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Toolkit | A Lifeline for Docs: OWN It!

Toolkit | A Lifeline for Docs: OWN It!

It has yet to hit the air, but Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN, is not surprisingly at the forefront of the distribution maze, and the talk show monarch apparently has a plan that could potentially snap new life into non-fiction filmmaking.

At the Filmmaker Forum over the weekend at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, OWN Senior Vice President, Scheduling, Acquisitions & Strategy Jeff Meier told a crowd of attendees that the anticipated network, which goes live on January 1, could very well do for documentary film what Winfrey did for the publishing industry.

“We want to create an OWN documentary club – sort of a riff on [Oprah’s] book club – and pick one doc per month and see if we can drive an audience to something that can [often] be a ratings challenge,” Meier said, adding what material they’ll be seeking out in their first incarnation. “We’re looking for personal stories. Not so political [per se], but we want to find illuminating humanity or issue films that tell a personal story.”

Meier spoke at a panel along with colleagues from CAA, Sundance, ITVS, Impact Partners and Rhino Films in a discussion dubbed, “Find Money for Your Documentary,” during the weekend-long event organized by Film Independent that gives insight on the nuts and bolts of the expansive business side of indie filmmaking.

The upshot from Meier was that Winfrey and her team at the soon-to-be super network are fans of documentary film, and apparently, they will extend attention and resources for non-fiction film.

So, here is the first phase plan by OWN on the doc side as shared to the crowd over the weekend. Meier told people at the discussion that OWN will primarily concentrate on picking up completed or almost completed work though it may on occasion come in earlier with money for completion funds. He was upfront, however, that this may not work for some filmmakers who guard autonomy even though the idea of bringing on a mega-partner early on like OWN may be hypnotizing.

“If you want a movie that is your vision then you should come to [OWN] when the film is almost finished,” noted Meier. “If you are still in progress with your [non-fiction] film and want finishing funds, then you should be open to guidance from a team. Granted I believe [our] team is very good and come with a lot of knowledge, but you have to be open to that.”

Aspiring OWNers should keep in mind that the network’s primary audience is women 25 – 54 and though Meier was quick to add that the fledgling channel has ambition beyond that scope, it will keep a focus on Winfrey’s base.

Offering what on the surface seemed a contrarian viewpoint, Steven Nemeth from Rhino Films offered up practical advice on the business side while focusing on the art of filmmaking.

“I take the point-of-view that nobody will finance my movie,” said Nemeth whose diverse credits include “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Dogtown and Z Boys” and “Fuel.” “But I also think that having little to no money can be an advantage. I take the point-of-view that, ‘we have to do this.'”

Nemeth recalled a project, “Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin,'” about a painter whose story did not have the benefit of time. “We couldn’t have made that movie if we hadn’t just dived in,” Nemeth said. “If we had waited for funding, I couldn’t document the progression of this man and it wouldn’t have been as comprehensive and as rich. You can take a situation of no financing and really make it an advantage.”

While the discussion was about “raising funds” for docs, Nemeth cut to a core for many non-fiction filmmakers who hold an idealistic view about pursuing a story sans the restraints of budgets and the distribution unknown. “I’m a terribly optimistic pessimist.”

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