Engaging the Impossible: What I Learned from the Investigate Journalism Space – International Documentary Association | | Episode Movies

Editor’s note: At the Doc Congress, which SFFILM presented as part of its Doc Stories Last week, Carrie Lozano, director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary and Artists Program, gave a keynote address to the community on collaboration, which we’re sharing with you.

Hello, everyone! It’s amazing to be in this room with all of you, physically and virtually. Thank you SFFILM for inviting me here today. I’ll gladly admit that in 1999 I was the editor for the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was my first paid gig in the industry, and I’ve had a significant relationship with SFFILM ever since, so being here feels like coming home.

I was invited here today to speak on the state of the field and funding, but looking around this room I don’t think I can tell you much that you don’t already know and aren’t experiencing. It’s tough out there for independents and the ecosystem is struggling too; even the listed companies are feeling the pressure.

According to that State-of-the-field study by the Center for Media & Social Impact:

  • 40% of 620 US filmmakers said their film did not make any money at all
  • Only 24% said they earn their entire annual gross income from documentaries
  • While 20% said their most recent film earned enough to cover costs and turn a profit

That was 2020. We don’t know what those numbers look like today. But the National Endowment for the Arts and Sundance wrote a briefing which seeks to explain to policymakers the major challenges facing independent filmmakers, while emphasizing their importance to the economy, to culture, to the for-profit and not-for-profit media landscape that depends on their productions, and to a more inclusive society values ​​both who is behind the camera and who is portrayed on screen.

The briefing isn’t an entirely bleak outlook, but it does provide some stark reminders of where we are:

Around 500 cinemas have closed during Covid.

Inflation increases the cost of production as well as the cost of doing business for the entire ecosystem.

And independent filmmakers, typically small businesses, lack a social safety net that includes health care, childcare and retirement plans, among other benefits.

While many of us have always felt uncomfortable with the narrative of the “Golden Age of Documentary Film,” it nonetheless hinted at many positive things that I hoped would endure and grow. It seemed like it would put more filmmakers on the path to reaching global audiences, being sustainable, and having successful careers. For some this is true, but too many are struggling to sustain themselves and their artistic work. If the bubble on the non-fiction page hasn’t burst completely, it’s definitely emptied. And lately I’ve been feeling a visceral sense of deja vu.

As many of you know, I’ve had the privilege of working in both investigative journalism and creative documentary. And although they are different occupations, there are many parallels:

  • You are both values-driven and strongly believe that if you can reveal the world in deep, nuanced and impactful ways, you can potentially change them for the better.
  • They are both risky, expensive, often tedious, often tedious and often misunderstood;
  • By and large they are not driven by commercial pressures or profit motives, and
  • All of this puts her on the chopping block when financial pressures kick in.

For months I’ve been thinking back to 2008, diving into the investigative realm and attending the first of many journalists’ meetings on The Crisis of the News. In 2008, the perfect storm of technology, consolidation, rampant capitalism and recession began to crush the news industry. The old business model, built on ads and classifieds, could not withstand all these forces and began to collapse precipitously. It was on one descent down since. Almost 3,000 newspapers have closed since 2004.

What happens when you have a fragile media ecosystem and in many places a media desert is what we have seen most acutely in the last decade and especially in the last few years: we have literally seen this vacuum become a threat to democracy, to the public Health, for people’s lives. These are circumstances that were once unthinkable.

But the news isn’t all bad here either. The “message crisis” also spurred a period of innovation that is thriving today in many ways. For example, the burgeoning of nonprofit newsrooms like Pro Publica, The Texas Tribuneand The Marshall Project. In 2008 there were only 27 members of the Institute for Nonprofit News; today there are nearly 400. There have been innovations in storytelling itself, such as The New York Times OpDocs and the explosion and ubiquity of podcasts. And in a radical cultural shift, a way of working emerged that was truly unthinkable in old media: collaboration between news organizations.

In the past, fierce competition, not collaboration, was the ethos inside and outside the newsroom. The notion of sharing ideas, leads, sources, collaborators, news, and editorial decisions was not only taboo but impossible, and only happened on a handful of dire occasions.

But in 2010 I had a front row seat to the impossible: a collaboration between UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, PBS frontlinenational public radio, Pro Publicaand California Watch.

Cooperation “Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America‘ was inspired by AC Thompson’s coverage of brutal, unsolved murders in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Post Mortem exposed a nationwide death investigation system fraught with flaws, flawed science, incompetence, lack of accountability and corruption.

Cross-platform collaboration was so innovative at the time that the Knight Foundation awarded UC Berkeley a significant grant to identify best practices for collaborative investigative reporting and to encourage other news outlets to join forces and take advantage of different platforms, capabilities and audiences. The idea was to share resources and amplify, amplify, amplify. More reach, we all thought, would mean more impact.

My job for two years was to cover the reporters, get a glimpse of what worked and what didn’t, and do some reporting myself. I was there as we all squeezed into a living room for an emotional on-camera interview when we all awkwardly realized that audio and video require different questions. I was there when there were editorial disagreements between partners. I was there when frustrated reporters were completely confused as to who exactly was responsible for this thing.

It was incredibly intense, with many communication problems and competing interests. In my exit interviews, a senior editor called the collaboration “overflowing” – and not in a good way. Another said: “Part of the lessons learned is that we’re still in the early stages of developing the technology and logistics to coordinate across multiple platforms… It’s absolutely a fact; why shouldn’t we be?” Another advised, “…you have to exude confidence and a willingness to share and try not to make hasty judgments.”

Like most premieres, Post Mortem was ahead of its time on many levels. We didn’t have the sophisticated cloud-based tools that would make for much smoother sailing today. But the story was the holy grail and led to more stories. And most importantly, the coverage led to something we all hold dear A hit.

It also led to a number of recommended course of actionwhich I admittedly forgot until I was at the Sundance Producers Lab this summer to open a conversation about communications, where the bell rang that best practices can be applied to different types of partnerships.

A decade later, collaboration has become second nature for this and many other organizations, even within legacy newsrooms.

So, out of the crisis, ingenuity took over. Intelligent, passionate, committed and brave organizations and individuals – beyond this particular group – have forged new ways of reporting and storytelling that have transformed the field. New business models have emerged. And a whole new set of values ​​and approaches has been embraced by the mainstream media. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy or painless.

It’s incredibly exhausting trying something new, breaking old patterns, taking enormous risks, making mistakes, pushing back legacies and routine. But that’s what the artists we all support do every day. Sometimes the stakes are too high not to do it.

And therein lies my deja vu. The stakes are too high for business as usual in documentaries. They are too high for us to focus on the challenges rather than the solutions. I personally find it urgent to fight for independence and for a diverse and visible independent landscape. We should convene conferences on the “Independent Film Crisis” and use our tremendous creativity and organizational skills to think outside the box, and we should find ways to experiment and fail together. I don’t pretend to have a clear vision for the future; I see only a dimly lit path. And I know where there is a crisis, there is an opportunity. I genuinely believe it can happen when the field comes together with a big idea and decides that we’re going to radically change the way we work to help documentary storytellers survive and thrive. I was already there; why not again? Many Thanks.

Carrie Lozano is Director of the Documentary and Artists Programs at the Sundance Institute, where she works to encourage and support nonfiction filmmakers worldwide at all stages of the creation and dissemination of new cinematic work. She is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and former faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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