Over the last couple of months, we’ve chatted with a good number of folks marketing and distributing both original and curated content online with shorts, documentaries, narratives and other multimedia fare from the independent film front. There will be more conversations in future with more of those outfits (Indipix, DVD Beaver, GreenCine), but, we also want to try and expand the scope a bit further by including programmers, buyers and producers from “traditional” television and, also, from the independent movie theatre owners and managers across the country to see how DVD, VOD, download sites, mashup sites, etc., are impacting their part of the biz. Technology is being pushed, for sure, but more than that, these sites are being tasked with coming up with more specific and more profitable revenue streams for filmmakers whose work won’t air on a television broadcast or screen at a movie house.

For a more microscopic example of how content is curated for a public television broadcast, we talked with Yance Ford, Producer of PBS’ POV Series. This strand of the public television station’s roster is quite unique in its directives in acquiring, shepherding, marketing, broadcasting, and further distributing, the films it chooses for its seasons–and this year, the show celebrates its 20th birthday. Looking back on the films and filmmakers that have had their debut as part of a POV season, there’s good reason to celebrate this groundbreaking series.

Ford has been with the show for five years and laughs with delight when she says that she can’t believe she gets paid to do, what to her, is an absolute dream job. Watching well over 1,000 films a year (between 800-900 to watch just for the selection process for the show), her litmus for a good film is still very much a visceral one. When something grabs her, she says, “I find myself, physically, moving closer to the screen; my whole body leans forward. Either that, or I tear it from the DVD player and go running down the hall with it, badgering my team members to stop whatever they’re doing and watch it immediately!!” As we ate lunch down near her offices in the, increasingly chic, Wall Street district, we talked about life-changing movies, the art of storytelling and getting to work with the top filmmakers of our day.

Renew Media (RM): So, as we’re exploring the wild and wooly world of online this and that and all this groovy technology to help us live cleaner, better lives, it’s dawned on me that people might still be interested in what’s on TV or at their local movie theatre. Even though the death knell of books, art and film has sounded many a time, I think most of us are still looking for quality stuff in all the old familiar places and that’s not going to go away any time soon. But how has the current digital landscape changed what it is you folks at PBS do?

Yance Ford (YF): It really hasn’t. We live, breathe, eat, sleep docs—all docs all the time. And we’re still all about culling through hundreds of submissions to find those jewels that get programmed. Aside from the visual arts, documentary films are the things that have made the most impact on me. I can trace my interest in documentary films back to a handful of specific films, all three of which aired on POV—Tongues Untied, Silverlake Life and A Litany of Survival. And I saw them all in a very short time span—my college years and the years just after college. I was a visual arts major—I did a lot of sculpture, a lot of performance, photography, that kind of stuff. “Video art” was a very lo-tech endeavor—we would shoot stuff on Super 8. But those three films were a real eye-opener for me.

I don’t see myself ever wanting to leave this community. For the duration, I see myself always involved in documentary. POV is a really small organization. Like most New York non-profits, it’s run by those for whom documentary is a passion. We are mindful of the needs of our constituents, both on the filmmaker side and on the audience side. It’s a living, breathing organism. You have all these different points of contact with culture and with the community, so all of us, collectively, are part of what keeps POV an ever-evolving, dynamic organization. If we’re really honest about it, the filmmakers are the ones who keep the series fresh. When Marc Weiss started the series back in 1988, the emphasis was on the filmmaker and every year since then, this incredible group of people, first-time filmmakers, as well as veterans, create and bring to us these little jewels. We’re constantly in a situation where we don’t have enough space for the films that we like and want to air.

Our curating process starts with a sort of eight-legged giant—about 800 films coming in at the end of June. All summer we work with a team of outside screeners who whittle this list down to about 35 or 40 films. We shuttle that list to our editorial committee. The editorial committee is made up of six PBS station programmers who are very familiar with the series and know what we do and six documentary independents—producers, editors, filmmakers, festival programmers. These last six are switched out annually. And then, that list of 35 is cut in half by our editorial committee. Everyone gets screening assignments in advance and we bring everyone to New York in October and we lock them in a room for four and a half days. At the end of that four and a half days, fifteen or so films fall off the list and what’s left is the material from which we program the series. Then we do an internal process which is a mirror image of what the editorial committee is doing, where we all, as a staff, take a step back and simply engage with the work, talk about what we think are the strong films and those that aren’t really a good match for the series. We have a very rigorous process.

I’ve always had access to Cara [Mertes] when she was executive director. Now that Cara has moved on to Sundance, [executive director] Simon [Kilmurry] thinks of the programming team as the four of us—himself, Cynthia Lopez, Chris [White] and me. Of course, we don’t always see eye to eye on every film, but rank is never pulled or anything discounted, even if just one of us is behind something. It’s a democratic process.

I didn’t go to film school; I don’t want to go to film school. Every day I’m watching and helping to create an evolving canon, and I get to talk to the people that are creating the work! That’s my school right there.

RM: What do you find are some of the biggest misconceptions that filmmakers have about a television broadcast?

YF: What I see, for the most part, are filmmakers that are pretty savvy about every aspect of what they do. Filmmakers are so savvy. When I started at POV in 2002, I really did need to educate people more about what community engagement, for instance, meant. I really don’t have to do that much anymore. Even at the treatment stage, people are talking about community engagement with their film, how they’re going to work on that aspect, post-broadcast. They’re talking about how they’re planning on getting the film into the community setting. They’re keenly aware of what a national broadcast means.

RM: Is it an advantage for a filmmaker when they submit a project to have that all figured out? Are you willing to work with someone who might not be as savvy?

YF: Absolutely. It always comes down to the content, period. And it’s hardly because these filmmakers are clueless. Some filmmakers are so consumed by the process of making the film and in a lot of cases, they just don’t have the time. Or they haven’t had a chance to work out community involvement strategies—we have the resources to help them with that; it’s a big part of what we do. When you walk in with your project, you may have nothing in the way of all that, but by the time your broadcast happens, you’ve got lesson plans, a community campaign, a discussion guide, you’ve got an incredible platform custom-made for your film. We fund all of that. Our base acquisition fee is $525 a minute. That doesn’t count the value of the services that also come along with the POV package. If you had to pay for all of that—web site development and maintenance, coordination, PR, etc.—it would, easily, be an additional $100,000, perhaps more. We take the life a project will have post-broadcast very seriously. The broadcast is just the beginning of our work.

RM: How is POV growing its audience? Who’s watching? Who’s not watching that you’d like to see as part of your audience?

YF: As we all know, the strongest demographic that watches PBS is middle-aged. But we’re constantly updating how we advertise our content and the way we use that content online to grow our audience and capture new viewers. We have things in place that directly reach out to the schools, both to students and teachers, we have a myspace page, we have a FaceBook page. We’re constantly trying to draw in younger viewers. And because POV does such contemporary work, that becomes increasingly effective. And there’s no way even the biggest festivals can reach 1.2 million people with a film. That’s why broadcast is still important. That’s why broadcast will always be important. There still isn’t a way to match that. You just can’t top that audience size. And until that’s possible, you have to think about a broadcast strategy. For some, it will be a conscious decision not to, and that’s fine, too. The bottom line is you have to think about these different strategies and where you’re going to find your audience. It’s really important!

RM: Is POV/PBS feeling obligated to go beyond even what you do now in terms of helping a filmmaker with exploring other distribution avenues—DVD sales, some kind of online or brick-and-mortar retail scenario for PBS/POV films? The landscape of that is changing quite rapidly, with many disparate parties getting involved on the sales end.

YF: It’s a whole other universe. The PBS digital conversion is happening next year, video-on-demand, streaming rights, downloading rights—all of those things are in play right now. We’re trying to figure out how we can leverage our involvement in any of those things to benefit the filmmaker. And no one really knows for sure what the best scenario is—everyone’s busy figuring that out. And in the meantime, a lot of filmmakers are signing distribution contracts that they really don’t understand and are signing away rights that they shouldn’t be signing away. We do focus on giving filmmakers the tools to better educate themselves about those things. We’re a professional sounding board, if you will. So we’re aware of all of that but we’re also waiting to see how more of this unfolds in the next couple of years to better assess what our role should be, or even if we should step into that arena at all.

It’s funny; I’m a big technophile, actually. And people bandy about the word “platforms”—a platform for this, a platform for that. We talk a lot about platforms, but we all seem to forget what platforms really exist. And not only the ones that exist, but the ones that actually work—and ones that people can afford. I mean the technology exists for the iPhone, but you’re still obligated to have an AT&T plan or that phone is useless.

For those millions of people who don’t make it to festivals or don’t have a movie theatre in their city that plays first-run feature docs and other independent fare, they rely on things like television and video rentals to have access to things like the films we produce.

RM: I don’t think anyone is acknowledging the legacy you’ve built in that regard by curating this series for 20 years. The whole POV library is available online on Netflix and the roster of filmmakers that have been a part of this series, once or twice or several times, is quite comprehensive from an American independent film perspective.

YF: I think POV has been extremely instrumental in creating the kind of atmosphere that has allowed for the emergence of independent documentaries. It’s just a matter of fact. We’ve programmed content that would never have been touched by the networks or would even be considered for a theatrical release. I’m not saying that POV has been the only place that this has happened, but it’s been one of the most important players. I mean, think of all the people who have been on POV—Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers, Michael Moore, Ross McElwee—these filmmakers go back to the very beginnings of this series, some have been making films before it existed. And these are some of the most important contemporary documentary filmmakers working today. To be able to have a free public television broadcast is still important to them, just as it is for new filmmakers.

RM: It’s an extremely important archive.

YF: It’s a legacy we’re all really proud of. Michael Apted, in an interview, said that one of the things that his Up series has shown, is that everyday people are incredibly articulate about their lives and the issues they deal with. Being at POV for the past five years has really helped me understand that the stories I think about telling can have an impact, as much as the stories I watch have an enormous impact on me. In my dreams, I aspire to have even a sliver of the kind of insight that filmmakers like Alan Berliner or Marlon Riggs bring to the world via an examination of their own lives.

To me, the universality of access now for anyone to make and show their films, just plays up the fact that there is an awful lot of skill and an awful lot of craft involved in making a really good film. I keep joking at the office that I’m going to write an article called, “Against the Democratization of Film and Video.”

RM: Have the ways in which you program the series changed since you’ve been there? Do you see them changing in the near future?

YF: Our programming is really in direct response to the films that we get. If you look at the season this year, our 20th season, there’s so much cinema verite because more filmmakers are doing that. But, we don’t go into a programming cycle with any directive as far as content is concerned—no over-arching theme, nothing like that. We’re totally open to whatever comes through the door. And that’s why those moments of discovery are so exciting.

Simon Kilmurry will be at this year’s IFP Market next week to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Public Television in the 21st Century” on Thursday the 20th at 10:00 a.m. Check out the web site for more details and a full schedule of panels, screenings and events.

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Tags: Creative Process, Distribution, Outreach, Reframe