Documentary Filmmakers Don’t Have the Option To Strike for a Better System
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Author: Eric Kohn
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With a fiery speech from SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, Hollywood went into shutdown modeDocumentary filmmakers are a different story. Since no specific union represents their needs, many documentarians don’t have the option to strike, even as they suffer from many of the same issues raised by the unions in their demands. 

Yet documentaries haven’t benefited from the production slowdown, either. While there has been speculation since the start of the WGA strike that studios would invest more in unscripted series or nonfiction features to fill their slates, documentarians I contacted this week told me they had yet to experience higher demand. 

“We have not seen the kind of uptick people expected,” said Dan Cogan, who runs documentary powerhouse Story Syndicate with his wife Liz Garbus. The pair’s recent successes, including Netflix’s splashy “Harry & Meghan” miniseries, epitomize the documentary gold rush of the streaming era that has settled around high-profile subjects. Yet even Cogan admitted that it has been harder to get projects made lately. “There has been this contraction that all of the streamers have been dealing with,” he said. “The strike hasn’t changed that dynamic.” 

Of course, it’s early days. When the last WGA strike lasted 100 days between 2007 and 2008, broadcast networks leaned hard on reality programming — and that may continue this time around. Some veterans in the documentary community speculated that this could eventually lead to greater demands for documentaries over time. That, however, would create a dicey climate in which documentarians function as de facto scabs for the industry. 

Documentary filmmakers sensitive to the unions told me they aren’t quite sure how to navigate the delicate subject of continuing to work without dissing the unions in the process. “There’s no clear message for how the nonfiction space can be supportive,” one documentary producer told me. “No one wants to cross a picket line. At the same time, the 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 any real unionization options for the documentary field. In recent years, the DGA has admitted more high-profile documentary filmmakers into its ranks, while the WGA has recently begun to work on unionization contracts with documentary shops like Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions union, which covers 50 freelancers.

But these are exceptions for a field that has no precise standards for pay equity, healthcare, and other key issues at the root of current union negotiations. “Documentary filmmakers have been historically so underpaid and undercapitalized,” said producer Beth Levison, Oscar-nominated earlier this year for “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” a Netflix short. “We are such a passionate group really committed to telling our stories, so I would like to think we would strike if we could. But if we could strike is a whole other question.”

Levison, who co-founded the 500-member Documentary Producers Alliance, noted that many documentary productions would face irreparable losses in the face of a work stoppage. “With a fiction film, you can put that film on hold. Your actors can delay their schedules,” she said. “If you’re making a doc, you often get one shot at the scenes you need to shoot. Documentary filmmakers going on strike would have grave repercussions for storytelling and grave financial consequences for many of us.”

Even now, though, the absence of a union for documentaries means that the profession lacks a clear foundation 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 that looks out for us. I understand that doc filmmakers are still trying to make their work. There’s definitely a tension there. We are in solidarity with the unions, but also trying to survive as much as we can.”

The field has been in crisis mode for much of the year. Most of the documentaries for sale at Sundance in January still haven’t closed distribution deals. Streamers that once spent top dollar on a wide array of projects have now doubled down on safe commercial bets. The fundraising process for documentaries, which usually takes place in the midst of production with filming underway, has grown more complicated with fewer financing options. 

One producer cited the cancellation of this year’s Gotham Project Market — which, as I reported last month, was shuttered due to the WGA strike — as a major blow. “That news has been devastating for the documentary community and its impact is real,” they said. The market’s annual Spotlight on Documentaries event, which enables documentary filmmakers to present new projects to potential financiers, is “the only one of its kind that so many members of the industry have typically attended to take a temperature on the industry as well as seeing who’s working where.” 

Yael Bridge, who serves as co-president of the Documentary Producers Alliance (DPA), told me there has been ongoing discussion about a documentary union for years. “There are definitely conversations happening,” she said. “I think the pathway of what a union would look like is not clear. I don’t think anyone knows what would make the most sense holistically. What I’m most interested in is how to make the career more sustainable and equitable. A lot of the jobs don’t pay or pay very little.”

Bridge has labor issues on her mind for other reasons. She called me in the midst of production on a new documentary about the impending UPS strike, which could wind up as the largest strike in American history if the Teamsters union doesn’t arrive at a new contract by August 1. (That seems likely: Talks broke off last week. Anderson Economic Group estimated in a recent report that a UPS strike could cost the economy $7.1 billion.) Per usual, she had yet to secure financing for more than immediate production costs.

“The way documentaries are funded is crazy,” she said. “You have to shoot while fundraising. You’d never do that on a fiction film. Here I am working on a film with just a little budget to get through the production. You have to put budgets on your credit cards, do favors, and that’s not sustainable.”

Some documentary filmmakers feel that the writing aspects of their jobs should provide a clearer pathway to WGA membership. “It’s very frustrating,” said documentary filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough, whose credits include “The Carter” and “The Upsetter.” “Producers don’t want to give writing credits for docs. They want to say it’s ‘part of your job’ as director. Studios and networks don’t want to either, so they can avoid dealing with the WGA, who is notoriously difficult to deal with. There should be a rule that if there’s writing involved, the project becomes WGA signatory.”

Of course, that would require some clarifications about what writing actually entails. “The problem is that there’s not the same script delivery structure as with narrative projects,” he said. “We’re often writing on the fly in the edit room.”

So what would it take, in the absence of a union, to create more sustainability for documentary filmmaking? It may come down to a chicken-and-egg problem for documentary production: Financiers must be willing to support projects for the entirety of production and post-production, just as they would narrative features. “I would encourage funders to take more risks,” Bridge said. “The way funding works, they want to see a sample. You have to be really deep into production to get funding. I understand why. You don’t want to pay for something that hasn’t happened yet. That’s a challenge across the board for docs.” 

That leads companies to more conservative tendencies, as they favor famous faces and high-profile subjects over projects that sound compelling but don’t have anything to show for it. “You can trust audiences to be interested in more than celebrity-driven projects,” Bridge said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with them, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with Marvel movies, but it would be great to see funders get behind more creativity and trust documentary filmmakers.”

That’s not an easy ask in these risk-averse times. However, even if documentary filmmakers struggle to unionize, they can still project a united front. 

“If I were to wave a magic wand, the one thing I am genuinely thinking about is this,” Levison said. “Do we need to build a new platform? Expand a current platform? Do we need to take over a pre-existing platform? I think there needs to be a large systemic change with how films are distributed and financed. That’s my hope.”

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