As a documentary director and producer, I am surrounded by women working and thriving in the entertainment industry. The documentary realm has long had a reputation for being more open to female-led productions. I'd like to take a moment to examine why this has come about.
For one, documentaries are more likely to be spearheaded by individuals or small partnerships working outside of established institutions. They're also more likely than narratives to span over the course of several years, requiring the producing team to piece together funding as the production unfolds rather than strictly relying on up front capital. This may sound like a drag. But what it does in practical terms is to allow the producing team time along the way to raise money, to take commercial jobs as needed, and to have flexible schedules. This last point especially is crucial to women with families and those for whom the film project can wait but the child care situation can't.
As women in the film and entertainment industry, we're often reminded how locked out of the old boy (i.e. Studio) network we are. The Director's Guild of America's stats reveal that only 15% of TV episodes from the 2011-2012 season were directed by women. (There is another, more dire figure hidden within this. Of that 15%, only 4% of those were directed by women of color.)
Luckily for us, we're living in a time of incredible opportunity for both indie narratives and documentaries. Crowdfunding has forever altered the fundraising realm. Producers today don't have to rely strictly on national-level funding sources, government grants, or the foundation system (which is good, because lots of those old sources have evaporated!), but can instead raise funds directly from their target audience— while simultaneously building that target audience. Crowdfunding is a democratizing platform: the most important skills necessary to build a successful crowdfunding campaign are the ability to know your audience and to build a lasting and engaged relationship with that audience. It doesn't require the team of scholars of the old Humanities grants. It doesn't judge the applicant on their grammar or their ability to fill out a form. It doesn't privilege those with higher education and is less susceptible to the institutionalized racism, sexism and homophobia of the old guard.
I recently wrapped my first feature-length documentary. It follows the life and music of James Booker, an incredibly talented but tragic piano player from New Orleans. From start to finish, the film took me just over three years. I stitched together my funding via donations, crowdfunding, some local- and state-granting sources, and, towards the end of production, investors. As a woman and as a first-time filmmaker, I was at a disadvantage for many of the traditional methods of film fundraising. But because the documentary fundraising format is more flexible, I have been able to explore these non-traditional methods. In fact, I believe that being a woman has helped me forge relationships with many of the donors to the project, hopefully leading to lasting, long-term funding opportunities for future projects.
I am now facing a new challenge: distribution. Though of course I'd love a huge, glamorous theatrical distribution deal, those are increasingly rare. Like
the funding of yesteryear, those big distributors are drying up or are increasingly picky about what they'll sign. Yet even in this sphere, there is hope.
Digital distribution, VOD, and hybrid distribution are providing powerful new ways to connect directly with your audience—while simultaneously sidestepping
the traditional methods. Those of us who would have been excluded from the Good Ole Boy system are suddenly finding ourselves at the helm of an entirely
new approach to film production. I, for one, believe that this upheaval may prove to be a boom for women.
Lily Keber lives and works in New Orleans. Her recent film, BAYOU MAHARAJAH: THE TRAGIC GENIUS OF JAMES BOOKER will have its New York premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on July 28