PARK CITY 2002: Non-Fiction Caffé; House of Docs Offers Coffee and Connections
by Patricia Thomson
(indieWIRE/ 01.18.02) -- It started out as a simple idea, says Sundance Film Festival co-director Nicole Guillemet, also the director of the documentary film program. When House of Docs was conceived, "our vision was a café, a place to talk, a home where people stop by."
Articulated with Guillemet's melodic French accent, the café sounds completely convincing. And it is. Now in its third year, the House of Docs has its espresso, its bistro tables and, most importantly, that special element that makes a true café: interesting people and great conversation. As Guillemet notes, "It's not just 'Here's my card,' but real dialogue that goes deeper." All that's missing (but not missed) is a thick haze of cigarette smoke.
"This has become the first stop for people in documentary," says Guillemet. "I had someone from Denmark saying, 'I wouldn't miss it for the world, because everyone I want to see will be there.'" On this Tuesday afternoon, for example, I am able to spot a considerable number of key documentary players engaged in conversation. There's P.O.V. topper Cara Mertes and publicist Cynthia Lopez; ITVS head Sally Jo Fifer and director of broadcast distribution Lois Vossen; Film Arts Foundation (FAF) executive director Gail Silva; international sales agent Jan Rofekamp; and Guillemet herself -- all within easy reach of the dozens of filmmakers in the room.
One of them is Ryan Deussing, a producer who was one of 20 filmmakers brought to the festival by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for its new Producers Academy. "The discussions and panels here may be similar to what you'd have at other festivals, but it's the caliber of the people that raises the bar," he says.
It's this kind of quality information and access to contacts, more than the flavored coffee or $6 sandwiches, that make House of Docs a magnet, whose center of energy is the area where twice-daily panels take place.
So far, the most popular session this year fell on the bread-and-butter side of the equation: "Pitching to the Pros: The Verbal Art of Selling Your Project." Organized by the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) (which has been running comparable pitch training sessions out of its New York office for several years), this workshop allows five producers to make a five-minute pitch to a panel of television executives, who then critique the pitch (not the project). The response was tremendous. "We were busting at the seams," says Lavitt. "The pitches they selected were really high-quality and diverse; the audience members were excited about it; the pitchers were overwhelmed; and the panelists were impressed with the pitches and how it went. We were all equally entertained and engaged," says Lavitt, "It's absolutely got to become a mainstay."
For Documentarians hungry for information on how to sell their project, the "Distribution Spectrum" delivered with hard-core specifics. Examples included Jan Rofekamp outlining trends in the primary and secondary markets in European television, Women Make Movies' Debra Zimmerman breaking down revenues expected from educational versus semi-theatrical markets, and Sandy DuBowski describing how he collaborated with New Yorker Films to blend traditional arthouse bookings with an activist outreach model for his 2001 Sundance entry "Trembling Before G-d."
On the flip side of the coin, filmmakers have also been flocking to the Filmmaker-to-Filmmaker panels, where documentarians delve into practical, ethical, and creative choices and their consequences. "What's our responsibility towards characters that we don't like?" asked Lee Hirsch in a typical exchange, who, during a panel titled "Subjects and Their Aftermath," discussed the handling of a prison warden and South African riot police in his film "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Fart Harmony."
Filmmakers wanting to chill from weighty discussions have been showing up for the late-afternoon Open Houses, another new item in House of Doc's programming. "Many different organizations wanted to do something with House of Docs, and we wanted to do something with them," says Lavitt.
The range of organizations participating this year reflects the wide-ranging composition of the documentary community. The house was packed for an event presented by the AIVF, FAF, and the International Documentary Association, all decades-old service organizations that have been the bedrock of the media arts field. One Open House introduced a new player, the Center for Social Media at American University, spearheaded by scholar Pat Aufderheide. Another notable session featured the White House Project, a DC-based organization that's trying to elevate women into leadership positions, from the entertainment industry to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Winding up the week is "Stories from the Field," in which festival filmmakers share their trials, tribulations, and defining moments. Lavitt expects the event to be as popular as it was last year. "It's the last gathering of all the filmmakers at House of Docs, and we want it to be light," says Lavitt. "Last year the stories that came out of it were wonderful and very revealing. It was really fun." And what's a café without a little laughter?