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Steve James on ’America to Me’ and the Fight to Get Documentaries Seen in an Era of Too Much TV

“America to Me” is the best-reviewed new series of the year, but the cultural response isn't commensurate with its significance.

Risé Sanders-Weir

Steve James shooting “America to Me”

Risé Sanders-Weir / Starz

In 2003, Steve James’ first docuseries debuted on PBS. “The New Americans” was a seven-hour “verité style” film following a diverse group of immigrants and refugees who left their homes to move to America. The expansive, six-and-a-half-year project covered the subjects in their native countries as well as in the states, and all 411 minutes aired over three nights as one big event.

“It didn’t play theatrically because it was seven hours long,” James said. “It played at IDFA, SXSW, and one other film festival, and then it was on public television, and then it was gone.”

As James distinctly remembers, this was a time before streaming and DVRs, before Netflix and HBO sparked national news with buzzy docuseries, and before an era of peak TV led to massive libraries of endlessly accessible content.

“I remember thinking, ‘Jeez. All that work, it’s on television, and then it’s done,'” James said. “‘People missed it, and that’s that.'”

In 2018, James returned to television with another docuseries, “America to Me,” which is set to end its 10-week run on Starz this Sunday. He said spending a year among students and teachers at Oak Park River Forest High School, near Chicago, is the hardest thing he’s ever done — right up there with the efforts behind “The New Americans.” James is still “really proud” of that series, but he remembers the disappointment he felt when all that work yielded so little response.

“I’m hoping I’m not going to feel that way about [‘America to Me’] when it’s done,” James told IndieWire before the premiere. “This is the hardest thing I’ve been involved with in terms of the intensity of effort over a period of three-and-a-half years. So I hope, I just hope…God I hope people watch it. Or they find it.”

With 15 years of additional experience in the industry, including multiple TV projects, the Oscar-nominated director approached choosing a distributor for “America to Me” with care. One factor sometimes forgotten by viewers at home is the most fundamental for filmmakers: pay. James said Participant Media “went out on a big limb” to produce a project with multiple segment directors, dozens of subjects, and years of editing costs.

“But you also look at the network,” he said. “If it’s on non-premium cable, then you have to deal with commercials. I’ve had to deal with that before, and I don’t really like to deal with that if I can help it. You look at streaming services and you think, ‘How much content are they churning out?'”

America To Me 2018 Kendale McCoy Starz

Kendale McCoy in “America to Me”

Starz

James said he looked closely at one such service and, without naming it, described what gave him hesitancy.

“If you read about [one of its] programs in the paper or online, and you think, ‘That looks great,’ and you go to their website, you can’t find it — even though you just read about it — because they just have so much. [If] it’s not on their homepage, you’ve got to go searching for it. […] If we end up there, are we going to be that one that strikes enough of a nerve that it gets the push that they’re capable of, or will it just be another thing they have to search to find?”

Starz came with its own risks. “America to Me” marks the premium network’s first foray into serialized documentaries, and its streaming service is newer. Starz streaming subscribers total 3 million — a number growing rapidly, but one outpaced by HBO (more than 5 million) and the combined total of Showtime and CBS All Access (around 7 million).

Though James said he had “some nervousness” about signing with Starz, what won him over was the network’s “quality” programming and persistent commitment.

“I hadn’t really watched their scripted stuff, and it’s good stuff,” he said. “And they were clearly passionate about [acquiring] this. They wanted it, and they demonstrated that in everything they’ve done in terms of promotion. They weren’t just passionate until they got it. So I’m really excited about where we ended up.”

Since the series premiere in August, “America to Me” has received universal acclaim from critics. It has the third highest score of any 2018 TV program (per Metacritic), making it the best reviewed new show of the year. Yet stellar reviews don’t always attract the large audience. While this year’s No. 1 show, “Blue Planet II,” set viewership records for the BBC, “America to Me” ratings have been middling and buzz is negligible.

America To Me 2018 Chanti Relf Starz

Chanti Relf in “America to Me”

Starz

Per Nielsen, the premiere episode of “America to Me” pulled in 259,000 viewers over its first seven days of release. That puts it ahead of fellow Starz docuseries “Warriors of Liberty City” and “Wrong Man,” as well as other 2018 releases like Showtime’s “The Circus” and “The Trade.” But it trails the premieres of “Being Serena” on HBO and “The Fourth Estate,” neither of which set the TV world — or even the docuseries subset — on fire. And despite the positive reviews, “America to Me” has failed to ignite the kind of conversations driven by popular docuseries like “Wild Wild Country” and “Making a Murderer” Part 2.

Still, those shows are outliers, streaming numbers aren’t available, and the series will be available online for as long as the Starz service is up and running (which, given its success, looks to be for a long while). The series’ overall impact will be measured over a longer period of time.

“The good thing about now is even if people don’t see it right away, if the word gets out or they hear about it a few episodes in, they can watch it from the beginning,” James said.

When asked if there’s any advantage for documentaries that can play in theaters to go the TV route instead, James said he wasn’t sure, but he sees festivals like Sundance — where “America to Me” screened five episodes — as a boon no matter what. (“If you’re a doc filmmaker, Sundance is still generally the first choice to premiere your film.”)

With the television world “even more crowded” than independent film market, James is still searching for the best way to get his team’s work seen by the widest possible audience. That may sound ridiculous given the director’s pedigree, but in 2018, it’s a question every filmmaker needs to to ask.

Or, as James simply put it: “Getting people to watch, man, it’s a challenge.”

“America to Me” airs its season finale Sunday, October 28 at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.

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