23 Jul Let’s create our space for docs
Independent filmmakers creating social issue documentaries, surfacing stories that are vital to a vibrant and resilient democracy, should be able to access spaces where these stories can become part of public discourse. The big streamers have increasingly shut out social issue docs on controversial subjects, and focused on a business model that entertains their subscribers with true crime, celebrity and music docs. The content that corporate streamers deliver feels more and more like TV, predictable and safe. But there is a need for a destination platform where challenging stories told by truly independent filmmakers can be seen and heard.
With the unions of writers and actors on strike, there is an ongoing discussion in the doc field of whether a union for documentary filmmakers is needed or even makes sense. But an alternative form of organizing documentary filmmakers already exists in the New Day Films cooperative model that benefits its members while distributing their films to the educational market, a hybrid of self-distribution and shared organizational structure. Suppose that we expanded the New Day platform to include home video access in a space that we filmmakers control and curate, where you could send people who ask “Where can I see your film?”, with a smart TV app to make access as easy as the big corporate platforms. This could be a game changer and could become a brand for progressive docs for home viewers, as it already is in the educational arena.
New Day is a film distribution cooperative founded over 50 years ago by visionary independent feminist filmmakers Julia Reichert, Amalie R. Rothschild, Liane Brandon and Jim Klein. They started New Day in 1971 because at that time they couldn’t get any mainstream distributors to take their films, so they decided to offer their films to the educational market directly (and exclusively). It turned out that there was a big demand in the educational sphere for these “radical” feminist films and New Day took off, attracting more and more independent filmmakers as the years went by, which coalesced into an inclusive cooperative distribution model that became an amplifier for hundreds of unique voices. New Day is a remarkable example of a coop as a business and a mutual support community, with a deep reach into the U.S. educational market and thereby a significant contributor to the economic sustainability of a broad spectrum of filmmakers.
I’ve been representing Skylight as a member of New Day for 18 years, going to the annual meetings where the members gather and we hash out the business of the co-op as a direct democracy with a very effective rotating system of distributed leadership. We also discuss the state of the documentary field and challenges on how to adapt to the ever evolving formats we’ve had to deal with over time (16mm, VHS, DVD) to maintain a viable catalog.
Just as the founders of New Day had to break down barriers, now we have to deal with the rise of the corporate streamers (who are also in effect producers and distributors) and their exclusion of independent social issue documentaries. It’s really an oft-repeated story, going back to the very origins of New Day, and also to the origins of another crucial organization for documentaries, ITVS (Independent Television Service), which was created by a 5-year initiative driven by independent filmmakers demanding that Congress provide financing and a space to broadcast their films in the public television system. Let’s do it again – as we say around Skylight, “We live to fight another day!”