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International Documentary Market - The North American Market

Industry Report: Documentary

Tom Koch • Vice President, PBS Distribution, PBS International, Boston, USA

- The financing possibilities for documentaries in America and the editorial policy of PBS

What does a project need to have to be backed up by PBS?
We are a particularly unique company in that everything we do has to be of the highest possible quality, we are not in a position to take a lot of risks; such as experimental documentaries or unknown filmmakers.
We need to think: Is it something that the American public is going to understand? We have a massive audience, very large, but it has to be something first they understand.
Secondly, it has to have a purpose; why do they want to do this film now? Will it get an audience? I am not saying we are chasing ratings, but will it have any reason to be on? A film about a family in Australia would have been of a huge importance to us, before the Olympics, but not today. I am not saying we are event-driven, or anniversary-driven, but there has to be a reason for it.
Three, we have to have the confidence that it can be made. Can the filmmaker who is presenting this project actually make it? I’ve seen many films or ideas that the filmmaker just simply can’t make. Not that they are incapable in a skill level, but they never have done anything that big. Or it may be a great idea but we don’t think that the person has the ability to do the research, or it may be another element.
Four is really important; in a good video or film good story telling is not what gets put in but often what is left out what makes the film really good. Filmmaking is about condensation, not necessarily about expansion or inclusion, and the trick goes back again to the filmmaker. Can they make this film?
The next question is can you fund it? Can we raise the money to make it happen? Or can somebody else help us raise the money?

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In terms of co-productions, who do you partner with? What other countries?
We have coproduced in Italy, Germany, France, Canada, UK, Japan and Australia.

Do you have an annual production budget?
We spend every year 40 to 50 million dollars in documentaries.

What would be the percentage for co-productions?
Around twenty per cent of it would go on co-productions, ten million dollars.

What are the most relevant financing sources for documentary in America?
That’s very hard; it is a very complex place in terms of public broadcasting for documentary funding. The most important place are the five main public broadcast producers, PBS is an interesting place because it is not a network, but there are strands, they have funding, and they can fund a hundred per cent of a project if they want. But it is also very important in the United States that people rely on government grants, through things like the Science Foundation or philanthropies, wealthy individuals, people who give money. Before the Wall Street crash what was becoming very popular were investment bankers, who had projects that they wanted to be made, so they would fund them. National Geographic Channel or the Smithsonian, they have money as well. There is not necessarily a single place to get money.

Documentary Campus, 23 & 24 May 2009
Faster, Keener, Leaner, Meaner: Survival of the Fittest in Factual
Manchester, UK

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