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Does the NEA Think Documentaries Are Irrelevant?

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by Anthony Kaufman
April 12, 2012 9:17 PM
3 Comments
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Earlier this week, when it was announced the National Endowment of the Arts was slashing more than a $1 million from funding PBS shows, including major cuts to important (and embattled) documentary programs "Independent Lens" and "P.O.V.," documentary filmmakers were rightly outraged. Part of their frustration and rancor lead to some interesting back-and-forths on Twitter, involving NEA media arts director Alyce Myatt, a former PBS programming executive, who oversaw the cuts.

The Twitter fight began when Kartemquin Films, the activist Chicago-based documentary production company ("The Interrupters") tweeted, "Read between the lines of NEA cuts. Alyce Myatt of NEA stated at #OpenDoc she no longer liked the term
'documentary.'"

So were the budget cuts an outgrowth of prejudice against nonfiction cinema? It's certainly a strange charge to levy against a former PBS programmer. And wouldn't independent documentaries fulfill the very mission of the National Endowment of the Arts? Or are they not commercial enough?

According to the New York Times article that broke the story, Myatt won't comment publically until the cuts become official on April 25, but she did respond to Kartemquin on Twitter, writing: "My comment was 2 consider replacing 'documentary' with 'nonfiction.' Docs suggest specific form w/sm mkt potential."

If you can't read Twitterspeak, translation: the documentary brand, according to Myatt, implies a small market potential.

There are obviously several problems with that notion: It ignores the numerous documentaries that have proven quite commercial, from Michael Moore to "Buck"; it also shows an ignorance of what many believe to be an increased blurring of documentary and fiction forms; and it's also strange to come from someone at the NEA. Does "market potential" really have anything to do with their mission?

In today's budget-conscious era, the NEA remains a favorite target of conservatives, and it's not surprising that the organization is under some duress. But I can't help but wonder what they have to do and in what ways they must compromise to seem relevant.

Though the NEA's budget has bounced back from its 1996 low of $99.5 million, its 2011 budget was $155 million, $12.5 million lower than its 2010 budget of $167.5 million.

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3 Comments

  • Gordon Quinn | April 16, 2012 9:28 AMReply

    The concept of "documentary" is important to me and I would be concerned to be lumped in with reality TV, news magazines, and non fiction crime shows. Many years ago when Hoop Dreams was being released theatrically one of the PR people for the distributor took me aside and asked me to stop using the D words. They meant Democracy and Documentary both of which they felt where a turn off for the public. I still care passionately about the D words. I know Alice well enough to know that she is not anti documentary and I was out of the country and offline when this flap cropped up. I assume that she was making a far more nuanced point than a tweet can contain. I consider her an ally and critical thinker about media. However I'm deeply concerned about the cuts to POV and IL. Even if this money where to go to doc makers, a possibility that Brian suggests, I would be against these cuts. These two series are critical partners in getting our work to large national audiences, not just on broadcast but across platforms. POV and IL have been leaders in digital cross platform innovations both for free standing projects and those that capitalize on bringing a broadcast audience to the web, mobile phone, and multimedia platforms

  • Gordon Quinn | April 16, 2012 11:45 PM

    Oops dyslexic me misspelled Alyce’s name. Sorry I could not even copy it correctly form Brian’s post.

  • Brian Newman | April 13, 2012 9:03 AMReply

    I think people are jumping the gun on this one a bit. The fact that those orgs got cut could be a bad thing, but it might not be - if the overall dollars to doc/nonfiction remains stable, then we can debate whether the money should go to organizations or individuals, but it's not clear yet whether their support of docs has actually decreased. We need to also look at it in the context of their overall funding, and, while I am a supporter of the organizations getting cuts, we have no idea if their proposals were competitive. The landscape for making, discovering and watching docs is changing. There might be a reason for the NEA's funding to shift as well. I don't think we can make an educated guess about that until more details come out (which I think is scheduled for two weeks from now). The debate over the words doc vs nonfiction is silly as well. I didn't take Alyce's comments to be anti- docs, nor do I think we should take her comments about smaller market as a slam either. Let's face it - docs are but one slice of a bigger thing and if the NEA opens up what qualifies for funding, that would be a positive thing for the field. They've recently opened their other film funding to narrative projects as well - and that's good, as far as I am concerned.

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