Kohn angle it’s a weekly column about the challenges and opportunities of supporting American movie culture.
With a fiery speech from SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher this week, Hollywood went into shutdown mode. Documentary filmmakers are a different story. Since no specific union represents their needs, many documentary makers are not given the opportunity to strike, even if they suffer from many of the same problems that the unions raise in their demands.
Yet not even documentaries have benefited from the slowdown in production. Though there’s been speculation since the start of the WGA strike that the studios would invest more in unscripted series or non-fiction features to fill their slates, the documentarians I contacted this week told me they hadn’t yet encountered a bigger question.
“We haven’t seen the kind of increase people were expecting,” said Dan Cogan, who runs documentary powerhouse Story Syndicate with his wife Liz Garbus. The pair’s recent hits, including Netflix’s eye-catching “Harry & Meghan” miniseries, epitomize the streaming-era documentary gold rush that has plateaued on high-profile topics. Yet even Cogan admitted that projects have been more difficult lately. “There was this contraction that all streamers have been dealing with,” he said. “The strike hasn’t changed that dynamic.”
Sure, it’s early days. When the last WGA strike lasted 100 days between 2007 and 2008, the broadcast networks leaned heavily on reality programming, and this time it may continue. Some veterans of the documentary community have speculated that this could lead to more requests for documentaries over time. This, however, would create a risky climate in which documentary filmmakers serve as de facto scabs for the industry.
Union-sensitive documentary filmmakers have told me they’re not entirely sure how to approach the sensitive subject of continuing to work without insulting unions in the process. “There’s no clear message about how the nonfiction space can be supportive,” one documentary producer told me. “No one wants to cross a picket line. At the same time, unions aren’t saying, “Hey, don’t pitch to Netflix.” It’s just an ambiguous space.
The situation also draws attention to the absence of real organizing options for the documentary sector. In recent years, the DGA has admitted more high-profile documentary filmmakers to its ranks, while the WGA has recently begun working on unionization contracts with documentary shops such as Alex Gibney’s syndicated Jigsaw Productions, which covers 50 freelancers.
But these are exceptions for a field that lacks clear standards for wage equity, health care and other key issues at the root of ongoing union talks. “Documentary filmmakers have historically been so underpaid and undercapitalized,” said producer Beth Levison, who was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” a Netflix short. “We’re such a passionate bunch and really committed to telling our stories, so I’d like to think we’d go on strike if we could. But Self we could strike is another matter entirely.
Levison, who co-founded the 300-member Documentary Producers Alliance, noted that many documentary productions would face irreparable losses in the face of a work stoppage. “With a fictional film, you can put that film on hold. Your actors can delay their schedules,” he said. “If you are making a documentary, you often get a shot at the scenes you need to shoot. Going on strike documentary filmmakers would have severe storytelling impacts and severe financial consequences for many of us” .
Even now, however, the absence of a union for documentaries means that the profession lacks a clear basis for stability. “We have no support structure, nothing to fall back on,” Levison said. “Producers are seen as managers, so we don’t have a guild to look after us. I understand documentary filmmakers are still trying to get their job done. There’s definitely a tension there. We are in solidarity with the unions, but we also try to survive as much as possible”.
The field has been in crisis mode for most of the year. Most of the documentaries on sale at Sundance in January have not closed distribution deals yet. Streamers who once spent top dollar on a wide range of projects are now doubled down on safe trade bets. The fundraising process for documentaries, which usually happens in the middle of production with filming underway, has become more complicated with fewer funding options.
One producer cited the cancellation of this year’s Gotham Project Market — which, as I reported last month, was shut down due to the WGA strike — as a major blow. “That news was devastating to the documentary-making community and its impact is real,” they said. The market’s annual Spotlight on Documentaries event, which allows documentary filmmakers to pitch new projects to potential backers, is “the only one of its kind attended by so many industry insiders to take a temperature on the industry and see who is to work where”.
Yael Bridge, who is co-chair of the Documentary Producers Alliance (DPA), told me that discussions about a union of documentary makers have been going on for years. “There are definitely conversations going on,” he said to her. “I think the path of what a union would look like is not clear. I don’t think anyone knows what would make more sense holistically. What interests me most is how to make a career more sustainable and equitable. Many jobs don’t pay or pay very little.”
Bridge has business problems in mind for other reasons. He called me in the middle of producing a new documentary about the impending UPS strike, which could end up as the largest strike in American history if the Teamsters union doesn’t agree on a new contract by August 1st. (Seems likely: Talks broke down last week. Anderson Economic Group estimated in a recent report that a UPS strike could cost the economy $7.1 billion.
“The way documentaries are funded is crazy,” he said. “You have to shoot during the fundraiser. You would never do that in a fictional film. Here I am working on a film with only a small budget to get through production. You have to budget your credit cards, do favors and that’s not sustainable.
Some documentary filmmakers believe the writing aspects of their work should provide a clearer path to WGA membership. “It’s very frustrating,” said Adam Bhala Lough, who recently directed the miniseries “The Telemarketers,” which airs on HBO next month. “Producers don’t want to give writing credits for docs. They mean it’s “part of your job” as a director. Studios and networks don’t want to either, so they can avoid dealing with WGA, which is notoriously difficult to deal with. There should be a rule that if writing is involved, the project becomes a WGA signatory.
Of course, this would require some clarification of what writing actually entails. “The problem is, there isn’t the same script delivery structure as narrative projects,” she said. “We often write on the fly in the editing room.”
So what would it take, in the absence of a union, to create more sustainability for documentary cinema? It could boil down to a chicken-and-egg problem for documentary production: financiers must be willing to back projects throughout production and post-production, just as they would with narrative films. “I would encourage lenders to take more risk,” Bridge said. “The way funding works, they want to see a champion. You have to be really deep into the production to get financing. I understand why. You don’t want to pay for something that hasn’t happened yet. This is a challenge across the board for documents.
This leads companies into more conservative tendencies, as they prefer famous faces and high-profile subjects over projects that look compelling but have nothing to prove. “You can trust audiences to be interested in more than celebrity-driven projects,” said Bridge. “Not that there’s anything wrong with them, just like there’s nothing inherently wrong with Marvel movies, but it would be nice to see financiers backing more creativity and trusting documentary filmmakers.”
Not an easy question in these risk-averse times. However, even as documentary filmmakers struggle to unionize, they can still project a united front.
“If I had to wave a magic wand, the only thing I’m really thinking about is this,” Bridge said. “Should we build a new platform? Expanding a current platform? Do we need to take over a pre-existing platform? I think there needs to be a big systemic change in the way films are distributed and financed. This is my hope.
As usual, I welcome feedback on this column: firstname.lastname@example.org