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Westdoc gives boost to documentary filmmakers

Financing, distribution and encouragement abound at three-day conference amid an online market that participants say is about to explode.

September 20, 2013|By Steve Appleford
  • Co-founder Richard Propper, left, Harrison Engle and Chris Moles help count votes during the Westdoc conference.
Co-founder Richard Propper, left, Harrison Engle and Chris Moles help… (Cheryl A. Guerrero, Los…)

A film on the life and adventures of burlesque performer Tempest Storm — an 85-year-old dancer who passed through the orbits of Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy — won a $7,500 prize at this week's Westdoc conference for documentaries and reality television, giving a huge boost of encouragement to its two young filmmakers.

"The competition is fierce here. There are some remarkable projects. Everyone's bringing it," said Kaitlyn Regehr, 28, the Toronto-based producer of "Tempest Storm: Burlesque Queen." The work-in-progress is planned as a mixture of interviews and cinema verité.

The money will help. "We're independent documentary filmmakers," director Nimisha Mukerji, 29, said with a smile. "We've maxxed out our credit cards."

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The award was the final act of three days at the annual Westdoc, held at the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles. It was fourth gathering of new and established filmmakers and producers, network executives, distributors and others, there to discuss a medium exploding with new venues, opportunities and audience interest.

"There's a real power in the real," said Mark Samels, executive producer of PBS' "American Experience," now in its 25th year. "It's always a good thing that the documentary community in Los Angeles gather to discuss the issues and feel a sense of community."

Founded by producer Chuck Braverman and distributor Richard Propper, Westdoc is designed to fill a gap in Los Angeles. "There were big events on the East Coast and other cities, and there was nothing here," said Propper, a former president of the International Documentary Assn. "How can you have a city that is so rich in talent and production companies and yet not have an event here?"

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In the conference's first year, the founders sought industry executives to participate, but this time found they were just as often approached by decision-makers looking for an invitation. "This is great for them too," said Braverman, chair of the film department at the Brooks Institute. "They meet a lot of filmmakers. They get just as much out of it as producers and filmmakers."

One evangelist for the explosion of new online assets available to documentarians is director Ondi Timoner, twice the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — for 2004's "Dig!" and 2009's "We Live in Public." She hosts "BYOD" (for "Bring Your Own Doc"), a weekly online talk show.

During her keynote talk on Tuesday morning, Timoner noted that "videos of cats are what goes viral on YouTube. How do we compete? How do we get above the noise?"

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Afterward, she added that "my mission is to inspire and educate my fellow filmmakers to really embrace online and all the opportunities that we have at our fingertips. It's overwhelming.

"Where I spend my time is looking for innovation in technology and entrepreneurship."

New forms of distribution have blurred the distinctions between theatrical, television and digital formats, said Roger Jackson, co-founder of Kinonation, an aggregator of content for 250 platforms looking for material around the world. According to the Internet Movie Database, he said, about 25,000 features are made every year, yet most are largely unseen.

"Less than 5% get any form of distribution," said Jackson, a former executive at MTV. "Video-on-demand is the savior because it can get global distribution, and they can find their niche audience."

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A veteran of more than 25 documentaries as director and producer, Rory Kennedy said the audience is expanding just as quickly. She is currently at work on a documentary for PBS on the final days of the Vietnam War.

"People have realized that documentaries aren't just spinach," Kennedy said. "They can be both educational and enormously entertaining, and open their eyes to issues and perspectives they aren't exposed to in their own lives. That's opened it up to a much broader population."

Funding for a fast-growing segment of this work is coming through a collection of online crowdfunding sources, including Indiegogo, whose executive, Adam Chapnick, declared this week, "I believe documentaries save the world."

While already sparking a revolution in financing of independent film, crowdfunding sites have only begun to be felt in the industry, Chapnick said.

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"I'm still waiting for it to explode," he said. "We have thousands of films on Indiegogo that have been made possible through raising money for production, pre-production, post-production, distribution, the whole enchilada. But people are only just starting to grasp how powerful it is to dis-intermediate all of the processes that have got in the way of films reaching their audience. Filmmakers can tap the passion of their audience according to their passion to participate."

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