Advice from the “Opportunities in Public Television for Documentary Filmmakers” panel at NYWIFT’s Documentary Film Financing Day
By Terisa Thurman
When the public television broadcasters took the stage at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for the “Opportunities in Public Television” panel, part of NYWIFT’s Film Financing Day: Documentary Features on June 4, 2016, practically no one in the audience made eye contact with the panelists as they spoke…most people were busy taking notes.
NYWIFT Programming Coordinator Duana Butler moderated the panel, which was comprised of public television programmers who are all associated with PBS, and all of whom possess the power to get the green light to fund and broadcast documentaries on their individual platforms.
The panelists included Julie Anderson, the Executive Producer of Documentaries and Development at WNET/Thirteen; Nikki Heyman of POV, which airs documentaries on PBS and online and offers anywhere between $35,000-$100,000 for docs that have completed shooting and are in the editing stage; and Carmen Vincencio of America Reframed, a young series in its fourth season, which also acquires films that are near completion for more modest amounts to the tune of $6000.
Although the panel was full of notable advice, here are three main takeaways:
Julie Anderson of WNET/Thirteen
1) Go to industry events.
“Going to events like this [film financing day] will give you an idea of who you should be talking to and what you should be talking to them about,” said Anderson of WNET /Thirteen, which reaches approximately 8 million homes in New York and New Jersey.
From there Anderson followed through on her statement by sharing exactly the type of programming she was currently seeking. She suggested that “people are becoming addicted to episodic programming and I think that the documentary film community needs to recognize that.”
Carmen Vincencio of America Reframed (left) and NYWIFT Programming Coordinator Duana Butler
2) Know who you’re pitching to and play by their rules.
No matter how good a fit your material may be for public television, if you don’t follow protocol you may get turned down.
“Thankfully the PBS guidelines on funding [are] online,” said Vincencio, whose content is funded for by public television. She continued by bringing up Endless Abilities, a documentary about an adventurous band of friends that was partially funded by an outdoor gear retailer. She alluded to difficulty with getting the doc on air: “…the public television pipeline is so authority vetted. There is a lot of research and cross checking and back and forth and communication between the programmers and the filmmakers. The PBS guidelines are online and you have to read [them] more than once. It’s not [always] as simple as a conflict of interest – there’s also perception.”
Anderson echoed the sentiment. “Funding mistakes are critical for us,” she said. “For instance, if you’re doing a film about a specific person and the family funded it…PBS may turn it down. They are very sticky about.”
POV‘s Nikki Heyman
3) Communication is key.
All three panelists expressed that communication is the key to a great working relationship with documentary filmmakers. “Communication and ability to maintain relationships…is going be so crucial in terms of funding and in terms of getting your films out there,” Heyman said.
In addition to marketing, maintaining relationships may lead to more funding, Heyman added. “Finding creative ways to find that funding and being open to different routes [is key] because I think the system is shifting and the ways that people are finding money is shifting, so keep your ears open for new possibilities.”
To sum it all up, public television hosts a great opportunity for filmmakers. If you meet the right people, deliver what they are looking for and maintain relationships, you plus millions of people may see your doc across the various public television platforms.
Film Financing Day is one of over 50 programs offered by NYWIFT ever year. Watch the events page for updates on upcoming programming, and email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be added to our mailing list.