Veteran film and TV producer Chuck Braverman was kind enough to chat with us recently about Westdoc Online, his year-old online interview show. Over the course 22 episodes, he's spoken with many leading filmmakers, including Tim Wardle, Anna Zameka and Steve James, and covered a wide range of topics of interest to the documentary film community. Episode #5, in which he delves into the nitty-gritty of footage licensing, should be of particular interest readers of this site.
Footage.net: Please introduce yourself and tell us what you’re working on.
Chuck Braverman: I am a long time filmmaker having directed dozens of episodic shows, some movies for television, a feature film, and many non-fiction documentaries. For years I had my own production company in Los Angeles, and we produced a large variety of films for tv networks, corporate clients, commercials, and docs. I am currently working part time teaching an advanced filmmaking class at Cal State University Northridge, and have half a dozen eclectic projects in different stages of development
FN: When did Westdoc launch?
CB: The original Westdoc Conference was started in 2010 with my friend and business partner (producer/distributor) Richard Propper. We produced the live conference in Santa Monica and then L.A. for six years for non-fiction and reality filmmakers. I launched Westdoc Online in December of 2017 as an experiment to see if I could take some of the best elements of our original conference concept online live to interview and discuss non-fiction filmmaking with participants around the world. This would be live and available free to everyone.
FN: What are your goals for the project?
CB: I want to stimulate more thought and conversation about documentaries with the people who produce, direct, and distribute the docs and everyone who love movies. I would like to achieve a critical mass audience that makes this concept commercially viable.
FN: Who is your target audience and what will they learn from watching your interviews?
CB: The target audience includes filmmakers and the people who watch documentaries and other forms of non-fiction. I hope this will help to open up the world of non-fiction and will stimulate more interest in documentaries. I believe that of the 500 or so feature films that were released this year in the states, some of the very best were docs that could compete on every media platform with the better known and publicized studio and indie fiction films. Four of this years short listed Oscar docs grossed over ten million each at the theatrical box office.
FN: What have you learned about the documentary business from doing these interviews?
CB: I have learned that documentary filmmakers are eager and open to discussing their films and how they were produced. It also seems to be the best of times, and the worst of times for docs. The big players are commissioning more and more with fewer producers. This is a pattern that I have seen before and the first time filmmaker has a higher bar to jump over.
FN: How do you pick your interview subjects?
CB: I pick my subjects by what interests me and what I think will interest others. I have a very strong sense of curiosity and want to know everything I can about docs and the people that make them. Of the 160 feature docs that were submitted to the Academy this year, I had three of the 15 films and the directors that made the short list on my series and could have had a couple more, but I wasn’t that crazy about some of the favorites.
FN: How many episodes have you produced?
CB: To date I have produced 22 episodes and they are all available online for free on the WestdocOnline.com site.
FN: In one of your interviews, Ondi Timoner said that this is the “golden age of documentary.” Do you agree? Why/Why not? What is driving the interest?
CB: I agree with Ondi and the reason is simple. Some of the docs being made today are every bit as good as any 50 million dollar fiction feature film. The audience doesn’t care if it is a doc as long as it is a good story, and entertains.
FN: What are some of the biggest challenges your subjects are facing today?
CB: Today, as always, getting financed is the biggest challenge for most filmmakers. Should this film be commissioned by a network (with all the accompanying challenges, or acquired (probably for less money and a risk), or a co-pro which means you have to sell it the film more than once with no guarantees.
FN: Who are some of the filmmakers you have interviewed so far? Any favorite episodes/interviews?
CB: My favorites so far include Tim Wardle, the director of the Oscar short listed Three Identical Strangers; Anna Zameka, director of the short listed Communion; RaMell Ross, director of the short listed Hale County, This Morning, This Evening; Frank Stiefel, Oscar winner for the doc short Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405; Marina Zenovich, director of Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind; and Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and the Oscar nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.
FN: What are some of the best documentaries you have seen lately?
CB: The Last Race directed by first timer Michael Dweck is stunner. Beautifully shot and very immersive. Disappointing that his distributor didn’t get into the Oscar race sooner and with more of a push to get this film noticed. (That is a whole other topic of discussion about promoting docs for the awards circuit.) Hale County, This Morning, This Evening is an art film/doc masterpiece. A different kind of doc. They Shall Not Grow Old from Peter Jackson is an incredible breakthrough in technology and a surprisingly emotional experience. And Three Identical Strangers tells a great story in dramatic and compelling format.
FN: What makes for a great documentary film?
CB: The three most important elements are; story, story, and story.
FN: We are of course very interested in the role of archival footage in documentary filmmaking. Have any of the filmmakers you’ve interviewed talked about their use of archival footage?
CB: Episode #5 was all about licensing clips and archival footage. It featured a stock footage house, producer, the head of stock footage association, and an IP attorney. I believe that archival footage is a very important part of documentary filmmaking and the more knowledge we have about licensing footage from various sources, the better.
FN: How has Westdoc evolved over time?
CB: In the beginning of Westdoc Online was more about multiple people from different locations live on the web. Over time, I have concentrated more on one on one interviews and less have been live. From a technical point of view, I have learned more about live streaming and the hardware and software needed to put on a professional series.
FN: What’s next? Where would you like to go from here?
CB: I am planning a pilot experiment producing an episode with myself and a guest reviewing docs that are available online. We’ll see what happens.