Back to selection

The Power of the Purse

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

At their fourth floor office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin are preparing for the release of their second documentary feature, Citizen Koch. Outside their window is the neighborhood’s famous polluted canal but also a new Whole Foods that wasn’t there just one year ago. Gowanus, with its Superfund cleanup site, is a “neighborhood in transition,” but one that urban planners and TEDx speakers hope will be gentrification done right, retaining artists, artisans and small businesses amidst the fancy restaurants and incoming homeowners. A recent New York Times profile said Gowanus “seems poised to exist as an urban utopia.”

Inside, however, Deal and Lessin are at work on the less glamorous work — social media, grassroots marketing, delivery — of a distribution plan that is 100% new school. They’ve partnered with Variance for the theatrical, are using Tugg to serve smaller cities and non-theatrical, are selling direct-to-fan via the online platform VHX, and have sold home video to MPI.

There’s just one missing piece: broadcast — ironically, the only outlet that seemed certain upon the start of post-production, two years ago.

That broadcast commitment was from ITVS, the Independent Television Service. Created by Congressional mandate in 1988, ITVS was charged with funding and offering PBS affiliates work that (per the organization’s mission statement) “takes creative risks, sparks public dialogue, and gives voice to underserved communities.” “In an era of expanding commercial use of the Internet and consolidation of media ownership, a free public media sector is critical to an open and informed society,” reads the ITVS website. ITVS has funded dozens of truly important films, including, in recent years, Let the Fire Burn, How to Survive a Plague and My Country, My Country.

Set in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, Citizen Koch examines the effect on our electoral system of monies from wealthy political donors such as the conservative Koch brothers. The setting is the failed recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose busting of public sector unions pit local activists seeking to maintain their union bargaining power against outside conservative funders trying to make Walker’s action a model for other states. The Walker tale is counterpointed in the film by the story of the quixotic 2012 presidential candidacy of Republican former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who refused to take large-dollar private donations and saw his campaign fizzle out.

Filled with the voices of, as Deal says, “salt-of-the-earth Republicans,” Citizen Koch would seem to be the kind of populist documentary that could connect across the nation with those underserved communities.

But in spring 2013, following a rough cut screening at ITVS’s offices and then a Sundance premiere, Citizen Koch was dropped by the funder, leaving its filmmakers with a $200,000 hole in their budget. The reason, charge Deal and Lessin — and argued by a widely read May 20, 2013 New Yorker piece by Jane Mayer titled “A Word from Our Sponsor” — was ITVS’s fear of roiling billionaire energy industrialist David Koch, of Koch Industries, who sat on the board of trustees of PBS station WNET, the likely New York broadcast home for the film. Mayer suggests that Koch cancelled a large contribution to WNET over his displeasure with another PBS broadcast, Alex Gibney’s critical documentary Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, and that PBS officials were nervous about another film on the horizon so prominently targeting him.

Over the past year, the documentary world drama over the Citizen Koch story has threatened to overshadow the content of the film itself even as it has also, ironically, seemed a reflection of it. Said Deal in the first of three interviews conducted over the course of nine months, “A film about the money of some of the wealthiest Americans drowning out the voices of the rest of us — that should find a home on PBS. And we are shocked that because of those very same individuals, we are not getting an air date.”

That irony is sobering, but also galvanizing — indeed, the Citizen Koch controversy has fired up activists and regular viewers, those who look to independent documentary to challenge existing power structures and motivate their own political engagement. The question it leaves them with is an increasingly relevant one following not just further court decisions, such as the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, but also developments involving net neutrality and the role of tech giants in determining what we watch and read. Specifically, can any independent communication today remain outside the shadow of corporate influence?

Deal and Lessin began Citizen Koch in early 2011, shooting for almost a year before approaching ITVS Vice President Claire Aguilar in October 2011 seeking postproduction support. As outlined by the filmmakers in interviews as well as in a timeline sent to ITVS by their attorneys on June 28, 2013, and shared with Filmmaker, Deal and Lessin followed up on Aguilar’s interest by submitting a six-minute pitch reel in February 2012 with the working title “Citizen Corp.” The reel mentions David Koch four times and identifies him onscreen as a “billionaire extremist.”

Within weeks the project was effectively green lit as an ITVS Commission. ITVS projects are submitted either through one of its “standing initiatives,” including Open Call, or as discretionary Commissioned Funding. (“Commissioned Funding is not a grant,” reads the ITVS guidelines. “Applicants receive funding in the form of a development agreement or production agreement that assigns ITVS certain important rights over the project during the term of the contract. The independent producer maintains creative, editoral and financial control of the project, owns the copyright to the program. […] In exchange for funding and services, the producer grants ITVS the exclusive U.S. television broadcast rights for a determined period of seven years.”)

ITVS’s $150,000 offer to Citizen Koch, with an additional $50,000 upon rough cut submission, also included a first-look option for air on the Emmy Award-winning series, Independent Lens, which is jointly curated by ITVS and PBS.

“This was our first experience with ITVS, and frankly, everything was great,” Lessin remembers. “We were thrilled — it was $200,000, but what was most important to us was the possibility of a public broadcast.”

On an April 16, 2012, conference call, that commitment was reaffirmed, with Aguilar informing the filmmakers that “they were free to tell other funders that the film had been ‘recommended for funding by ITVS and contracting is imminent.’” A broadcast date of fall 2014 was discussed.

Lessin remembers few conversations about the film’s content in these early dealings with ITVS. “They told us [the film] went through a series of reviews,” she says. “They didn’t really grill us in any way about the editorial content when we presented the synopsis. All the questions had to do with feasibility and logistics, and what [expenses] ITVS would and would not fund.”

In June and October 2012, respectively, Deal and Lessin’s evolving show reels were presented twice in San Francisco — the first time at an ITVS orientation for funded projects and the second time at Good Pitch, a funding conference that matches socially relevant documentary projects with prospective funders. At Good Pitch, Aguilar sat at the table with the filmmakers as they presented the project.

A rough cut was shown to ITVS in their offices the day after Good Pitch. Deal remembers the reaction to the rough cut screening as positive. “We got applause for having cast the characters really well,” he says. “This is a complicated political issue, and we did it in a way that wasn’t partisan because we did it with Republicans — working-class Republican voices you generally don’t really hear that much from except [when they are] hyper-politicized, like in the Tea Party. Certainty you don’t see them on PBS that much. And so they were really happy with that.”

The ITVS screening was also the first where the film’s working title had been changed from “Citizen Corp” to Citizen Koch. That title had been one of many bandied about, say the filmmakers, and it spoke directly to the film’s theme of private money and public policy. And while they say they worried for a moment that some older viewers would think it referred to the former New York City mayor — indeed, “Citizen Koch” was the title of Ed Koch’s biography — it seemed to them the best option. (“‘Corp’ looked too much like the word “corpse,” says Lessin.)

The rough cut screening occurred more than half a year after the film’s green lighting by ITVS, but the filmmakers hadn’t received any of their funding yet as their contract was still being negotiated. Explains Lessin, “[The contract] was not only a funding agreement and [broadcast] license — they have the right to approve every market, territory, promotional use and exhibition of the film.” Those approval rights concerned the filmmakers, who always hoped for wider theatrical distribution for their film. “We expressed some concern, and they were really eager to satisfy us,” Deal says. “They said we couldn’t modify the contract because it was public money, but they wanted us to feel comfortable. We got a lengthy letter from Lois [Vossen, Independent Lens senior series producer], assuring us that they were excited about the broadcast window but also encouraging us to explore [other] means of distribution.” “Particularly theatrical,” Lessin adds.

Another clause created delay. “The only reason we didn’t sign the contract in early November,” Lessin says, “is that every piece of video used in the film had to be licensed. We asked them to make an exception to allow fair use, and they were drafting that out.”

Fair use refers to the ability to include without permission copyrighted material in a larger work that is of educational, political or satiric value. Citizen Koch is full of news footage and campaign commercials, much of it from sources who might not be willing to license it affordably or even at all. Lessin remembers, “They said to us, ‘[The licensing requirement] is a standard clause, but once we’ve had the chance to review the clips, it’ll be okay.’ I said, ‘We can’t sign the contract because we know right now we have a lot of fair use stuff in the film. We need to deal with this language.’” (Asked to clarify their fair use policy, ITVS responded by email: “All films are able to use fair use footage in production.”)

Madison, Wisconsin, State Capitol, February 2011

Madison, Wisconsin, State Capitol, February 2011

Despite the prolonged contractual process, during which the film’s cash flow kept getting revised forward, Deal says relations with ITVS were “enthusiastic and positive.” The first “discordant note,” Lessin says, occurred in late November 2012, when ITVS was notified that the film had gotten into Sundance and that Deal and Lessin had formally decided on the title Citizen Koch. The filmmakers had been working on cutting down their rough cut and told ITVS they’d send the latest version in a couple of days. “They said, ‘No, we need it now,” Lessin recalls. “My first thought was, oh, maybe they want to give us more money.” The filmmakers uploaded a Vimeo link and then, Lessin says, “We heard, ‘Heads up, there might be an issue. They scheduled a conference call that Friday [Nov. 30] between ITVS Head of Production Richard O’Connell and our production manager Arash Hoda.” “It was clearly a very uncomfortable call from their perspective,” Deal says. “Essentially they conveyed to us that the title was extremely problematic, internally, and they were speaking on behalf of ITVS after extensive meetings and people viewing the film.” The filmmakers recall O’Connell dubbing the film “unbroadcast-able” with its title and stating that he was representing the views of ITVS’s senior management, including president Sally Jo Fifer.

“They said, ‘You’ve got to change the title,” Lessin says. “I said, ‘That ship has already sailed. I’m sure the [Sundance program guide deadline] has already passed.’” But while Lessin says the filmmakers were open to a title change, their real concern was possible “editorial changes” also mentioned on the call. “We said we needed to know what the editorial changes were,” she says. “Then, while I was having this conversation, I did a Google search of ‘Koch’ and ‘PBS.’ It only took one search to find out that David Koch was on the board of trustees of WNET and WGBH and was a donor. So I asked them point blank, ‘Does this have anything to do with Alex Gibney’s [Park Avenue] film,’ which Carl and I had just seen a week earlier. What we were told was that there was ‘a climate right now at PBS that is going to find the title and some of the content of your film extremely problematic.’”

Deal and Lessin waited for further specific editorial notes promised for a later, Dec. 7 call, but instead, they say, faced further suggestions that the film could be “buried” because of its title and the Koch content.

With Sundance looming, Deal and Lessin worked on trimming the cut and on Jan. 7, 2013, sent a letter to Aguilar, Vossen, O’Connell and Hoda. “After much deliberation, we have decided to keep the title we chose,” they stated, dubbing it “an apt title for the film we have made,” and noting that the phrase “Citizen Koch” had even been used by conservative publication The Washington Examiner to describe David Koch’s political activities. They stated that the delay in their funding had left them in a “financial crisis as we prepare our film for Sundance, just as our big ticket finishing costs are about to come due.” The letter ended with a call to arms: “We realized that David Koch’s role as trustee and patron of two flagship PBS stations — WNET and WGBH — may make getting this film the PBS broadcast that it deserves a challenge. But we stand ready to mount a fight alongside you.”

Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer interviewed by director Tia Lessin, November 2011

Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer interviewed by director Tia Lessin, November 2011

On Jan. 14, six days before the film’s Sundance premiere, Deal and Lessin received a call from ITVS Vice President for Content Jim Sommers. He said, as related in the attorney’s letter, “I called to say very clearly, we’re moving forward in the contract with you” and that ITVS had dropped its objection to the title.

Citizen Koch premiered at Sundance in the U.S. Documentary Competition in a 105-minute cut. Trade reviews were mixed, with The Hollywood Reporter’s Duane Byrge describing it as aesthetically “feisty” but a “left-of-center diatribe.” Dennis Harvey at Variety had no problem with the politics but called the storytelling “less potent than it should be” and complained that the film, juggling its multiple story lines, “never quite finds a unified focus.” Anthony Kaufman, a Filmmaker columnist who also writes “Reel Politick,” a film and politics blog for Indiewire, was quite critical in his Screen review, calling out the film for what he saw as its light fact-checking. “While the topic is worthwhile and the documentary capably debunks right-wing myths about American unions,” he wrote, “there are few new revelations here on the topic of money and power. Plus [Michael] Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story did a similar job, and it was a lot more fun.”

But it was Kaufman’s concluding words that underlined perhaps the film’s biggest challenge going forward, one familiar to documentarians everywhere: the possibility of current events overtaking a film’s perceived relevancy. “And, most importantly, is there any substantive proof at how much corporate money has corrupted the American political system?” Kaufman asked. “After all, just a few months ago, the Koch brothers lost and Obama won.”

Ironically, given the ITVS struggle, several reviews cited the title as either being confusing or not illustrative of the film. “Despite its name, Citizen Koch is not a Koch and Me-like takedown of David and Charles Koch …” wrote Kaufman. “If you’re cringing that you suspect this documentary is about feisty former New York Mayor, Ed Koch, who died Feb. 1, it’s not,” led The Hollywood Reporter.

At the Sundance awards ceremony, Citizen Koch was shut out. Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother took the U.S. Grand Jury Documentary Prize, Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer won the Documentary Directing Award and another ITVS title, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson’s American Promise, was awarded a Special Jury prize.

Although they may not have known it at the time, the Citizen Koch filmmakers had gambled on Sundance. With mixed reviews and a lack of jury recognition, their bargaining power had just diminished. If Citizen Koch had been a hit at Sundance, winning one of the top prizes and with a cadre of critical support behind it, would it have been so dismissed by ITVS? “Maybe they were waiting to see if that would happen,” Lessin answers. “But since we lost three weeks in the editing room [negotiating with them], we were never going to win the Grand Jury Prize.”

Festival invites — Sarasota, Full Frame and Cleveland, among others — followed, and there was also the task of continuing to cut the film. ITVS required an 88-minute cut, and the filmmakers knew the movie needed more work.

“We hadn’t entirely finished the film we wanted to make,” Lessin says. ITVS issued notes, “and we agreed with some of them,” she continues. “The film was too long, there was repetition…”

In the notes, ITVS called the title “ineffective” but otherwise didn’t focus on the Koch content, which had been described as problematic just months earlier. As their discussions with ITVS continued, Lessin and Deal worried about the approval rights contained in the contract. “The last thing we wanted to have happen is for us to go into a deal with ITVS and have them shelve the film,” Lessin says. “And not only shelve the PBS five-year window for domestic broadcast, but also interfere with our ability to show the film anywhere because of their approval rights.”

To address these concerns, Vossen floated the possibility of a buy-back clause, Deal and Lessin say, which would allow the filmmakers or another funder to buy back the film if ITVS funded it and it didn’t air. “We knew [ITVS] couldn’t guarantee to us that we’d have a PBS broadcast,” Lessin says. “But we wanted to know that they would support the film.”

The discussed buy-back clause, however, was “never parlayed into a written offer,” Lessin says. She and Deal waited to move the contract process forward and show ITVS the new, shorter cut they had been screening to positive response at festivals, but after several delays — continually rescheduled conference calls — they decided to send ITVS a letter. First, they sought clarity over the title. They wrote, “You were unequivocable about stating that ITVS could never bring a film with that title to PBS and that it would render the film quote ‘unbroadcast-able’ given the quote ‘current environment.’ […] So in the interest of clarity: Is the title of Citizen Koch, as perceived by ITVS, an insurmountable obstacle to broadcast or not?”

On April 15, 2013, Deal and Lessin received their reply: a three-sentence email from Aguilar. It said that ITVS had decided not to move forward with the funding. No other explanation was given.

“Maybe if our film was about something other than the influence of big money and the political process, and how to start a democratic dialogue, we might have been a little more receptive to [the concern over the title and the Koch content],” Lessin says. “But this is what our film is about! We spent a good amount of time talking to people whose lives have been deeply affected by this injection of money into the political system — how it’s distorting politicians’ agendas and skewing the dialogue in their communities. In good conscience, we couldn’t scrub our film of the Kochs.”

At this point, the story of Citizen Koch and ITVS was inside baseball, the kind of tale gossiped about at film gatherings but not part of public discourse. That changed in late May with Mayer’s deeply researched New Yorker piece, almost 4,000 words detailing the sinewy relationship between PBS and its corporate donors. She noted David Koch’s contributions of $23 million to public television over the years, his joining the board of WNET and how, in a quote from Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, the Kochs “appeared intent on using a media company ‘as a vehicle for their political voice.’” While the piece’s first half is largely focused on Gibney’s film and the efforts of WNET President Neal Shapiro to placate his board member, it shifts in the second half to the Citizen Koch story, ending with notice of David Koch’s resignation from the WNET board. Writes Mayer, “[Koch’s resignation] was the result, an insider said, of his unwillingness to back a media organization that so unsparingly covered its sponsor.”

The Mayer piece was explosive, creating suddenly the buzz Citizen Koch had failed to generate at Sundance. Articles in not just the film press but also political journals such as The Nation and Michael Moore’s website ensued. In his “Reel Politick” column, the previously critical Kaufman — who admitted to sympathizing with an ITVS wanting to “cut and run” from the project — wondered whether ITVS’s refusal to comment on Mayer’s piece was an “admission of guilt.” “Filmmakers should demand a frank and public airing of what went on at ITVS over the film, and whether such outside forces will affect the organization’s support for other such films in the future,” he wrote.

Just over a week after Mayer’s piece went online, ITVS issued a response that can still be found on their Beyond the Box blog: “As a matter of policy, ITVS respects the privacy of filmmakers and our negotiations. We therefore declined an interview request from The New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer for a May 20, 2013 article she was framing around two documentaries with storylines on David H. Koch. In the days after its publication, we continued to decline interview requests from other outlets. ITVS now believes the rising flow of misinformation surrounding Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream and Citizen Koch requires public exposure of the facts.”

Among those facts, according to ITVS: that submitted cuts of Lessin and Deal’s film, including the Sundance version, did not reflect the filmmaker’s earlier writen proposal; that “the shift in editorial direction” led to the cessation of negotiations; and that “ITVS did not attach its name to Citizen Koch at Sundance Film Festival because a production licensing agreement had not been executed.”

A comparison of the filmmakers’ submitted materials — including the show reels screened at the ITVS retreat and Good Pitch — with the Sundance cut shows a film that remained consistent in tone and overall content. Of course, absent specifics, which the ITVS statement did not provide, “a shift in editorial direction” is a statement of opinion as much as fact. It’s also a surprising statement from a documentary funder because documentaries continually evolve and shape shift during production as they capitalize on new research, discoveries and current events.

As for the statement about Sundance, while ITVS did not have a formal credit on the film, the organization included Citizen Koch in emailed publicity materials and invited Lessin and Deal to a brunch celebrating ITVS filmmakers. Asked directly about the discrepancy between their statement and these Sundance events, ITVS did not comment.

An ITVS board member suggested to Lessin that a lawyer send a letter to the board with her and Deal’s concerns as well as a detailed chronology of their dealings with ITVS. On June 28, 2013, the law firm of Emery, Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, a specialist in First Amendment cases, sent that letter, demanding, among other things, explanations for ITVS’s behavior and to know whether or not the film was discussed with WNET’s Neal Shapiro or even Charles and David Koch. The response was from an employment practice attorney, says Deal, and “was just a reiteration of the talking points. It felt like, ‘Fuck off.’ But we didn’t take it personally.”

With the new cut, however, the timing of Mayers’ article couldn’t have been better. Says Josh Braun of Submarine, the film’s sales agent, “The controversy elevated the film. It called attention to it and created interest. The reality is that when the film was shown at Sundance, it needed to be worked on a little further. People there recognized that it wasn’t finished. The filmmakers went back, made a few more tweaks and perfected the film. And by the time there was more attention on it, there was a final film.”

To replace the ITVS money, Deal and Lessin turned to Kickstarter, launching in July a campaign that grossed nearly $170,000 from 3,384 backers — twice its $75,000 goal. The filmmakers say plenty of filmmaker friends, family and collaborators contributed, but they were also aided by awareness created by activist organizations MoveOn.org, CREDO and the Working Families Party, which together delivered 500,000 signatures on petitions to PBS demanding Citizen Koch’s airing. Contributors left comments such as, “I am fed up with our government and news media going to the highest bidder. I have become increasingly disappointed in public television,” and “I think it’s a disgrace that PBS allows itself to be manipulated like it does by a single donor.” Complaints flowed in to individual PBS stations, causing at least one to issue a statement to viewers stressing their noninvolvement in the controversy.

ITVS was contacted several times by Filmmaker, in 2013 and more recently, before this article went to press, for further comment. Only in the week before press did they issue a blanket response to several specific questions, including one asking whether Citizen Koch was an anomaly and if other documentaries had been dropped following lengthy contractual negotiations and a Sundance premiere. “A lot of your questions touch on contracting, which we’ve continually said we cannot discuss in order to respect the privacy of the filmmakers,” ITVS wrote before appending the following additional comment: “Since our original statement in May of 2013, ITVS attended an open public panel at the IFP market in September of 2013, which included Claire Aguilar ITVS executive content advisor, and the Citizen Koch filmmakers. ITVS will continue to serve courageous independent filmmakers and help them connect citizens to the important stories of today.”

“When Documentaries Disturb the Power Structure” was the title of that panel, held at IFP Film Week September 2013. “Sometimes, when making investigative work, the filmmakers can get too close to the flame, inciting the ire of their subjects, and those around them,” teased IFP’s program copy. And while the panel did include Deal, Lessin and Aguilar, the hour-long event also featured moderator Deirdre Haj (executive director, Full Frame), Mette Hoffman Meyer (head of documentaries, DR TV) and filmmakers Rachel Grady (Detropia) and Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In). Hardly constituting a formal response by ITVS to the filmmakers, the panel rambled around issues concerning financing of documentaries amidst fiery exchanges between, mostly, Lessin and Jarecki. The latter surprisingly dismissed the concerns of the Citizen Koch filmmakers, arguing that the notoriety of their situation had, in fact, helped the film, and insinuating that the left was too mired in arguments about “podunk PBS executives” when it should be more explicitly combating the ills of global capitalism.

“That was the strangest, strangest panel,” Deal remembers. “We were trying to engage in a conversation about public funding for public media,” Lessin says, “about the way public media can be compromised by private funding. And [Eugene] was basically saying to us, ‘Oh, if this were my film I would exploit this [controversy] even more.’ But that wasn’t the point. The filmmaking community seemed to be wanting us to have this conversation, and a lot of people came up to us afterwards and said, ‘We wish that [panel] hadn’t been derailed.’”

A few weeks later, Citizen Koch had its New York premiere at DOC NYC. Says festival director Thom Powers, “It was a pretty great screening — Harry Belafonte, Michael Moore and Rosario Dawson were all there. I was pleased to show it because it is a film that deserves to be seen and that has issues that deserve discussion.” Asked about the drama involving ITVS, however, Powers verbalizes a question that seems to be in the back of the minds of many who are queasy about going on the record with their opinion about ITVS’s handling of the situation. “I may never know what really happened with ITVS,” Powers says. “But it doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to imagine that David Koch’s money was a factor for a branch of public television that is in a difficult position — having to raise money in difficult financial circumstances while serving the interests of independent television. My impression is that this is a specific problem that was unique to this film and David Koch. After the Jane Mayer story, David Koch withdrew from the board of WNET. Part of me thinks there may have been a problem there, and now that problem has been solved. Do people think there is a greater problem than that?”

Koch may be off the board of WNET, but at the website Pando Daily, David Sirota has been chronicling the efforts of environmental group Forecast the Facts to also remove him from the board of WGBH. (NOVA is WGBH’s flagship science program, and Greenpeace reports that the Koch brothers have donated more than $67 million to climate change denial groups.) Sirota has also written about the underwriting given by hedge fund manager and natural gas trader John Arnold through the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to WNET’s pension reform series “Pensions in Peril.” The foundation was the series’ sole sponsor, and Arnold directly funded a California ballot initiative the show covered. WNET wound up returning the $3.5 million grant, and PBS’s own ombudsmen Michael Getler called its acceptance “seriously wrong.”

“Sirota’s article is important,” Lessin says. “A lot of people are objecting to David Koch’s continued presence on the board of WGBH because he profits from climate change denial. His business is extracting oil and wood products. Whatever his ideology, there is an appearance of a conflict of interest that he’s contributing to programming in the sciences, particularly NOVA, given that he’s got these very radical views. That’s not to say he has had any control [over the editorial], but if it shakes an audience’s belief in the program they’re watching, that’s reason enough public broadcast has for not allowing that underwriting. That’s PBS’s own policy.”

Enduring complaints with ITVS cited by independent filmmakers and producers contacted for this article include “highly onerous deliverables,” the programming process by which shows land on PBS and Independent Lens and filmmaker conflict resolution. Because ITVS controls no programming slots, it must cultivate strong relations with individual broadcasters in order to show the viewership results needed for its annual Congressional reauthorization. But, “ITVS has made it clear that their larger institutional interests lie with broadcasters,” one ITVS-funded filmmaker says. “Which means, if a conflict arises between the broadcaster and the filmmaker, they have sided with the broadcaster. Filmmakers have no rights in these situations, which are relatively rare. But it does mean that ITVS has a built-in conflict of interest — one they’ve not been willing to address.”

Other producers echo the charge that ITVS has “strayed from its original mission” of representing independent filmmakers within the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. “I believe they treat us like digital sharecroppers,” one says bluntly. “They pretend to represent us but they don’t.”

David Rosen, a business development consultant and journalist covering public policy, media and technology — and who served on the ITVS board for six years and was its treasurer — says he believes “both parties lost out” in the Citizen Koch situation. “A tragedy is often defined as two rights in conflict,” he writes in an email. “The ‘controversy’ between the makers of Citizen Koch, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin and ITVS suggests two different, competing, definitions of ‘politics.’ For one, it’s the politics of belief, of fighting to realize a creative, free-speech objective, fulfilling a personal vision. For another, it’s the politics of working the system, of carving out a small space of freer expression while accepting the fact that PBS has become HBO with different branding.”

Nancy Kates, a filmmaker whose Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin was funded by ITVS, says she believes the promise of the organization is one worth fighting for. “Many filmmakers are afraid of them,” she says, “but we can’t be. To be fair to ITVS, they are our allies and still the radical punk teenagers of the PBS system.”

“We understand the horrible situation that public broadcasting is in because their funding has been so reduced, and they are in the thrall of donors,” Lessin concludes. “ITVS was in a terrible position, and we didn’t know that at the time. I wish they’d told us because their overall mission is to serve independent filmmakers, and we are two of those filmmakers, you know? I feel like they put the institution first. Maybe that’s how they should’ve acted, but they shouldn’t have thrown us and our film under the bus in the process.

“We think there needs to be renewed public financing for public media, and all of us need to take responsibility for that and contribute, just like we have contributed to our electoral system so that there can be publicly financed campaigns. Our public arts institutions are the only places where politically edgy and diverse points can be heard.”

For now, though, the filmmakers are looking forward to their film’s release. Says Deal, “What a relief it will be to talk about the issues we intended to talk about when we made this film — the ways in which big money is eroding our democracy.”

Citizen Koch is released from Variance on June 6.

© 2020 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF