Development and Project Financing
For those who may be unfamiliar with television programming jargon, can you describe the difference between series and one-off episodes?
Well, that was a transition that happened a couple of years ago in our area: We moved from being a specials department to becoming a series department. So they wouldn’t just order one show at a time, they would ask for ten. Cribs, created by Nina Diaz, was one of MTV’s first big successful series. So it’s not just one show; they asked us, “Can you do ten?” But, there are pros and cons to that kind of a model.
Tell me about the pros. What do you like about producing series?
The good news is, it’s lots of work for lots of people. And, you can capitalize on the efficiency of scale.
Do you mean by marketing the entire series, and getting viewers to tune in every week?
Not just marketing, but also in terms of production: You can produce a series more efficiently than a single program. And yes, viewers will tune in every week when they know what they’re getting. So it really raises your visibility.
What’s the downside?
The tough part is it’s important to me that our films don’t have a cookie-cutter look or feel. It’s very easy to drift into format and formula, which to me is just killing the whole wonderful thing about a documentary: that you don’t know where it’s going to go!
With True Life we’ve been able to keep it as an anthology series. That’s probably the closest that we have to a traditional cinema verité documentary series—it’s probably the closest to something you might find on PBS or HBO. Each one is made by a different filmmaker, so every one has its own vision. But in general, it’s hard to maintain that with a series. I mean, people do it. Frontline is a really good example, I think, and P.O.V.
When you’re producing an episode for a specific series, how do you foster the individuality of each episode? Is that something you get very involved with in each show?
Yes, we’re pretty hands-on. Some shows require more input than others. A show for a series like Cribs or Diary doesn’t need as much hand-holding as something like a True Life show does. I’m pretty hands-on when it comes to looking at the scripts—and they do have scripts; every single thing we do has a script.
When you are trying to get a project off the ground, what is your relationship to MTV?
My college professor Ron Alexander used to say you have to be a force of nature. It sounds so obvious! But, you know what? That’s really what you have to be. It ended up being a gem of wisdom; I tell filmmakers that all the time. If you have a vision, or an idea, you have to use all your resources to make it happen. You have to bring it to the people that you think are going to be sympathetic to it, or who are going to be interested in it economically, or creatively, or people who just care about the subject matter.
Can you give me an example where you rallied champions to get a project you cared about financed?
A good example was a piece that I’m directing right now called, I’m Still Here: Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust. A couple years ago—it was before I directed Tupac: Resurrection—I brought this to the heads of MTV and said, “I found this book written by Alexandra Zapruder called Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. She collected diaries written by young people; she found over 50 diaries written by young people during the Holocaust—peers of Anne Frank!” I asked the MTV heads, “Don’t you think that would make a great documentary for MTV, the voices of young people telling about the Holocaust from their point of view?” They said, “It sounds great. If you can get the money, you can make this piece. We’ll air it, we’ll support it.” It took a couple years to do the fund-raising, and I learned about fund-raising from all these different organizations.
You had to go outside the network to find financing?
We got the money from several different places: Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, the Tauber Family Fund, and the Weinberg Family Foundation. It was enough to get us started. I put together a creative team. I did some outreach to MTV-U, because they’re probably going to premiere it on college campuses throughout the country. I talked to our Public Affairs group, because “Choose or Lose” was the big campaign for 2004, and they’re not yet focusing on the pro-social campaign for next year. I asked them, “What’s going to be the campaign next year? How could this fit into that piece?”
- “Your job as the director is to make sure everybody has the vision.”
You galvanize support from different affinity groups.
Yes. I ask myself, “Who are your allies?” I have financial business planners and business managers at the company, and production managers at the company. Really, those people are just there to support you financially with your budgets. But I actually sit and talk to them creatively about what I’m doing. That’s a really important policy—you’re asking someone to make time for your piece. You don’t just say, “This is what I need from you.” I try to get them motivated and excited about sharing a vision. I’ll tell you something: You’d be surprised how often people who are in a business role have something creative or interesting that actually helps you as a filmmaker. That’s something that’s always been very important to me.
So you invite in participants who would not ordinarily be giving creative input.
I also try to do that with my staff. I have people who are working with me that are very experienced, and I’ll also have people working with me that are new. We have a lot of people coming out of college. And I’ll make sure they get to know what the whole big picture is. It’s an interesting learning experience for them, but I also think they’re better at their jobs when they get what the whole big picture is.
Why is that important?
Your job as the director is to make sure everybody has the vision. The vision of how it’s going to work economically, the vision of what you’re trying to do creatively, the vision of your storytelling. I also listen to feedback from everybody. I’m not one of these people who’s sensitive about getting people’s comments about their piece. I listen to everything, from everybody. Because in the end you’ll make your own decisions, but it will prepare you for what’s working and what’s not.
When you get feedback from MTV’s business planners, does that affect how you adjust the budget?
Every show is different. I know pretty much what the channel will spend on a half hour and what they’ll spend on an hour. It’s cable—we keep things lean and mean. There are not a lot of extras.
Are the budgets for MTV’s documentary television programs comparable to an independent film budget?
I’d say they’re competitive with most cable outlets. As far as I can tell they’re pretty competitive with the History Channel and A&E. I think HBO probably has larger budgets. But we’re pretty competitive. Our budgets are certainly not like a network’s would be, but we produce more hours of programming than a network.
Are your programming ideas sometimes limited by budgetary constraints?
I think it’s made us more enterprising in terms of how to tell these stories. This channel is really quick to jump on new technologies, changing how we do things. Very early on, we were shooting on DV. There are certain places where people spend the money: Our sound mixes are perfect. Every single show has a beautiful sound mix. There are certain things we don’t compromise on.
Are your sound mixes done internally?
Usually, we go to outside studios, but at this point the channel has a lot of deals with a lot of places.
What’s exciting for you about new program development?
I’m really excited about DVD. I feel like it’s the DVD market right now. With feature films, especially low-budget feature films, the theatrical release is really just advertisement for the DVD. And I love the art form. People tend to have really nice screens when they watch a DVD, and they watch it in the privacy of their home. I love doing all the DVDs, and the extras. A film might get a small theatrical window, but it will wind up on DVD.
Shooting I’m Still Here: Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust.
Photo courtesy of Katy Garfield.
It’s such a great model, economically, because the risk is so much lower and with the Internet you can reach your target audience cost-effectively. It’s just a great model for documentarians.
You seem to really enjoy the creative challenge of getting a project off the ground.
I, personally, like working at a big company, because I’m good at learning how to work the system. Someone once called me intra-preneurial. And I do like coming up with ways to accomplish things within a larger corporation.
What’s your next challenge?
I’ve changed my role here at MTV. Going forward I’m going to be working not just with MTV but also with VH1, and LOGO, the new gay channel. Now I’m looking around, there are a whole lot of networks under the MTV network umbrella, and they’re interesting to me. It’s interesting to think about programming to different audiences.