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The Washington region is the country’s third largest center of documentary filmmaking, helped by a high concentration of nonprofits, NGOs and government agencies making nonfiction films. This weekend, a documentary festival will celebrate the films and filmmakers that call the District home. We explore “A Decade of Docs in Our City,” and find out what it takes to get movies made and distributed here.
- Erica Ginsberg Co-Founder and Executive Director, Docs in Progress
- Casey Callister Chief Operating Officer, Garden Thieves Pictures
- Bill Scanlan Writer and producer, “The Bayou: DC’s Killer Joint” documentary; Producer, Host, C-Span
Celebrating D.C. Filmmaking
“The Bayou: D.C.’s Killer Joint”
“Ballou: Garden Thieves Pictures”
“Fate Of A Salesman: Eidolon Films”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMany people don't know it, but after New York and Los Angeles, D.C. is the nation's third largest documentary film center. Some have dubbed it Docuwood. And nowadays a film doesn't have to be a Hollywood blockbuster to find an audience. You can watch any number of independent documentary films on iTunes, Netflix or Hulu or purchase a DVD from a website. It's been a boon to filmmakers looking to get their work out there.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis weekend the "Decade of Docs in our City" festival celebrates D.C.'s documentary films. And joining us to discuss it is Erica Ginsberg, co-founder and executive director of Docs in Progress. That's a nonprofit incubator for emerging documentary filmmakers in our region. Erica Ginsberg, thank you for joining us.
MS. ERICA GINSBERGThank you for having me.
NNAMDICasey Callister is the chief operating officer of Garden Thieves Pictures. His film "Ballou" is a documentary about a local high school marching band screening as part of A Decade of Docs in our City. Casey, thank you for joining us.
MR. CASEY CALLISTERHey, it's great to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Bill Scanlan is writer and producer of the "Bayou: D.C.'s Killer Joint," also screening this weekend as part of A Decade of Docs in our City. Bill, thank you for joining us.
MR. BILL SCANLANIt's a privilege to be here. Thanks.
NNAMDIThe festival of A Decade of Docs in our City is this weekend, October 18 and 19. For more information and tickets you can go to our website. You'll find a link there at kojoshow.org. If you'd like to join this conversation right now, you can call 800-433-8850. Are you a documentary filmmaker in the district? What has been your experience here? Erica, tell us about the festival this weekend.
NNAMDISure. Well, this festival is really a culmination of ten years of work. Docs in Progress started in 2004 and we started with the goal of showing works in progress of documentary filmmakers so they could get feedback. And it kind of evolved and eventually became a nonprofit. So we've had really more than a thousand local and even filmmakers from outside of the D.C. area participate in our programs, including the two gentlemen you have here today.
GINSBERGAnd so this festival is really part of our year-long celebration of our tenth anniversary but really showcasing the films that have been made by filmmakers. And we're very excited this year because we partnered with the Our City film festival to co-present. So all of these films are not only made by local filmmakers but they're on local D.C. topics.
NNAMDIAnd all of the films were, in one way or another, connected with Docs in Progress. Remind us of what Docs in Progress is.
GINSBERGSure. We are a nonprofit that's focused on helping emerging documentary filmmakers and we define that anyone from the aspiring filmmaker, first-time filmmakers, even more experienced filmmakers who may be working on their first independent project. So the films we have here today, you know, or that are going to be here this weekend, some of them are made by first-time filmmakers and some of them were made by fairly experienced filmmakers. But they were work shopped through one of our Work in Progress screenings or peer pitches or an individual consultation.
NNAMDIBill, what did Docs in Progress mean for "The Bayou?"
SCANLANWell, as Erica mentioned, we screened our film there, I think, in 2005 when it was -- and that was the first showing of the film. I think it was about a five- to ten-minute portion of that film down at their old location at George Washington University. And I found it to be an absolutely essential part of getting this film to final production. In that there was feedback from people who are other filmmakers from other professionals and from an audience that looked at a film critically. As it turned out we -- the film changed a great deal from that showing in 2005 to its final version which aired on Maryland Public TV in 2013.
NNAMDIErica, how did D.C. get the nickname Docuwood?
GINSBERGI think it's -- again as you said, we're really a huge center for filmmaking, and particularly documentary filmmaking. And I think that's a lot because we have, you know, major research centers here. We have -- this is the headquarters of public television, of National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. And there's really, you know, just hundreds of filmmakers who are working on projects, you know, potentially for one of those venues or even working on projects on the side. They may have a completely different career but they're making documentary films because they want -- they have a story to tell and they want to get it out.
NNAMDIOne of the films featured in this festival "Fate of a Salesman" was produced by a company Eidolon Films that makes its bread and butter creating films for organizations based here in Washington, D.C. Correct?
GINSBERGYes, that's correct. And they -- really, it's a beautiful film. It'll be showing on Sunday as part of the shorts program. We're actually featuring three films in that segment that are dealing with changing neighborhoods. And that particular film focuses on H Street.
NNAMDIA men's clothing store that is closing after 60 years of business on H Street. It won a regional Emmy. It's screening this weekend as part of the festival. Casey, you run a company called Garden Thieves Pictures. Tell us a little bit about the work you do and why you think D.C. has become a documentary town.
CALLISTERSure. So after we had the success with the "Ballou" documentary about the Ballou high school marching band that is playing this Saturday, we turned that into a company that can help distribute documentary films and or other feature films. We help get them to the national stage. We bring them to all platforms digitally and even do worldwide sales.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you remember the Georgetown music club known as The Bayou? What do you remember about it? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Bill, "The Bayou: D.C.'s Killer Joint" is screening as a part of the festival.
SCANLANYes, it is.
SCANLANIt closes out the festival.
NNAMDIIt's about a venue in Georgetown that began life as a jazz and Dixieland club. Let's hear a clip.
ANNOUNCERThey were there for a good time, you know, and this was a club that had music and was loud music. And maybe you'd get a little action, you know. So you would take a cab to this place over in Georgetown, you know. It was kind of sinister and it's under that freeway, you know, and it's dark.
NNAMDIBill, it's my understanding that the Bayou was a coat and tie affair at one time but that did not mean that it was a tame joint.
SCANLANNo, it wasn't. And that was John Eaton, the famous D.C. pianist talking in that clip. And he was talking about the music, Dixieland and New Orleans jazz which it was loud, it was raucous, it was a crazy time. And that was a period of time that I really didn't know anything about when I started this film. I was -- I'm a rock 'n roller, you know, growing up in radio around here and I knew nothing about that. And uncovering that story of the Bayou was so worthwhile. We're glad we were able to tell that piece of it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're discussing A Decade of Docs in our City and inviting your calls. Do you think independent producers have an easier time now promoting and distributing their films? And if you have memories of the Bayou, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. The Bayou was successful right out of the gate, it's my understanding, but times change and playing Dixieland and jazz in the '60s didn't exactly jibe with the times. Can you talk about the huge cultural and musical shift at that time and what it meant for the Bayou?
SCANLANWell, it meant everything because the audience that attended the Bayou that was -- were jazz fans, that was fading away, the interest in jazz or Dixieland jazz. And rock 'n roll had -- the Beatles had just hit the shores of the U.S. in 1964. The club converted to rock 'n roll in 1965. And it certainly was the largest venue at the time. One of the first to be offering live rock 'n roll in the nation's capitol.
NNAMDIGeorgetown, hard to imagine, became almost overnight a rock 'n roll Mecca in the city. And a number of bands played the Bayou before anyone really knew who they were, including an unknown little group from Ireland known as U2. Who else played there?
SCANLANThat's right. They played their second show in the U.S. there. The band Foreigner played their very first club date ever at the Bayou. Bands like Pat Benatar made their first appearance there. All sorts of national bands got their start there. Dave Matthews is one that stands out. He was really -- the Dave Mathews Band was one of the house bands at the Bayou for a portion of the '90s.
NNAMDIBy the way, you can find trailers for all the films we're discussing at our website kojoshow.org. We're talking about A Decade of Docs in Our City. What I find interesting is that the Bayou managed to span such a range of music across the decades, it took some time to get your film "The Bayou" made. And in that time social media came along.
NNAMDIWhat did that mean for the film?
SCANLANIt did. We started working on this film in the close of the '90s, 1998. And for any number of reasons my production partners and I -- life interferes with making documentary films. So, you know, we set it aside for a while. And by the time we resumed producing it again in the mid 2000s, things had changed. We had the arrival of Google and You Tube and Facebook. And all of a sudden these connections to these stories, to video and other artifacts and other resources became available.
NNAMDIThat facilitated the completion of "The Bayou."
SCANLANIt did, it did. And it changed really -- probably the arc of the story would've been an entirely different film, I think, if we had finished this in the early 2000s shortly after the club's closing.
NNAMDISixteen years in the making or so.
SCANLANIt was -- yeah, well, yeah, about that.
NNAMDIYou started making it about the same time I came to this station.
NNAMDI"The Bayou." Now you can see it at A Decade of Docs in Our City. That's this weekend, October 18 and 19. For more information and tickets you can find a link on our website, kojoshow.org. If you have questions or comments, give us a call. We're going to be taking a short break but the phone lines will be open at 800-433-8850. Are you a documentary filmmaker in the district? What's been your experience here? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the documentary festival A Decade of Docs in Our City. It's this weekend, October 18 and 19. If you're looking for more information about it or tickets, you can find a link at our website kojoshow.org. Joining us in studio is Erica Ginsberg, co-founder and executive director of Docs in Progress. That's a nonprofit incubator for emerging documentary filmmakers in our region.
NNAMDIBill Scanlan is writer and producer of "The Bayou: D.C.'s Killer Joint," also screening this weekend as a part of the festival. And Casey Callister is the chief operating officer of Garden Thieves Pictures. His film "Ballou" is a documentary about a local high school marching band screening as part of the festival. You too can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Casey, distribution is something that's changing dramatically. Can you talk about the production you're working on right now and what you're doing that's different for the release that could be a template for others?
CALLISTERWe're actually working with several films. We had one come out yesterday but what we focus on is the digital distribution, taking advantage of the new media and new media outlets because it is changing rapidly. You know, it hasn't been but a couple years of Netflix streaming to change the entire universe of how we get movies to our house -- our homes. And we're now taking advantage of that.
CALLISTERAnd one of the things that we're seeing is that nonprofits are getting out there and producing their own films and then using that to really get their message across. And because they can distribute directly now and/or with our help or anybody's help from a distribution standpoint, can get the message out quickly through social networking and worldwide.
NNAMDIHas this changed in how we consume media? Has this change meant, for independent films, the increasing number of possible platforms -- has it meant the democratization, if you will, of film distribution?
CALLISTERA little bit. But you have to remember that while you're on an iTunes or a Netflix you're also sitting there right next to all the Hollywood films that come with hundreds of millions of dollars of promotion. And in some ways their films are placed better on those platforms.
NNAMDII was about to say, you were among the first to jump on new possibilities including delivering to iTunes.
CALLISTERThat's right. One of the things with "Ballou," it was one of the first couple hundred documentaries that were on iTunes. And so we saw some first-mover advantage of being there first and getting an audience to come. Now there's thousands and thousands almost every day.
NNAMDIYeah, how do you stand out among all the other films now available on Hulu or Roku or Netflix, especially when there's some big name documentaries featured there that tend to be highlighted? How do you stand out?
CALLISTERWell, you really need to strategize. I always talk about, with the filmmakers, to distribute before you shoot. So before you even start your documentary film, figure out what your distribution strategy is and how you're going to target that core audience.
SCANLANWell, on that issue, Kojo...
SCANLAN...we had -- for "The Bayou" we had an agreement from Maryland Public TV early on that they would premier the film. This was back in the mid 2000s. So we knew that channel at least and we worked -- we worked ourselves to get it on some 60 other stations across the country. It's just now we're putting it on DVD. So that will be -- but the whole idea of distribution channel, I mean, you're right about figuring out where it's going to air first and then how you're going to get it out there.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Kathryn in Bethesda, Md. Kathryn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHRYNThank you. I'm in the final actually 18 hours of a Kickstarter campaign to fund a very short film. We're calling it a short documentary. But when you talk about short docs, how long do you mean and what kind of an audience is there for that? I mean, ours is going to be, you know, something like 10 minutes long and tells the story of three Japanese war brides told by their daughters. And it's meant to represent obviously the bigger community of war brides.
KATHRYNBut we don't know about the length and we've organized the shoot and the story. But, you know, we don't know in the end. I mean, it may be -- we don't want it to be unnecessarily long but we may end up with something that's like 10, 15 minutes. And does that have an audience and where do you take a film like that?
GINSBERGYeah, I think that shorts often get a short shrift, no pun intended. But, you know, I think they're really -- with every film what I advise filmmakers is you need to make it the length it needs to be. I think a lot of filmmakers think, you know, I have to worry about distribution, I have to worry about festivals. But, you know, if your film fits a certain length and you know, you know, kind of -- and can strategize, as Casey said, who your audience is, there is an audience for shorts.
GINSBERGDistribution may be more of a challenge. I'm not sure if Garden Thieves -- how much you're working with shorts but there are lots of other ways to get your films out there, whether it's through festival or online. You know, sometimes groupings of similar themed films can even be, you know, brought together. So there definitely is but my main advice is just make it as long as you need to.
NNAMDICasey, care to weigh in?
CALLISTERSure. Shorts have been very difficult to distribute and define the audience only because people are used to watching a program that's 30 minutes, a program that's an hour, a movie that's an hour-and-a-half. We did actually have some success with -- we did a series called "CINELAN Three-Minute Shorts" and I produced, I believe, about seven of them. And they were very specific to topics and were part of a bigger program. And I think that that may be the model for future shorts is that we make them part of a series or a program where they add up to what we're used to seeing in terms of length. And it becomes a program into itself. But they can be separate little films on their own.
NNAMDIKathryn, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. We've been talking about "Ballou." Let's talk about what "Ballou" is about. It's from the -- 2008 and it's about the Ballou High School marching band here in Washington. Let's listen to a bit from the film.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEThis is where I went to school, where I graduated from. But I knew I wasn't done so it's one of the reasons why I was determined to come back.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2...because our kids are -- they are suffering. They are in need of someone to just be there.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALEThe biggest obstacle for students to overcome is just basically all the negative energy and negative opinions and comments because there's so many people wanting to bring you down. You have to just believe that you can just get out of this because my goal is just basically to get out of D.C.
NNAMDICasey, tell us a little bit more about "Ballou."
CALLISTERSure. It follows the Ballou High School marching band with their director Darrell Watson and his award-winning, you know, nationally-recognized band from southeast D.C. We followed them through one school year and their journey to the national band competition. And since the film's been out, it played on Black Entertainment Television, we screened it at the White House, Mr. Watson was on the Ellen DeGeneres show eight times. They've gone to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. They've gone to the Rose Bowl Parade with the help of Old Navy.
CALLISTERAnd I know that after we screened it at the White House, somehow a million dollars worth of brand new instruments made their way to all the classrooms around D.C. in every single school at every single level.
NNAMDII'd like to play a little more of the Ballou High School marching band. This time you'll hear them playing so you get an idea of the talent that we're talking about.
NNAMDII see they go into a little go-go right there.
CALLISTERThat's "Pork and Beans." That's a local song.
NNAMDIHaving seen this band around town over the years, I can understand why you were so inspired by it.
NNAMDIHere now is Ray in Salisbury, Md. Ray, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RAYYeah, thanks, Kojo for taking the call. Look, there is a story out there on Eva Cassidy who was a D.C. legend, I think. And I think a very compelling one. Some of that stuff has already been done. It's on -- if you go to YouTube and you look up Eva Cassidy, a lot of stuff has been done. So -- but I think there's an idea for a great documentary.
NNAMDIAnd I'm sure a lot of people, even as we speak, are pondering how they can make an Eva Cassidy documentary. Do you know anymore than I do, Erica Ginsberg?
GINSBERGI'm not aware. Bill may know more about that. But one thing I'll say is if anybody's interested in making an Ava (sic) Cassidy documentary or any other, I mean, our motto is really we challenge you to make the film instead of, you know, kind of saying, this would be a great idea for somebody to do. What we're really about is giving people the tools so that you can actually make your own documentaries about whatever topic interests you.
SCANLANWell, Kojo, you mentioned go-go just a moment ago. The godfather of go-go Chuck Brown was on stage at the Bayou at Eva Cassidy's last performance which was in October -- September of 1996.
NNAMDIThey made an album together.
SCANLANAnd -- they did and that was her last performance, which we didn't even uncover until the mid 2000s. We finally were able to stitch together a video from that night and that is one of the culminating moments in our film. I don't know if her family's making a documentary but they certainly were receptive and cooperative with us in putting that story into the Bayou documentary.
NNAMDIAnd Chuck Brown told me in an interview that that album he made with Eva Cassidy was the last time he went into a studio for 15 years before he made another album. Because every time he would attempt to do it, the memory would cause him to become so overcome with emotion that he couldn't do it again for 15 years. Erica, what are some of the other highlights of films that are screening this weekend as part of the festival?
GINSBERGWell, we have -- as I said before we've got a couple of shorts programs. So in addition to the one "The Fate of a Salesman" is showing, and we're doing a shorts program that's all about teachers. And that will actually include a new film. Most of the films that we're showing are films that have been made, have been distributed or broadcast. But this film "Transcending Surgeon" by Sam Hampton is a film about Dr. Eddy Cornwell who is the top trauma surgeon at Howard University. And so this will actually be its D.C. premier.
NNAMDIHusband and wife production team.
GINSBERGExactly. Exactly. And Sam actually is one of the co-founders of Docs in Progress along with me and Adele Schmidt. So this is really a nice way to sort of celebrate, you know, not only all of the filmmakers that we've helped along but even someone who, you know, helped us become an organization.
NNAMDIYou've got "Black Broadway on U." What's that all about?
GINSBERGThat is part -- it's going to be in the same program with "Fate of a Salesman" and another film called "Chinatown." And this is a film by Shalay Hainesworth (sp?) which is very interesting. It's actually part of a trans media project but will be showing a short piece from that that's really looking at kind of the U Street corridor and particularly in its heyday where it really was considered the Black Broadway. It kind of predated Harlem in that way. And her film is a really nice way of kind of going deeper into that story beyond kind of the surface that we know. It's all about Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey but really talking to people who were, you know, of that era.
NNAMDIAnd from a slightly more modern era, you're also screening "The Legend of Cool Disco Dan."
GINSBERGYes. This should be a very fun screening on Saturday night. This is a film which really has, you know, a big following in this area because I think many of us certainly remember the days of taking the Redline and seeing all of the tags of Cool Disco Dan. And what I love about this film is it's about him but it's really about Washington, D.C. and what it was like in the '80s in every level, whether it's political, musical, cultural.
NNAMDII understand next year you plan to expand the festival and partner with D.C. public libraries.
GINSBERGYes. Well, Docs in Progress is curetting the festival this year but the Our City festival is going to be coming back next year where they'll actually be soliciting new works. And it's going to be a program with the D.C. public libraries. And it's run by Kendra Rubinfeld. And it will be expanding. So it will not only be film but also literature and music.
NNAMDIErica Ginsberg is co-founder and executive director of Docs in Progress. It's a nonprofit incubator for emerging documentary filmmakers in our region. Thank you for joining us. Casey Callister is the chief operating officer of Garden Thieves Pictures. His film "Ballou" is a documentary about a local high school marching band, Screening as part of A Decade of Docs in Our City. Casey, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIBill Scanlan is a writer and producer of "The Bayou: D.C.'s Killer Joint" also screening this weekend as part of the festival. Thank you for joining us, Bill.
SCANLANI really enjoyed it. Thank you.
NNAMDIThe festival is this weekend. For more information and tickets we've got a link at our website kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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