Sustainable and Equitable?

Before we head to budgets, let’s take a beat to think about sustainability and equity.

Documentary filmmaking is precarious as a profession. Add the demands of an impact campaign, and it’s harder still. The 2018 Center for Media and Social Impact at American University report found that '4 in 10 documentary professionals (39%) say that less than a quarter of their personal annual income came from documentary over the past year.' Similarly, 4 in 10 documentary filmmakers (42%) say their most recent film did not generate any revenue at all and about a quarter (22%) did not make enough revenue to cover unpaid production costs and make a profit. It also noted that 'this pattern is more pronounced for documentary filmmakers from racial and ethnic minority groups.'

A2019 survey into the sustainability of European Documentary professionals conducted by the European Documentary Network found that more than one in four respondents (26%) earned less than €10,000 on average on a yearly basis from their documentary work. Another 22% and 21% earned respectively between €10,000 and €19,999 and €20,000 and €29,999 per year.

While these numbers draw from a North American & European context, the question of who can afford to do this work is relevant everywhere - challenges which are also reflected in the underpayment of impact producers as well as film production team members.

As artists, activists, advocates and organisers working in the film-impact space, we all recognise these challenges of sustainability and equity. And we must recognise that the spaces we build and occupy only get better, stronger and more effective when they are developed by and for us all. Because true impact is only possible when the foundation of our work is sound.

So who gets to do this work?

Building a more inclusive and diverse workforce in this space is essential, and nowhere has this been tackled more stridently than in the U.S., where filmmakers of colour have been paving the way for other POC media makers and impact producers, creating innovative new models to support one another and get their work made and seen.

In 2008 Firelight Media created the Documentary Lab to institutionalise the informal mentorship role that co-founder Stanley Nelson played with documentarians of colour. The flagship program now provides comprehensive support and mentorship for emerging filmmakers of colour. Then, in 2017, they launched the Impact Producer Fellowship to provide social change activists with training on media strategy and impact and connect them with diverse storytellers. Together, these programs aim to create a pipeline of diverse makers and impact producers and address the barriers to entry and sustainability in the field, while building an ecosystem of filmmakers and strategists who together can elevate new narratives about marginalised communities and reach diverse audiences.

The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture is the national program sponsor of Arts2Work, a new workforce development initiative that aims to address structural barriers and create pathways into the creative economy for artists of colour, women, youth, veterans, the disabled and others traditionally marginalised or excluded. By establishing the first US federally-registered Apprenticeship Program in Media Arts + Creative Technologies, The Alliance is now eligible for state and federal workforce development funding that has never been available in our sector. The initiative will support a sustainable and accountable mentorship infrastructure (i.e. paid, peer-reviewed, with advancement after the Apprenticeship year) for Producer and Editor Apprentices who are hired from day one of the program. Other career pathways will follow in 2020, including Digital Archivist, Cinematographer and Game Designer.

Meanwhile Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 is a caucus of producers, writers and directors that work together to increase employment in the creative sector for people with disabilities. It also organises people to advocate for better policies and improve portrayals, and advocate for accessible media over all.

The Freelancers Unionformed to support contract workers in a growing gig economy who face challenges built into their structure of work, from inconsistent pay to more costly healthcare options, as well as feelings of alienation. It has been networking freelancers to build a strong community who advocate collectively for protections and for resources that support them.

Mentorship models also exist, such as the Women in Film Mentoring Program in the US & Women In Film & Television UK, or theSisters in Cinema program, which was founded as a resource for and about African American women media makers and offers career support to develop and celebrate future generations of storytellers and their audiences.

There are also initiatives designed to ensure accountable, non-extractive filmmaking models. Filmmaking models that reflect, nourish, and strengthen the individuals and communities whose stories they represent. Production houses like Multitude Films and Rada Film Group (among others) insist on the importance of making sure their filmmakers and teams are from the communities represented in the media they produce. Some teams go beyond filmmaking to support emerging voices and projects in the communities where they work. Skylight Pictures’ Solidarilabs, for example, networks creatives and movement leaders to support education and collaboration which advances their shared efforts. (For more accountable filmmaking practices, see Filmmaking as Emancipatory Practice in section 2.6.)

WeOwnTV is a collaborative media education project that grew out of a shared commitment to regenerative and accountable filmmaking. In 2009, American documentary filmmaker Banker White helped open the doors to the Freetown Media Center together with local Sierra Leonean filmmakers Arthur Pratt and Lansana Mansaray. The goal was to build the capacity of local storytellers to tell their own stories. Today, the African-owned and African-run centre is home to some of the most sought after professionals in the subregion. WeOwnTV programs focus on supporting filmmakers and artists through direct grants, professional mentorship and media education. It runs as a cooperative, supporting sustainable career paths for local filmmakers, from bargaining for fair wages to bringing in regular work. And it adapts impact producing efforts to local needs.

Then there are also remarkable organisations that are centering the question of audiences and equitable access. Ambulante is a legendary traveling film festival in Mexico that creates more points of access for communities that would otherwise not have the opportunity to see or engage in discussions surrounding documentary films. But it is also building local capacities around impact and facilitation related to the films they work with.

Among its key initiatives is a one-year program - Ambulante Más Allá (Ambulante Beyond) - for young rural students who are indigenous, mestizo or of African descent, which brings the school to their communities. Once a month, teachers and crew go to rural sites for intensives and leave tools there for students to work with. In this way, the project builds important capacities, opportunities and career pathways for young people and voices that they would otherwise not have access to.

Mobile cinema has become essential for many in our community, and Sunshine Cinema is a cinema program that brings film to harder to reach communities in Africa. It grew out of the desire to ensure communities that have traditionally not had access to documentaries or film (due to infrastructural or other barriers) can gain access. In so doing, it has also helped to build a network of youth activists - local, on-the-ground impact producers - who they employ to run their own screenings using a mini solar-cinema kit.

The following ideas/principles have all been proposed over the past year, aimed at helping the community imagine a more equitable and sustainable future. See what you think. This list is in-progress and needs your voice.

+ Film festivals and other industry gatherings should deal explicitly with structural inequality issues surrounding meetings and panels to ensure the integrated participation of a diverse range of creative professionals. This benefits the field and society at large.

+ Film festivals and pitch forums should pay the directors’ and producers costs to attend/participate, depending on the size and scale of the festival. This establishes a necessary standard that ensures filmmakers are getting paid for all the effort they put in.

+ Film teams and others working in the creative economy should set a fee structure for their participation in speaking gigs, strategy convenings, mentorship, and other work that draws on their hard-earned experience and expertise. The fees can always be waived when needed, but this establishes an important industry standard and practice.

+ Funders and film teams should compensate non-salaried consultants especially, for their participation in meetings, workshops, and summits, for advising or other work. This creates career sustainability for vulnerable freelancers working in a growing gig-economy.

+ Film festivals and other industry gatherings should deal explicitly with structural inequality issues surrounding meetings and panels to ensure the integrated participation of a diverse range of creative professionals. This benefits the field and society at large.

+Film teams should value and adequately compensate (through decision-making power, financial, capacity building, and/or other means) the individuals and communities whose stories they share for the intellectual and emotional labour, stories and expertise they borrow to avoid extractive storytelling models and ensure an equitable relationship from the start (we will be exploring this further in the section on Emancipatory Practice)

Does the list spark anything in you? What ideas do you have for the sustainability of the film impact field? We want to hear from you: [email address].

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading

Now that we’ve opened up the questions about field sustainability and equity, it’s time to talk about impact budgets.


Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation