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An Idea Whose Time Has Come
By Ron Steinman

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 Documentary Channel, 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 the film.

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 fall.

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.

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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.

 

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