Now independent producers have role in funding

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Independent Television Service (ITVS) announced this week its first round of 25 grants to independent TV producers.

The projects will bring to the tube an array of programs about American minorities, ethnic and otherwise, that are seldom featured on television — Indian activists, a Black Panther, elderly couples, gay people in the South and Asian immigrants.

John SchottIncluded among the productions will be animated shorts, comedies and historical programs about Hawaii, Margaret Sanger’s work in birth control and the Columbus voyage. (A full list, with ITVS’ descriptions, follows this article.)

The announcement is a landmark in a long struggle for public TV producers outside of stations to gain an official place in program funding decisions. CPB bankrolled the service under a 1988 congressional mandate but long negotiations between it and the indies delayed a final contract signing until last summer (story at right).

The commitments, totalling $3 million, result from ITVS’ first “open call” solicitation for proposals of all sorts of programs. The CPB-funded service, based in St. Paul, Minn., has $6 million a year to spend on production grants and program packaging.

The open call turned out 2,000 proposals from independent video producers. About 200 were screened by 14 regional “pre-panels” at 13 sites around the country — some with specialties in such genres as drama and children’s programs. An 11-member final panel made the funding decisions.

Unlike most funders of public TV programs, ITVS aims to give producers full funding for approved projects. “The idea here is that independents spend two, three, four or five years trying to fund a program,” says ITVS Executive Director John Schott, “and end up with a third or half of the budget needed … and the film is never what it should be.”

Amounts of the new grants ranged from $300,000 for the full cost of a production to less than $30,000 to permit a producer to finish a partially completed work.

Next: four more RFPs

ITVS will issue four additional solicitations in February or March to begin its “focused” program initiatives, says Schott. The four solicitations will seek:

  • programs of, by and for teenagers — “The idea is to make a limited series around the concept of inviting teenagers — I say this half-jokingly — to take over TV for an hour,” says Schott. The series responds to the finding that TV generally provides very little specially made for teenagers, he says.
  • a series about the country’s range of political visions. ITVS is considering putting together a set of 12 half-hour interviews tentatively called Right, Left and Beyond. Subjects of the interviews would be thinkers “who are projecting futures not normally reflected in the mass media,” says Schott. Each program would be made by a different producer but aired in a 60-minute pair with another.
  • one or more programs about AIDS — Schott says ITVS staffers will consult with AIDS-related groups this week about ways TV could bring together the various subgroups especially concerned with the disease.
  • an innovative dramatic series based on original fiction — Schott says the plan is to invite “three of the smartest people” ITVS can find to develop a specific concept for a dramatic series, which will be neither a “hodgepodge” nor a series of movies.

ITVS expects to spend two-thirds of its funds on focused initiatives such as these, instead of open calls. Because of ITVS’ delayed opening, it will have four years’ CPB money to spend over two years. For the four fiscal years, 1990-93, ITVS plans to hand out $16 million for focused initiatives and $8 million in open calls, according an official paper.

Where will programs go?

Only a few of the projects that received the first ITVS grants are far enough along to be completed by spring, according to Schott. Most, he figures, will be ready for programmers to consider by next fall.

Schott expects that some will be made available at no cost for use in major PTV series for which they are appropriate. “We want to do everything we can to support and keep vital the series that have a demonstrated commitment to independent works,” he says.

ITVS will buy satellite time to distribute any of its programs that aren’t accepted by PBS or other distributors, he says.

Because so many projects in the first batch have ethnic subject matter, Schott sees an opportunity to pull together “a very coherent, exciting limited series.”

However, supporting minority productions was not a special mandate of the panel that chose the grantees, he says.

“We want to move past the point of view when the fact of a producer being a person of color is the thing one thinks about first,” Schott says. “I think it’s about talent, imagination, commitment to a subject matter — those are really the bases on which they were chosen, in my view.”

ITVS wants to give experience to producers who are new to public TV, Schott says. “Public television in general has not thought of itself as an ecology, but too frequently has gone back to producers who are tried and true.”

Projects supported in first ITVS open call

Here are the grantees, project titles, grant amounts, and ITVS’ descriptions of the producers and projects:

Lynn Smith, “Sandburg’s Arithmetic,” $37,512 — Lynn Smith is an award-winning animator whose work has been seen on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and PBS. “Sandburg’s Arithmetic” is a lively animated film for children inspired by Carl Sandburg’s poem “Arithmetic.”

Paul Kwan, “Anatomy of a Springroll,” $75,358 — Paul Kwan is a multimedia artist whose interdisciplinary work has shown in theatrical venues from La MaMa to the Asian American Playwrights’ Festival. In “Anatomy of a Springroll,” Paul Kwan searches for the secret to his mother’s spring roll recipe, using the metaphor of food to explore Southeast Asian culture.

Ana Maria Garcia and Eduardo Aguiar, “Endangered Species: The Toxic Poisoning of Communities of Color,” $152,684 — Ana Maria Garcia co-founded the Festival Cine San Juan in Puerto Rico and recently completed a film in AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women. Eduardo Aguiar is former series producer for the WGBH series La Plaza. Three out of every five African Americans and Latinos are exposed to toxic waste. The film will examine this crisis and efforts to counteract it.

Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto, “Little Baka Girl,” $26,795 — Helen Lee’s first film, “Sally’s Beauty Spot,” has gained an international profile and won a juror’s award at the Black Maria Film Festival. Kerri Sakamoto is a fiction writer and producer of short films. In “Little Baka Girl,” a Japanese-American and a recent Korean immigrant find romance, conflict and solace as they grapple with their Asian heritage.

David Collier, “For Better or for Worse,” $34,140 — David Collier is an independent producer who has worked on numerous documentaries for PBS, including “The Search for Excellence” and “The New American Revolution.” “For Better or for Worse” is a funny, touching look at five elderly couples who have each been together 50 years or longer.

Joanna Priestley, “Aging Grace,” $38,837 — Joanna Priestley is an award-winning animator whose work has received top honors at over 80 film festivals. “Aging Grace” is a humorous animated film about the pains and pleasures of becoming middle-aged.

Kathe Sandler, “A Question of Color,” $100,000 — Kathe Sandler is completing “The Friends,” an adaptation of Rosa Guy’s award-winning novel, through the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. “A Question of Color” looks at “color consciousness” among African Americans and a value system based on physical features.

Veronica Soul, “Ghost Story,” $65,425 — Veronica Soul’s films have screened internationally at festivals and galleries and have received numerous awards. “Ghost Story” is a short film about time and memory that moves between the past and present of a Chinese immigrant family.

Victor Masayesva Jr., “Imagining Indians,” $297,000 — Victor Masayesva Jr. is a Hopi producer whose works have received international acclaim, including a Gold Hugo (Chicago International Film Festival) and been broadcast on German and Spanish television. “Imagining Indians” will look at how Native Americans have been “imagined” in popular American media.

The Wooster Group, “White Homeland Commando,” $55,669 — The Wooster Group is a critically acclaimed experimental theater company whose work has been shown on public television and performed worldwide. Its members include Elizabeth LeCompte, Willem Defoe and others. “White Homeland Commando” is a take-off on a TV cop show in which a special unit of the police force infiltrates a white supremacist organization.

Barbara Abrash and Esther Katz, “A Public Nuisance: Margaret Sanger and the Brownsville Clinic,” $16,500 — Barbara Abrash is an independent producer whose films have shown on American Experience on PBS and on Great Britain’s Channel 4. Esther Katz is a professor at New York University. “A Public Nuisance” documents early public debates over birth control in the 1920s, and the power of media to shape those views.

Ela Troyano, “Once Upon a Time … ” $100,000 — Ela Troyano’s films have shown in festivals and on public television in the U.S. and abroad. “Once Upon a Time…” is a dramatic film exploring relationships between young Latinos and Latinas whose culture straddles New York and the Caribbean.

Marlon T. Riggs, “Black Is … Black Ain’t,” $245,000 — Marlon T. Riggs produced the Emmy-winning “Ethnic Notions” and the internationally acclaimed “Tongues Untied,” which both aired nationally on PBS. He recently completed “Color Adjustment,” a documentary about black representation in prime-time entertainment television. “Black Is … Black Ain’t” is a documentary exploring what the various meanings of “blackness” are to African Americans.

Faith Hubley, “Tall Time Tales,” $77,375 — Three-time Academy Award-winning animator Faith Hubley is renowned world-wide for innovative work pioneered with her late husband, John Hubley. “Tall Time Tales” is a light-hearted, animated short that sheds light on the many faces of time.

Ellen Spiro, “Out Here,” $78,604 — Ellen Spiro is a southerner and producer of the award-winning video “DiAna’s Hair Ego: AIDS Info Up Front.” “Out Here” will look at southern gay and Lesbian culture through eccentric and traditional personalities, from Tennessee Williams and Bessie Smith to contemporary southerners.

Gary Soto, “The Pool Party,” $65,000 — Gary Soto is an award-winning Chicano writer and author of books for Latino children. “The Pool Party” is his second film … a light-hearted story of a Chicano boy who makes a splash at a pool party.

Sam Pollard, Peter Miller and John Valadez, “Citizen Dhoruba,” $149,758 — Sam Pollard has edited feature films for Spike Lee, and produced and directed PBS documentaries, including episodes of Eyes on the Prize. Peter Miller has worked on “Songs of the Civil War” (Ken Burns), “American Dream” (Barbara Kopple) and other documentaries. John Valadez has worked on several documentaries and is making his directorial debut with this film. “Citizen Dhoruba” tells the story of a former Black Panther who was falsely accused of a crime and served 19 years until new evidence secured his recent release.

Ruth Peyser, “Go to Hell!” $30,250 — Ruth Peyser was born and educated in Australia. She has been an award-winning animator, graphic designer and illustrator for nearly 15 years. “Go to Hell!” is an animated short in which a woman trips and falls into a strange dream that ends up being a little too close to reality.

Tony Cokes, “Love, Labor, Language,” $39,210 — Tony Cokes is a videomaker and sculptor whose work has won awards and international acclaim, from the Whitney Biennial to the Berlin International Black Cinema Festival. “Love, Labor, Language” is a portrait of the artist’s mother, whose experiences as a domestic, a public school maid and a food service worker inspire an imaginative inquiry into love, work, family and money.

Christine Chang, “Be Good, My Children,” $29,872 — Christine Chang is a first-generation Korean-American and independent filmmaker who currently works in high-definition television. This drama about a Korean immigrant family centers on the conflict between a daughter who dreams of glamor and her disapproving mother.

Clay Walker, “Post No Bills,” $92,155 — Clay Walker is an emerging filmmaker who has worked with innovative independent filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Gorin, Raul Ruiz and others. “Post No Bills” follows the process of creating political street art by focusing on noted poster artist Robbie Conal.

Puhipau and Joan Lander, “An Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation,” $294,936 — Puhipau is a Native Hawaiian and independent producer whose works have shown in video and film festivals in the U.S. and abroad and on Hawaiian public, cable and commercial television. Joan Lander is an independent producer whose documentaries on Native Hawaiians are distributed worldwide. “An Act of War” portrays the 1893 American overthrow of Hawaii from a Native Hawaiian perspective.

Shu Lea Cheang, “For Whom the Air Waves,” $300,000 — Shu Lea Cheang is a film and video artist whose work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum, the AFI Video Festival and other festivals, and broadcast on public television. “For Whom the Air Waves” is a dark comedy that brings quirky characters together in a sushi restaurant when an environmental crisis erupts. The screenplay is by Jessica Hagedorn, whose recent novel was nominated for a National Book Award.

Suzie Baer, “Warrior: The Case of Leonard Peltier,” $50,000 — Suzie Baer is an emerging producer who has worked on independent features, music videos and industrial videos. “Warrior” documents the case of incarcerated Native American activist Leonard Peltier.

Edin Velez, “Memory of Fire,” $197,955 — Edin Velez is a critically acclaimed video artist whose work has shown internationally and been broadcast on local public television stations and on Alive from Off Center. He is a past winner of the AFI Maya Deren Award. “Memory of Fire” is a stylistically rich narrative reassessing the “discovery” of the New World by Columbus.


House committee okays amendment that will create ITVS, 1988.

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