Field of Vision’s Charlotte Cook on Criteria for New Partners, Preventing Staff Burnout and Their 2023 Sundance Slate
Last month, a letter from Field of Vision’s co-founder and executive director Charlotte Cook announced that the non-profit organization would be splitting from its parent company First Look Media and become an independent studio. Formed in 2015, Field of Vision has been behind documentaries like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, American Factory and Riotsville, USA among others. They’ve also had their hand in producing several films made by 25 New Faces of Film alums, with Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves and Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s King Coal premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
As part of the split, First Look Media has provided a sizable financial stipend to aid the organization as it searches for new partners and supporters. As a result, Field of Vision is continuing to offer grants and other means of material support to the filmmakers they work with, many of which are often first-time directors.
Several weeks after the announcement first broke, Cook hopped on a phone call with Filmmaker to discuss the future of the organization, its impressive stability during this transitional period and four Field of Vision films that are premiering at Sundance.
Filmmaker: So, the big news here is that Field of Vision is spinning off as its own independent studio, separating from First Look Media, which has been your parent company. You’ve previously spoken a bit about how both parties kind of came to this decision, but I’m curious about next steps when it comes to seeking out new partners? Is there any specific criteria you’re trying to meet or promising discussions you’re having?
Cook: For us, the key is to keep with our values and what we’re trying to do. Our real guide is to make sure that we’re creating a space for filmmakers to have the ability to be very creative, hone their art and expand—which is something that is rare in the film world. We have this ability to really put filmmakers first and create that space for artistic development. So that’s kind of the main criteria we’re looking for in partners.
And then there’s also just advocating for better practices in sales and with filmmakers. We support some other organizations as a way to collaborate to make that work. A key one is Filmmakers With Disabilities, which we’ve been supporting for the last couple years because we really do believe in increasing accessibility for people working in the field, and also for those who are watching the films and engaging with the work. That’s something that’s really important to us. So it’s twofold, right? There’s the artistic space, and then there’s also creating better practices in the field.
Filmmaker: Honestly, despite this transition, it appears that much of what your organization aims to do is being upheld. There were no layoffs on your team and you maintained your ability to fund films. Are there any current transitional challenges you’re working to overcome?
Cook: We had always hoped we would grow to a point where we could go independent. My main priority was that the staff were protected as well as our funding, with our grants, because we know that funding for filmmakers is so precious. Those were the two main things that had to be safe in order to be able to do this. We haven’t been overly vocal about this, but not for any other reason than we’re just not great at being very vocal about the machinations of what we do.
We promote all of our films, but people don’t always know how we’re working. A few years ago, we were getting on this track to be able to be much more self-sustaining, and we were able to start looking at investing in films. I was initially very hesitant to walk into that space, because I’m such a huge believer in the nonprofit space and the grant making space. But also we had to look at sustainability. So we were looking at how we could start investing in films without it affecting the grants, but also in a way that we felt still aligned with our values as a nonprofit. We didn’t wanna just go straight in and be like, “Okay, let’s make money off films!” So we first started doing that about three years ago, and it got to a point this year where we actually funded more than 50% of Field of Vision’s operating costs through revenue from films.
But also bringing If/Then in from Tribeca was such a no-brainer for us, because that program is so incredible. They’re totally aligned with us values-wise, but they have always been externally funded. It was a way for us to start that process. Rather than from the ground up and from scratch, we brought in a program that was really robust and helped us learn about the fundraising space.
The fact that we haven’t been overly vocal about that may seem like we’ve just come out of the gate and we’re doing it for the first time. We’ve actually been doing it for the last two to three years! We’re in a place where we feel really solid about continuing doing it in a way that won’t jeopardize the organization. When we actually launched Field of Vision, we did it in the same way. Our idea was not to launch and say, “We are going to do this.” We launched with a series of films to show people what we were already doing. We kind of approached this in the same way: By the time we’ve told everyone that we were independent, we did so from a position of stability and being able to grow. I didn’t want any of the filmmakers we work with, or even my team, to worry.
Filmmaker: You spoke earlier about collaborating to platform filmmakers with disabilities. On that note, we’re excited for d/Deaf filmmaker Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves, which is a Field of Vision film that will screen at Sundance. You also have a couple of other films that will premiere at Park City. Can you speak about these titles and how you hope audiences respond?
Cook: Absolutely. I mean, the films that we have at Sundance this year are very indicative of what we believe in and what we want to work on. It’s a really lovely group of films to be walking into the festival with, especially because they’re all by female-identified filmmakers. Three out of four of these films are also by first-time filmmakers, which is one of the things that Field of Vision is really committed to. It’s not something that we officially say, but we love working with first-time filmmakers that are developing their craft—which can, of course, mean second-time filmmakers, as well. We just love working with and finding burgeoning talent and helping them grow. It’s always nice to go on that journey with the filmmakers.
But this group of films is an especially great look at what Field of Vision does. All of these films are highly creative. They’re all from interesting perspectives. And the defining thing, at least to me, is that we work across fields. We work with journalistic films, which a lot of the time involves journalists who have never made films before. We obviously work kind of squarely in film and documentary, but then we also work in [the art world] as well. So a lot of our filmmakers either want to work in the art space or are artists who’ve never made a film.
For example, we have King Coal, and Elaine [McMillion Sheldon] is such a phenomenal filmmaker. She’s also an alumni, which shows how we work with people over multiple films. She’s just so brilliant, and I think this is such a special film.
And then you have The Tuba Thieves, of course. I always hope when people go and see a film that we’ve supported that they think, “I’ve never seen a story told like that before.” I think this is a perfect example of that. For me, it’s very special: My mother is hard of hearing, and I think Alison has kind of portrayed an experience of my mother’s own hearing that I would never have been able to experience without this film. Outside of that, it’s just such a great way to show that you can make a film about something very important in such a beautifully creative way that will really capture your attention and make you think.
Milisuthando we’ve been working on for a long time. We came in very early on that film. My God, what a talent [Milisuthando Bongela] is. It’s almost unbelievable that it’s her first film. It’s a huge subject and such a personal film. The fact that she’s been able to do something this creatively ambitious with her first film blows my mind. It’s unreal what she’s achieved with that film.
With Joonam, you have a multi-layered, multi-generational story about Iranian women. It’s such a beautiful film, especially considering what’s happening in Iran right now and the conversations we’re having in the field with Muslim filmmakers. Again, Sierra Urich is incredible. This is why I think working with first-time filmmakers is so amazing, because you’re blown away constantly.
Filmmaker: Is there anything else about the future of Field of Vision or this process in general that you’d like to address?
Cook: One thing I’d like to talk about is that when big changes happen with organizations, people always ask, “What’s new?” Or, “What more are you going to do?” And I think that we’re looking at it slightly differently, especially coming out of the pandemic. We’ve been able to think differently during that time. We’ve seen other companies focus on growth that is so hard to maintain. There comes a point where it’s like, “At what cost?”
Field of Vision has actually kept its budget relatively the same for the past couple of years, because we were always trying to get to that self-sustaining point. We just improved as we went along. We made our process more efficient. We were able to do more even though we’re a very small team. I’m always incredibly conscious of capacity. I never want to burn our team out. I want everyone to have a healthy working environment. So what we do is we constantly tweak and look at what we’re doing to make sure we’re still within our capacity, but just always improving. It’s less about growth for the sake of growth. It’s important in the field to be talking about, you know, “At what cost are we going to keep certain things?” I want Field of Vision to be this constantly-evolving place—in a way that’s sustainable for both the team and the organization— where filmmakers are always excited to work with us.