War and independent filmmaker.
The experience of traveling with the film, however, has been an eye-opener. While participating in film festivals in Argentina, Panama, Mexico, Cuba, Canada, and Europe, I have never failed to see the names of large U.S. films splashed across billboards and in subway stations, overshadowing homegrown and independent productions. Having lived in Hollywood, where I became accustomed to seeing all of these advertisements, it was odd to walk through the streets of Argentina and see the same images placed next to words in a different language. I began to get a firsthand look at the international monopoly of the cinema and media worldwide.
Hollywood's impact on filmmakers throughout the world is quite amazing. For instance, those filmmakers who have won awards in Mexico similar or identical to the Academy Awards in the United States cannot find theaters in Mexico to release their films. Even though they are the top filmmakers in their country--and their films, in Spanish, don't require subtitles--they cannot find theaters. It is much too profitable for the theaters to continue showing films from Hollywood. This fact has had a grave impact on independent filmmaking. If people are not able to distribute their films, eventually they are not able to make them. This has been the result, to a great degree, in Latin America. Directors in these countries are still making fantastic films, but they are not able to produce anything near their capabilities because of Hollywood's financial stranglehold on the industry.
Even though we might try to fight that influence by attempting to release an independent film in the United States, it's a nightmarish experience. Theaters and video stores in this country are the only places where you can still release independent and uncensored media products. Television is so much more monopolized and content-controlled. To really saturate the country with any new information is almost impossible unless you own a network or a national cable station. Just as private theaters and independently run video stores are the only places where you can find pornography, they are the only places where you can find alternative political viewpoints. This is because, as yet, they are not fully censored.
In the United States, the relationship between theater chains and Hollywood studios is closer than many people might think. For example, at one point The Panama Deception ran in a theater multiplex on one of seven screens. Our film brought in more money than any of the other movies running there at the time: Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act, 1492, and other big-budget Hollywood films. And yet, at the end of what we thought was an open run--where the theater continues to show the film as long as the grosses are good--Warner Brothers or someone called the theater and said, "We need a screen," and our movie was the one bounced because it was an independent film. We may not make another film for several years, but Warner Brothers is going to have another ready in two weeks, and another after that. When you read in the local papers, "Coming to theaters soon," you can believe it--no matter what it has to shove out and no matter how lucrative the film is that it's replacing. For me, these pressures--which have to be honored by the theaters --not only destroy our ability to coordinate our films' U.S. releases in any significant way but similarly inhibit independent filmmakers around the world.
The issue is one of censorship. I always tell the audiences to whom I speak that, although the United States has perhaps the freest press in the world, it's free only to the highest bidders, and we know who they are. For example, David Jones, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and William Smith, the ex-U.S, attorney general, sit on the board of General Electric, which owns NBC. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown help run CBS. The issue for me is not a free press but, rather, an independent and courageous one. We need such media outlets, and our lack of them is one of the most serious threats to our attempt at a participatory democracy. To look at how our democracy works in its present form, let's examine the case of The Panama Deception.
In 1988, Panama held an election. In advance of that election, Panamanians were getting news on a daily basis from the United States through Southern Command. The U.S. military's largest aggregation of weapons and personnel outside the continental United States, Southern Command operates a television broadcast station in Panama. News shows such as Nightline and other U.S. programming are beamed over this network. For two years, the Panamanians had been hearing on these broadcasts how evil their present government was and how devastated their country had become. As the election grew near, the problem, as reported by the U.S. media, was that people should expect widespread violence and fraud.
Partly as a result of constantly hearing U.S. misinformation from the "freest press in the world," the people who tabulated the votes at the end of election day did not take the results to the election commission. Instead, they were told to take the ballots to the Catholic church because there was the threat of widespread violence and fraud--that if the vote takers tried to take the ballots to the commission, they would be stolen by Manuel Noriega's thugs. Not all of this was false. Ultimately what happened was that Panamanians reacted to the rumors and 20 percent of the tabulations went out of the legal chain of command. The national assembly then called the election invalid and, as a result of that and other U.S. interference, the Organization of American States refused to recognize it. At this point, Noriega was appointed indefinitely as a kind of supreme leader, a state of emergency was declared, and new elections were intended to be held. People actually broke the law, in part, on the basis of rumors that were begun by a U.S. news organization.
Then one day, we turned on our television sets to hear President George Bush announce he was sending 26,000 troops to arrest one person in Panama. At the Empowerment Project, we figured something must be terribly wrong: either the United States has the most incompetent military in the world, which is not the case, or there is really another agenda at work. We attempted to explore the latter.
We decided that we wanted to do both research and taped interviews in Panama and in the States to see if we could discover what that real agenda was. But nobody made our job easy. For starters, our names got left out of the press pool. Independent producers are rarely granted the privilege of being sent into the middle of a war. And even the representatives of the mainstream media who did get to go to Panama were held for a day and a half on U.S. military bases before being allowed to see for themselves what was happening. This was only the beginning of the censorship we were to encounter.
Though we did not make it to Panamanian ground when the invasion began, we still wanted to produce our film. Our problem was raising the necessary funding. (In the end, it cost us two years and $300,000 to make our film--considered inexpensive for a documentary of its length but still more than it should have cost.) We began to try raising money within days of the invasion but it is difficult to raise funds in the United States because a large majority of the progressive foundations and grass-roots donors find a lot of other equally important issues to subsidize--issues that do not put them into the politically sensitive position of exposing the U.S. government.
Nonetheless, we managed to gather enough money to go ahead with the film. We had our own editing equipment but had to rent a camera. We knew that we would need an insurance certificate to rent a camera from a commercial rental house, so we borrowed a camera from a friend. (For our first film, Destination Nicaragua, there was no insurance company in the United States that would insure a Betacam being taken into a warzone; the insurance policy had to be bid out on the floor of Lloyd's of London.) National television networks have cameras; if they lose one, they buy another. They are always free to take a camera almost anywhere. Because of this freedom, it is always their images and perceptions of events we see in the mainstream media. Thus, for people who make controversial films, there are many tedious economic obstacles to overcome, keeping independent films from being made.
There is also the issue of people being threatened, especially those who act as sources for us in the countries where we film. These countries are where the United States has "restored democracy," and they are the most dangerous places in which I have ever filmed. We interviewed people whose faces we blacked out. We interviewed people with whom we met clandestinely in Panama and with whom we had to stay in touch up to the final day of editing to see whether we could include their footage. People were often in the process of going back underground because the U.S. installed government of Panama was after them--warrants had gone out for their arrest. Then things would cool off and people would be above ground for a while. These people's words and opinions could endanger them, and we always respected their fears. People with whom we worked directly usually paid the highest price, and this fact is a very difficult one for us. The truth is that, when we come into a country, we are going to be able to leave that country while the people who help us, who stay behind because they live there, continue to be in danger.
There were also threats to our own safety, primarily from two sources. The first was the Southern Command, whose representatives regularly stopped us on the streets and would interfere in our interviews through intimidation. They would walk up to a uniformed Panamanian I was interviewing, grab him by the shirt, pull him out of the camera frame, and say, "You don't want to be doing this interview." Threats also came from the private guards of the Panamanian president and vice-presidents who had been installed by the U.S. government. Each had up to a hundred escorts, completely non regimented and not in uniform. The guards wore wide-bottomed pants to conceal guns in both of their low-cut boots, and they wore large shirts hung over their pants to hide the guns tucked in their belts. They would panic, pull out a gun, and then put it away. These people posed the most serious threat because they were undisciplined.
There is always the issue of responsibility. Before the film was completed, both our videographer and primary researcher died. The partner of our production coordinator in Panama died on the final day of the shoot. Chu Chu Martinez, one of the wisest and most respected leaders in Panama with whom we worked, died during the post-production period. When people died while performing certain tasks for us, in addition to feeling sorrow we also felt great concern; however, we never had the luxury--emotionally, financially, or logistically--to stop work in order to thoroughly investigate their deaths. We did not have the funding to take a forensic doctor and investigator to Panama to research these deaths, to find out whether they had been murdered. Even if we had had the time and money for such investigations, we did not know whether we could come up with any physical evidence--and if we could, we didn't know whether we could get anyone to care. There were already plenty of deaths during the invasion that seemed to rouse little concern. A few more would hardly be front-page news. Each time someone died, we made the decision to move forward with the film because it was the only task at which we believed we could succeed. I firmly believe, however, that each time we walked away, it took a chunk out of our souls and our sense of humanity.
Another problem we faced was that some of the people working with us felt we were too critical of Manuel Noriega. One of our advance researchers came from a politically active family--the perfect person to escort us around the country and to set up interviews. But after the second day of shooting, he became uncomfortable with the questions we were asking. He abruptly left the shoot. Nonetheless, our greatest source of help was from the people who came out of the twenty-one-year history of the Torrijos and Noriega eras, even though they were sometimes the same people who were deeply concerned that we might do a big anti-Noriega piece, which, of course, the international press had already done.
The most painful part of filming in Panama for me was seeing the poorest of the people there--those who had suffered the most from the U.S. invasion. It took us six months from the first day of the invasion to raise the money to get to Panama with our equipment. By the time we got there, people had been taken advantage of and had told their stories many times. Yet the U.S. press was still saying that the Panamanians were happy the United States had invaded their country. U.S. News and World Report published an incredible piece on the refugee center I later visited, where--as can be seen in my film--2,650 people lived in a single airplane hanger. The magazine portrayed the rapid creation of the center as a marvelous accomplishment by U.S. forces, reporting hardly a word about the suffering of the refugees. Because the Panamanians had lost faith in journalists, and because many of the people in the sovereignty movement were dead or underground, the people left on the streets were not well organized.
Of all the Latin American countries I have ever been to, there is no other country that has adopted so colonized a mentality as Panama. There, people would come up to us with photos inside their coats and show us three or four that they had taken during the first three days of the invasion. They wanted a lot of money for them and they wanted it right then, on the spot--not the next day, not at a later meeting. If we did not have the money and did not buy the photos, that was okay with them; they would find someone else to sell to. All that these people were able to hope for was that the thirty-five or fifty dollars they received for the pictures would buy their family security for another month. The idea of these pictures ever being seen worldwide, that they could make a difference to Panama, was outside most people's sensibilities--which was really difficult for me to understand. This situation was unlike anything I had experienced before, either in Central or South America. People were so poor in some areas that our equipment and everything we had with us were targets for theft. Paul Troughten, one of our volunteer assistants, was brutally mugged on the street only twenty-four hours after arriving in Panama and had to return to the States because of his injuries. During the filming, we always hid the footage, and we took many other security precautions as well.
Getting the footage back into the United States was yet another problem. As a rule, we sent it back with a variety of people. If someone was returning with a lot of it at once, we would have a letter written to customs officials from a congressional representative who was supportive of our efforts, saying "If you want to stop this woman, you stop her, but don't separate her from her footage. Call my office, and I'll have one of my assistants waiting for your call at such and such a time when her plane comes in." The letter would be on official congressional stationery with an embossed seal. Without these kinds of precautions, footage does not always make it back to the States. While Haskell Wexler was filming Latino in Nicaragua in 1984, at the same time we were shooting Destination Nicaragua, he had film confiscated by customs officials which, when finally returned, was blank.
Once we got our film back to the United States, we dubbed it all and made VHS copies--like home videos--which we kept in our offices during post-production. The original footage was stored in vaults in Hollywood post-production houses that also store video for major television shows. Eventually, we brought all of the film together to do the on-line edit. This period was particularly vulnerable for us. We had already spent a lot of other people's money and abandoned much of our daily lives for the project; the culmination of these risks and sacrifices hinged on the irreplaceable footage we had gathered. At this point, we took turns guarding the footage twenty-four hours a day, staffing the office constantly for months in order to make our project less convenient for sabotage.
After all we had shot, there was still additional footage we needed. We were fortunate to have established a strong working relationship with the Center for Defense Information and, particularly, the National Security Archive, which has done a wonderful job of pursuing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, resulting in the release of thousands of previously classified materials. The archive maintains an exhaustive number of documents and exemplifies the cooperation that is essential to independent research and media.
The Pentagon shot between 600 and 650 hours of footage during the invasion. Through the FOIA, the Pentagon has released only fifty hours. We pressed to access the rest and were denied on the basis that it would "endanger national security." We continued to press right through the final days of editing; however, the response was that the footage was of no particular value and had been recorded over. I don't believe this for a minute. The invasion of Panama was the first time a variety of newly developed weapons systems were tested in the "arena" (as the Pentagon likes to call the battlefield, in its sportsmanlike language of war), and we know that arms developers and the Pentagon rely upon such footage to analyze the performance of new weapons. Even Congress has been unable to see the footage. In many ways, we don't know what happened in Panama, and what our film does more than anything is open up a lot of questions; we present evidence but there are still unanswered questions.
It was also a challenge to obtain even the simplest kind of additional footage from the major networks. We figured that, in order to make this film, we had to bring people up to speed on the historical relationship between the United States and Panama, so we included such footage as President Jimmy Carter signing the Carter-Torrijos Treaty, the death of Torrijos, the rise of Noriega, and the Iran-contra scandal. The footage from ABC and Vis News cost $150 per second; at $45 per second, NBC was much cheaper, so we contracted mostly with it. It still added up to tens of thousands of dollars we had to raise for the most common, innocuous historical footage. Footage that is over twenty years old, we could get from the National Archives for free, but anything else is still under copyright.
When the networks make a film, they buy footage from each other. At the end of the year, they add up how much they bought versus how much they sold, and nobody ends up owing anybody because they are all charging high prices which offset each other. An independent, however, must come up with hard cash. This is another important economic factor that limits our ability to make politically challenging films.
Some of the best footage our research identified clearly demonstrates how the news media manipulated the public to anticipate, accept, and support the invasion of Panama (a technique that reached more impressive heights preceding and during the Persian Gulf War). We have clips in our film of Dan Rather, during the CBS Evening News, juxtaposed with footage illuminating the reality of events in Washington and Panama. The process that one must go through to obtain clips of network "talent" (as they call their newspeople) was difficult in and of itself. You must submit your script for their approval and, if you receive it, their price is still astronomically high because it includes their talent. According to copyright law, however, you can use copyrighted materials from the media without permission and without payment if you are using it to critique the media itself. In other words, you cannot use the piece of footage to tell the story but you can use the footage to critique the way in which the story was told. So it is perfectly legal to have footage in the film and claim "fair use." The problem comes in getting the networks to release the footage, because they aren't required to do so. This catch-22 makes it difficult to critique television news in this country using their own footage. We were able to acquire some through several lucky breaks, which I'm not at liberty to discuss. Our standard explanation is that three of our producers had parents who had been recording the news for the last thirty years.
Eventually our work came down to doing a final on-line edit that met broadcast standards. We could actually do most of this editing in our own facility, but there were certain things that we couldn't do, certain technology that we simply didn't have. We were able to find a few large edit houses which donated their facilities; ironically, this sometimes ended up costing us money. For example, sound studio time was generously donated by George Lucas' Skywalker Sound, but its equipment was a thirty-two-track digital system. The specifications for our source materials were very specific, so preparing our materials to take advantage of this offer cost us far more than we had anticipated. Likewise, some of the people who offered to prepare materials for free in order to develop their skills on very sophisticated equipment made errors that caused us to lose entire days already slated for us at Skywalker. In the end, Skywalker Sound ran short on the time it could continue to donate to us because major paying clients came under timeline crunches of their own. Ultimately, our final sound mix was more rushed than was advisable. We may have made some errors in accepting some of these contributions; I think we got in over our heads. But the smaller twenty-four-track studios often are not in a financial position to donate time.
For the first six months of the film's release, although I traveled with it from city to city, I was never able to bring myself to watch it. You never see a film from start to finish while you're working on it; you just work on a little part at a time. I could not sit through the whole thing for almost a year because I would end up in tears. I would watch a section and I would not be able to stand it because I knew that there was a whole soundtrack that never got mixed in because we had run out of time and money. There were also images that we had intended to change but had to leave as they were. After spending two years of your life making a film, and after going through everything we endured, you would like to think the film would be what you had planned it to be. So it's a little painful at first to accept the imperfections.
When we finally finished The Panama Deception and it won an Academy Award, we went to potential television buyers in Europe and around the world. Constantly, we heard, "We already did Panama." Why? Because PBS's Frontline did a piece called "War and Peace in Panama" and innumerable McNeil/ Lehrer reports covered the topic. However, none of these broadcasts questioned the four reasons given by the Bush administration for the invasion: to protect the canal, to ensure the safety of American lives, to restore democracy in Panama, and to bring a notorious drug trafficker to justice. PBS never really touched on any of the important information about the media and the U.S. government's purposeful manipulation of public opinion, both within the United States and internationally. But how many television hours is Germany or France expected to devote to a small war in which they were not involved? The fact that networks produce programming quickly and get it out into the marketplace first means that they can consume the only time allotted for the subject, thereby burying the real issues. In effect, this is damage control.
Frontline, for instance, uses a very aggressive and successful international distributor: Charles Shurhoff Associates. With the help of the duped taxpayers' contributions, Frontline creates a steady stream of programming on current affairs that is widely distributed. Its productions, in effect, censor the marketplace by always filling the available time slots with seemingly critical journalistic explorations of an issue before anyone else has the opportunity to complete and distribute anything really powerful, anything that probes the real heart of the issues-*naming names and having the courage to place blame when necessary. Frontline appears to be controversial but often produces no more than an inoffensive whitewash of an issue, thereby posing no threat to PBS's corporate sponsors or the U.S. government, its primary sponsor. I see this as a real problem.
In other countries, theatrical releases are less feasible than television broadcasts. Outside the United States, we have sold our film to about twenty-five countries for broadcast, and the selling usually involves going to a film festival, showing the film, getting a lot of press, and creating a buzz about it. Then a distributor comes forward when it realizes that there is an audience for the film. You have to personally go to each country and prove that the people are interested in the issues expressed in the film. That way the gatekeepers--the people who are in control of the venues--can see that a broadcast is feasible. Only at this point do the buyers get involved.
Television in the United States is much more painful. None of our movies have been broadcast nationally by PBS. The real scandal is what PBS does at the national level, beginning with its POV (Point of View) series, a show thrown to the progressive community like a bone (a bone progressive groups must pay for directly). In order to defend its decision to not air our film, PBS basically had to smear it. How else could it defend not televising an Academy Award-winning documentary broadcast in twenty-five other countries that has received fabulous reviews in all the major papers in the country and has been shown in a hundred cities and cinemas? I have a letter from Jennifer Lawson, executive vice-president of national programming for PBS, which says: "The Panama Deception covers an important topic but does not meet our standards for fairness. In our view, some of the assertions about the intent of U.S. policy and the conduct of U.S. troops are not adequately substantiated." The only people who were the primary leads for us, in terms of our assertion of U.S. foreign policy in Panama, were people like Maxwell Thurman, the four-star general who led the invasion. He was the first person (who obviously had not been debriefed) to say that the purpose of the invasion was to destroy the Panamanian defense forces (a purpose never publicly stated by the Bush administration). Pentagon spokesperson Pete Williams backed up Thurman's assertion in an interview, saying that it was the "essence of the operation." We did not even put Williams' comments in the film because we felt they would be repetitious--that we would be hitting the public over the head. Perhaps we forgot that the public includes television programmers.
What PBS means by dismissing some of the film's testimony in its statement--"the conduct of U.S. troops are not adequately substantiated"--is that poor, black, often non-Englishspeaking victims on the ground cannot compare to Dan Rather in terms of knowing what really happened in Panama. PBS's stance is racist and classist. The letter goes on to say that "PBS has already extensively reported on U.S. relations with Noriega, the invasion of Panama, and the conditions in post-invasion Panama." But its coverage actually consisted of two Frontline documentaries: "The Noriega Connection" (as if that were the issue) and "War and Peace in Panama." The latter analyzed the logistics of the invasion--did the troops have good maps, was the mission planned well, did more people die than was anticipated? The program begins by ticking off the four official reasons given for the invasion, as if these stated reasons were the truth. The whole point of our film was to expose the fact that the reasons given by President Bush had nothing to do with the invasion. If something is not shown on PBS, the progressives (or at least the liberals) in the United States think the film must not be valid; they think it must be some kind of conspiracy film. The public has an enormous amount of respect for PBS's official position, which I think is particularly damaging. I know people who have done Frontline pieces. These films do make a contribution, but they stop short of giving us the names or showing the faces. I say we must show the faces, name the names, and follow the story all the way to the end.
Two things happen when PBS rejects a film. First, their rejection is released to the press. Independent stations which otherwise might feel courageous enough to broadcast the film then get nervous, since PBS says it doesn't meet its fairness standards. Is the program manager in Sioux City, Iowa, willing to say he knows better than the corporate heads of PBS? If a program manager should decide to broadcast our film, would he or she in fact be considered irresponsible and liable should a lawsuit be filed against the station because of the broadcast? And how would that person and the station defend themselves when the national office of PBS has already announced clearly that it believes the film is not acceptable as journalism? PBS's ability to disrupt our efforts to distribute our films for broadcast is substantial. I know that every now and then there is a public cry to save PBS, but you can count me out. My feelings are not merely sour grapes; I would rather see the money targeted for PBS go to the National Endowment for the Arts or similar organizations. Let these organizations fund films, and let these films compete for broadcast on a level playing field.
The only major station that would show our film was Cinemax. Do you know who showed the most challenging piece on the JFK assassination--by Nigel Turner from the United Kingdom? Arts and Entertainment. Home Box Office, Discover, and other national cable stations are also doing cutting-edge, risky programming. I believe that individual PBS stations that actually serve their constituents will survive. KQED, the PBS affiliate in San Francisco, broadcast The Panama Deception shortly after our theater run in California. This station had previously broadcast our earlier film, Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair. It was good to have a prestigious station show the new film before the national PBS office could smear it. This situation allows for a bit of a defense, especially since the viewers' reactions are always phenomenally supportive. WGBH in Boston, KBDI in Denver, and WNYC in New York City were the next affiliates to take the leap. These stations are major public affairs programmers, and their decision to broadcast The Panama Deception in its entirety has had a strong effect on smaller, more hesitant stations that would like to show it. Similarly, the viewer response supports our belief that the public is hungry for deeper investigations of controversial affairs.
Let me now propose some solutions for enhancing independent filmmakers' aims to share ideas worldwide by distributing films to theaters, video stores, and television. Our method for releasing films to theaters across the country is one of the primary ways we use to break the government/corporate stranglehold on information. We go from town to town, releasing the film in theaters in coordination with local community groups already involved in the issues most relevant to the film. By working with these groups, we both benefit. Community groups do a tremendous amount of advertising and public relations through newsletters, radio, and newspapers. They function as publicists for our film, while their position in the community is elevated by being associated with a high-profile opening night. They get a portion of the opening-night proceeds, as well as copies of all the donation checks written throughout the film's release, so that they can maintain contact with these people in the future. This process helps to build their organization and their ability to make change. As a result of our film release, literally hundreds of people in each town will write letters, speak on radio talk shows, and take a wide variety of actions to create positive change in our world. In addition, the experience provides local activists with invaluable training. We have produced a manual called Taking It to the Theaters, which provides step-by-step instructions on this kind of social activist release. When we leave each town, the activists carry on without us, often for weeks while the film continues to play at the theater. The only problem we encounter is that, when we come back two years later and want to open in a former location, the people we trained are not often there anymore and we must start over from scratch.
I am convinced that we have to explain to major foundations that the millions of dollars they sink into producing independent films is lost if they are not also willing to create an environment in which these films can be released. The movement is just wasting money, breaking hearts, and burning out wellmeaning people. There needs to be a support system for independent producers to prepare for and coordinate distribution of films and videos. Most filmmakers are not natural-born distributors, and yet many are left with no other choice but to distribute their film or video themselves. I would like to see something like a retreat, where a filmmaker could go to work with skilled people to prepare a strategy, develop promotional materials, book theaters, and launch the organizing campaign necessary to fill the theaters and get out the information. If such an environment existed--and was well funded--a number of good films could be chosen each year to take advantage of the process, thereby guaranteeing them a good release and guaranteeing community groups and independent theaters around the country a constant source of important films. There would be a standing army of people in each community ready to come to the theaters to see the new films. I'm not talking about getting people to come to a church basement or a conference but to a theater with a marquee, getting reviews in papers and interviews on the radio.
There also needs to be a revolving fund for advertising--a certain amount of money donated by a foundation to be loaned out to assist in releasing films. The money would be recouped from film profits and then loaned out again to other projects. In this way, filmmakers would not have to do everything in the most economically stringent way. For example, in the past we have never been able to do a mass run of posters, which can be produced much more economically in large quantities than a few at a time.
Finally, we need to consider underwriting some kind of agent or distributor so that he or she can afford to put their time into each production. What often happens, even with good distributors who agree to take on politically controversial films, is that they usually spend most of their energy, resources, and time on commercial films, which have a greater likelihood of bringing in more money. The films that make money are the ones that grab the attention of the distributor, so noncommercial filmmakers have to find a way to compete more effectively. If we believe there is an audience out there--and I am convinced there is--then we have to find a way to launch an ongoing series of films.
As for videos, we need to have a fund so that we can provide something called a "buyback guarantee." This means, for example, that, when my video manufacturer, Rhino Home Video, offers our video to big distributors who warehouse the tape region by region, the distributors will buy five hundred copies because Rhino says it will buy back any tapes the distributors cannot sell. This is how all tapes are distributed, except social and political documentaries, because few manufacturers have enough faith in the marketability of these documentaries to back them with money. But if a video does sell, as all of ours have, the manufacturer doesn't lose money; it makes money.
We are disappointed that we have not been able to convince foundations to put together a pool of money to guarantee these videos enough financial backing so that they will have the opportunity to find a market. Independent distributors need to develop relationships with stores and chains around the country that will agree to take a certain number of controversial videos. People would then begin to know that they can go to these stores to purchase such films. Blockbuster carries such films, and a lot of other stores could be encouraged to do likewise.
It's vitally important for us to support independent media and independent analysis and news reporting, to continue to work with people around the world and within our own "Third World" here in the United States. We need to support ourselves, our sisters, and our brothers in recording our own history and creating images of ourselves and the world that we can share with one another. It is time to take action.
Barbara Trent, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker with a strong background in grass-roots organizing, is cofounder of the Empowerment Project, a nonprofit resource center for independent filmmaking. This article is adapted from her essay, "Media in a Capitalist Culture," in The Cultures of Globalization, edited by Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, published in May by Duke University Press (Box 90660, Durham, NC 27708; 888-651-0123; www.duke.edu/web/dupress). You can e-mail the Empowerment Project at email@example.com or visit its website at www.webcom.com/empower/.
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|Title Annotation:||Hollywood and corporate leaders' control of the distribution and presentation of films limits the work of independent filmmakers|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1998|
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