Fairness, Balance, and Funding Documentaries

May 28, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Three years ago when I began developing “Unintended Consequences” I knew financing was going to be a challenge. How do you raise money for any documentary and ensure that the integrity of the project is not diminished by the sources of financing? It is an age old problem, and with diminishing financing sources, and increased competition for funding, filmmakers are finding new and innovative ways of finding money. The issues facing documentary filmmakers are similar to those faced by news outlets owned by major corporations, governments, or individuals.

Documentary used to be considered one genre, but in actual fact there are many genres and styles that can fit within that heading now. While I enjoy many different types of films, and have made a few different styles of documentaries from docudrama, historical, cinema verite, and television reality based documentary, my main area of interest is making films that look at stories from different viewpoints in an effort to reveal essential truths. Truth depends on many factors, including who the viewer is and their worldview. We may believe that truth is immutable, but is it?

Many factors influence the making of a documentary including who the filmmaker is, who is interviewed, the questions asked, what questions are not asked, how the interview is cut together, and on, including financing.

I have pursued funding for “Unintended Consequences” from the energy industry, including oil sands and pipeline companies. The reason is that the future of oil sands development, as part of the greater global energy picture, is central to the story. Participation and buy-in by these companies is only one side of the story, but it is important to engage them in the story. Pursuing funding from oil companies has not been an easy route to take. We also intend to seek financing from companies in other parts of the energy sector including companies involved in the alternative energy sector.

About a year into the development of the project we brought George Gosbee on as an Executive Producer. George is an investment banker, former CEO of Tristone Capital, and now CEO of AltaCorp Capital. George has strong ties to the oil and gas industry, he is also an internationally recognized and respected businessman. He was brought on to help raise money, and he was going to be part of the Advisory Committee. As of January 2012, George is no longer associated with Intentional Media or “Unintended Consequences”. Did having George Gosbee as part of our team taint the project? Would his participation skew the final story? Certainly it could. Just having Michael Moore involved can alter perception of fairness, balance and truth.

Documentaries get funding from many different sources like governments, broadcasters, distributors, private investors, corporations, NGO’s, and now with crowdfunding, the audience. Taking money from anyone one of those sources has the potential to alter the filmmakers original vision, or in some cases enhance a specific agenda. The internet now allows broad distribution of smaller documentaries funded by special interests.

The key is sourcing funding and staying true to the authenticity and integrity of the story. How do we judge the value of a documentary produced by Greenpeace compared to one that is produced by an organization like the Heartland Institute? Is the story advocacy or does it present different viewpoints in a fair and transparent way? A documentary produced by FOX News will have a different spin than the same story produced by CNN. We are influenced by many things as storytellers and where the money comes from has the potential to shape the outcome of the story.

Making movies is expensive, so is there a way to get around the issue of having funders, or even producing partners pushing their objectives to unduly influence to the final documentary? Is there a way to solicit funds from energy companies or have someone like George Gosbee part of a production team, and still produce something that is complex, thoughtful, and compelling? It is not easy, and there are many things to be vigilant about, but here is how I plan to do it.

It begins with setting up procedures and processes that determine how material  is vetted and dealt with. The production will have a research team responsible for looking for at least two sources of information on a given topic covered in either the feature film, or in the web documentaries. Attempts will be made to interview people who share different perspectives.

We have already begun the process of setting up an Advisory Committee to advise on story content, accuracy, fairness, and balance. The Advisory Committee will be comprised of a wide selection of experts including: academics, First Nations, public policy experts, scientists, environmentalists, energy industry experts, economists, and general public. In order to guide the advice and decisions on content we have adopted the editorial guidelines used by PBS. PBS’s documentaries are respected around the world, and their guidelines are extensive covering issues like: accuracy, fairness, balance, objectivity, responsiveness to public, courage and controversy, distorted editing, deception, media manipulation, and manipulation of the audience.

Once our main website is up and running, these guidelines will be posted for anyone to see. We do not expect or want everyone to agree with the content in the film, again one of the main objectives it to inspire constant critical thinking, but we will be transparent and accountable for what is produced.

Ultimately, the only way to judge fairness, balance, and transparency is looking at the final product. Does it hold up to scrutiny? If it does not, then we have failed as filmmakers.

Who is involved in the production is important to know and question. It is just as important to consider that while we all have our viewpoints, and ideologies, being  critical thinkers means being able to examine those world views and beliefs, and sometimes even adjust where we sit.

When we choose our advisory committee we will search out experts who can bring diverse ideas and opinions, and we expect the debates within that committee to be vigourous. Having someone like George Gosbee on the Advisory Committee is as important as having someone like Dr Gurminder Singh of the International Institute of Green Technology. They will come from different backgrounds and philosophies, and each will contribute something valuable.

No system is perfect, but we ask you, the audience, to push us, ask the hard questions, and to participate in this story about the future of global energy that impacts us all.

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About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to Fairness, Balance, and Funding Documentaries

  1. Matt – energy is inextricably linked to water and food. You may want to include thought leaders in these two areas among your Advisory Committee.

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