At the Intersection of Art and Commerce

Affordable high-end technology has made documentary films cheaper to make, yet compelling nonfiction movies are still few and far between, says producer Mitchell Block ’74, whose film Poster Girl made the shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards nominations.

January 5, 2011
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When the 2011 Academy Award nominations are announced on January 25, Poster Girl — a documentary produced by Mitchell Block ’74 — may be among the nominees. [UPDATE: Poster Girl has been nominated for an Oscar in the “documentary short” category.] The film, which premiered at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival and will air on HBO later this year, is the first documentary that examines the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a female soldier in combat.

Block is no stranger to awards. His first film, No Lies — which he produced and directed as part of his MFA thesis at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — won an Emmy and was recently selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. Block conceived and was an executive producer of the Emmy Award–winning, 10-hour documentary series Carrier and of the 2000 Academy Award–winning documentary Big Mama. He was also an executive producer of Stealing America: Vote by Vote, which received a Broadcast Critics Award in 2008.

Block’s company, Direct Cinema Limited, has handled the marketing and distribution of more than 60 Oscar–nominated documentaries, shorts, and animated films.

Since 1978, Block has taught independent film producing at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. This month, he is offering a workshop on the business of film to current Columbia Business School students as part of the Media Program’s annual trek to Los Angeles.

In Poster Girl, director Sarah Nesson follows Robynn Murray, a former US Army machine gunner, as she rebuilds her life after returning from Iraq. How did you get involved with the project?

Several years ago I developed a workshop series through the International Documentary Association that is based on my independent producing class at USC — I feel that it’s really important to provide high-quality resources to individuals who can’t go to film school. A first-time filmmaker and participant in one of the workshops, Sarah Nesson, asked me to look at a film she was working on about veterans of the Iraq War.

One of the film’s seven or eight characters — Robynn Murray — really stood out. I suggested to Sarah that she would be wonderful for a one-character documentary. When I got to see more footage several months later, I was blown away and offered to come on board as producer.

The movie has some of the most extraordinary documentary sequences I’ve ever seen in terms of a character being open, vulnerable, and exposed. [Watch a clip from Poster Girl on YouTube.] I took the project to Sara Bernstein and Sheila Nevins at HBO and they came on board. HBO funded the completion of the project.

A host of recent box-office successes — Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, Man on Wire, and Michael Moore’s films, among many others — coupled with the availability of affordable high-end digital cameras have prompted some to call this the “new golden age” of documentary films. Is this an accurate assessment?

The massive growth of the Internet coupled with the ease of digital filmmaking makes it far easier for documentary filmmakers to create works much the same way writers can now post blogs with ease. Unlike a fiction film (which requires actors, sets, a script, etc.), a nonfiction story can be “filmed as it takes place” — with a home video camera. That footage, edited on a laptop, can be used to sell it.

But just because these works are being created doesn’t mean that they will attract audiences, make money, or even be seen. New technology does not change the need for talent, filmmaking skills, and an original vision. One person’s home movie is not necessarily another’s entertainment. Great stories are elusive.

The business of movie making can seem elusive to those outside the industry. Can you demystify the role of the producer?

Producers generally come up with the idea for a film — or collaborate with someone who has an idea or concept — and figure out how to get the funding to make that idea happen. The producer’s job is to mediate between art and commerce — and to find the artists who have a vision that can make money. The idea can be original or based on a fiction or nonfiction source — anything from a news story to some historical event.

For example, I took the idea for Poster Girl to HBO, where I worked for seven years as an acquisitions consultant. HBO was interested in the subject based on the footage and they said, let’s do it. Now we’re working to turn Poster Girl into Poster Girls as fiction film for cable television. I try to do projects that I can sell to the buyer before I make them; making the films first is very risky.

It’s the partnership of creative and business people that’s really special. I’m constantly trying to find networks, studios, and distributors who will fund films so that we can make them. It has nothing to do with a business plan or independent investors but everything to do with creating a package that can be presold to the network or studio.

From a producer’s perspective, how important are awards like the Oscars?

Awards don’t sell films, but they do help validate — and set apart — the work of the filmmaker. Oscars and Emmys are the benchmarks. But the reality is that every film is a “prize winner” — with thousands of prizes, prizes don’t mean that much.

Having a film in a festival [where it can be nominated for various prizes] before selling it is a bad business model since a finished work is worth less than one that’s unfinished. My first rule of producing is to sell the film to the ultimate distributors first. If the studios or networks won’t buy your film at the script or idea stage, how will making it change their opinion? Also, the distributors and networks have you in a buyers’ market — they usually want changes. For television, for example, every network has a slightly different running time so one must edit and the work could be terrible. It’s far easier to sell sizzle then to deliver it.

What are three recent documentaries that you’d consider must-see?

Client 9 — it’s amazing to get to see someone at the top of their career self-destruct, yet still be likeable at the end of the movie.

Finding Superman — this film makes us realize how difficult it’s going to be to fix our schools.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould — to see Glen Gould perform makes this work very special; it’s rare to witness genius.

These films take complex subjects and tell compelling and moving stories. They both entertain and educate — and they will likely make money.

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