it was beautifully shot, with very strong characters, a completely unknown story. Cash & Marry was a very unique story, but not an entirely unknown story, but it had the European setting, there was something about its approach. A wonderful gem compared to anything submitted in 2007 so we put the project forward. Using humour in a story that is deeper and more serious is an excellent way to open it up to audiences. It had great characters and it won everyone over. With both of these projects when we called them to let them know about our decision, the filmmakers both seemed really surprised. One of the advantages of ITVS support is that projects can be submitted multiple times. If you're not accepted one year, you can submit again and get our views.
Hana Rezková, IDF
ITVS FUNDING: INTERNATIONAL CALL
Deadline: February 6, 2009
For more information please visit www.itvs.org/international