In recent years, as sustainability has become a hot topic in the documentary community, we have seen the issue play out in a number of ways: polls of filmmakers and the industry have been circulated and dissected, numerous calls for a national report were published by the National Endowment for the Arts and IDA, and various organizing efforts have sprung up (notably the Documentary Producers Alliance). However, until now not much attention has been paid to the production companies and non-profit organizations set up by filmmakers to structure the documentary production process themselves. These organizational models are at the heart of the independent documentary community and are key to understanding the sustainability of filmmakers.
For this article, Documentary focuses onskylight, the Brooklyn-based human rights media organization founded in 2014 by Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy and began as Skylight Pictures in 1981. Skylight Pictures was co-founded by Yates, Kinoy and Newton Thomas Sigel. Best known for its focus on social justice and human rights, particularly in Latin America, through films such as the Sundance Award-winning filmwhen the mountains tremble(1983) jGranite: How to Catch a Dictator(2011). Skylight has continued the tradition with its feature film500 years(2017), numerous short films, a variety of outreach and engagement programs, and the Innovative Labs programLaboratories of Solidarity.
In a way, Skylight occupies a unique place in the documentary world alongside well-known documentary film organizations Firelight Media, also in New York City, and Kartemquin Films in Chicago. All three produce highly acclaimed and critically acclaimed documentaries under the umbrella of nonprofit organizations dedicated to social justice and engagement strategies.Documentationspoke to Skylight Creative Director Yates and Skylight CEO de Onís to learn more about how their work has evolved, the opportunities and challenges of producing films within a non-profit structure, and what the secret of their Success is when it comes to sustainability.
DOCUMENTATION: Can you tell something about the original vision of Skylight?
PAMELA YATES:Peter Kinoy, Newton Thomas Sigel and I founded Skylight Pictures in 1981. Tom was the cameraman, Peter was the editor and I was the sound engineer. The three of us brought our equipment to the company so we could shoot feature-length documentaries together. So our idea from the start was to have low overhead and low cost and to be truly independent filmmakers where we make our own decisions about the films we make and have the final cut, own the films and work with the films along with the movements.
In the first few films we did, we realized that becoming partners or having allies who are in political movements would be incredibly beneficial to the impact of the film and the growth of these political movements. So we've grown creatively and as filmmakers, in step with the growth of the human rights movement around the world. Many of these people have inspired us, they are part of our films and we like to think that we have contributed to the growth of the global human rights movement.
D: How did Skylight get involved with the Central American solidarity movement in the 1980s?
py:We were also very involved in our first films, such aswhen the mountains tremble, with the Central American Solidarity Movement and the movement to ensure the United States does not intervene or expand its military aid to Central America. This was a very lively movement in the 1980s.when the mountains tremblehelped people understand what was happening in Central America. The Central American movement helped get the film out, particularly in North America, Europe, and Mexico. I think that's important because it's really a model that we follow with all our documentaries.
We pioneered reach, impact and engagement very, very early on. We've always been interested in a high level of collaboration, both in producing the film with the film's protagonists, and in sharing our model and having such sometimes difficult, sometimes inspired discussions with the entire documentary community. I've always thought that more community and less competition would take us much further and raise the field accordingly.
D: When did Paco join?
py:Paco joined us a decade later, and now we have transformed our film production company, which produces feature-length documentaries, into a non-profit human rights media organization.
D: Paco, can you talk about how your role evolved and how that led to the decision to make Skylight a non-profit organization?
PEACE ONE:I started out as a producer and then progressed to executive producer and fundraiser. Then, as we began to develop relationships with foundations, we began to persuade some foundations that hadn't previously funded films to do so. I remember that the United States Institute of Peace, a non-profit organization based in Washington, used to fund a lot of research projects that were just text and print, and we convinced them to release some money to support a film we had Make about Peru. truth commission. Since then they have funded many more films. So we also took on the role of getting foundations to understand how funding films can be part of furthering their mission and that film can really be a crucial part of any outreach to issues and ideas.
There was a model that we created based on this drive to expand our funding sources. At some point we decided that it would make more sense for Skylight Pictures to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit because, first, with documentaries, there's usually no profit; Second, we truly make the films with a mission of social justice and human rights in mind; and ultimately that would open up many more sources of funding.
One problem we ran into as we started doing more and more outreach was that [our nonprofit status] actually had to write tons of project proposals. For example, if you wanted to do an interactive website about the film, or a film tour to a remote region of Latin America or Africa, it all cost money and you had to raise money. So we thought it would be great if we could get some basic funding like most human rights organizations do. We bring stories through films to promote and empower human rights and educate people about human rights, which is why we truly consider ourselves a human rights organization.
D:what other benefitstutBeing a nonprofit organization gives you?
DOP:It allows us to get basic funding as many foundations can't give you money unless it's a 501(c)(3). Of course, since this is a 501(c)(3), all donations from individual donors were also tax deductible. This gives you an enormous financial advantage. It also gave us the ability to create a staff that works on all of our work without us having to be specifically funded by a project, which really limits its scope.
It really allowed us to operate as an organization and plan ahead and come up with ideas that hadn't been funded yet. This is how we came up with the SolidariLabs concept, which we have been running for two years. It brings together social justice filmmakers with activists and community leaders to build bonds of solidarity and potentially collaborate in the future. It's not project based; It's about building knowledge and trust. SolidariLabs wouldn't have been possible if we didn't have the core funding to experiment.
D: WasSohnYour sources of funding as a non-profit organization and where do you generate your income?
DOP:Much of this comes from foundations. We also receive funding from the public and our supporters. We also have sources that don't depend on us being 501(c)(3) compliant, like the education market; We are really working to sell and license our films through New Day Films [a distribution co-op that has been in existence for over 40 years] for the educational market.
Then when a movie comes out, that's more of a standard thing for most filmmakers. For example a license agreement with Amazon that we made500 years. We're looking for TV sales and we're offering the film for sale online, all of these possibilities. We also do many tours to educational institutions and conferences and do our master classes and demonstrations at universities and colleges for which we are paid. So there are many different sources of income.
One important thing: we don't sell our films to distributors. It just didn't work for us. As a human rights organization, we do a lot of things with films that distributors wouldn't let us do, or who would just say, 'It's not worth it, we don't want you to do it, or we won't pay for it.' We have to keep control over our films, but that doesn't mean that we don't want to make a deal with Amazon, for example, we do it ourselves, not with middlemen.
D: Pamela, what other benefits do you see in being a non-profit organization?
py:We've always been interested in collaboration: how best to work in a group. I think the diversity of what we do and the output of what we do with seven people is really huge. And people always say to us, 'How do you do so much with what you have?' I think transitioning to a nonprofit organization has really helped us be better, more efficient and have a bigger impact.
D:How is that?
py:Well, there is, for example, not only Peter Kinoy, the editor and head of the editorial office, but we can also bring other people into the team. We have a second editor and he does all the impactful shorts. Our social media presence is much bigger and our digital presence is much better with the short films we produce. We may use the footage we shoot for feature films in many other media resources that form a media ecosystem around the feature films we produce. After I've made a director's cut of a film and it's released into the world, we can work with other organizations and help them shape the short films they may need to build their movements.
It also allows us to take greater risks. For example, we just put our master class online. It is a self-paced course that you can take to create human rights media. Not only was the experiment to share our model with the rest of the industry, but it's behind a paywall, so it's part of how we can be more sustainable by selling our knowledge in education. Without being a non-profit, without raising core funding, you could never have risked that because we had to go project by project.
D:Are there any disadvantages or trade-offs with this model?
DOP:Yes, it requires constant administration, and there are many legal requirements you must meet to be a 501(c)(3) that require time-consuming bookkeeping. Another is that you don't own the films; the organization owns the films. That's one of the strangest things; We're not talking about Hollywood numbers here, we're on a mission to make films for human rights, but it was still an adjustment.
One important thing for other filmmakers to understand is that our model isn't for everyone; Actually, being a non-profit organization is a lot of work. There is a lot of management involved. So it has its silver lining that taps into all possible sources of funding, but it has to be managed in a way that's not like a normal film production company.
D: How do you think Skylight resembles a "startup" like we would imagine a startup in any industry?
DOP:After becoming a non-profit organization, we had to rethink our organization because we needed to increase staff. We are still thinking in this direction. For example, we are hosting a board and staff retreat next week to discuss a strategic plan for the next three years, focused on how we can grow as a human rights media organization. What does that mean? What tools will we use? What new technologies have been mixed with the old technologies?
Things we've always done, but now in a more conscious way, to build an enduring organization so that Skylight can grow beyond us, the founders, into a non-profit media organization. So this is a challenge; It's an experiment, we're not 100% sure it will work like any startup, but we're doing our best.
D:Do you expect Skylight to beat your lead? What steps are you taking to contribute?
DOP:We discuss that a lot internally here: the special chemistry between Pamela, Peter and me and the filmmaking. I don't think that's reproducible and I don't think that should be the goal. But can Skylight remain as a human rights media organization and perhaps collaborate with other filmmakers or through our lab program? This has attracted a lot of attention from funders and from the locations where we have conducted the labs. It looks like a very promising offshoot of what Skylight is doing.
py:Yes, that was one of the pillars behind the transition to becoming a non-profit organization: that we could grow, that we could have employees and that we could identify other people and continue Skylight's work.
D: Where do you want Skylight to be in three to five years?
DOP:Personally, I would like to see our SolidariLabs program strengthened; I would like a series that we are beginning to develop on immigration issues to be completed; and I would also like to see what it would be like to work with some other filmmakers who I would say are like-minded filmmakers who share our concerns and our mission; Maybe the series is the opportunity to see what that is. would be like.
py:We'd like to double the size, we'd like to double the budget, and like Paco said, it's always good to try new things. So instead of making a feature film, I'm leading a team to make a series about immigration but actually telling it from the perspective of Americans and what Americans are doing about immigration and the exodus from Central America to the United States. How do states challenge government policies? In fact, the name of the seriesChallenge. I'm really excited about that and I think that moving to a non-profit organization is a really good way to try new forms of storytelling as well.
D: What are some of the things you learned in relation to being good managers and how to leada staff?
py:We have creative equality. In fact, working on film productions trains you very well in being a good manager: how to work with people, how to deal with problems, how to get people from very different backgrounds to work together towards the same goal. When I say we have the same creativity, I mean we have the same ideas. Often leaders have to push it and take responsibility, but we have a fairly open and collaborative work environment. In addition, our employees are between 20 and 30, so they have lots of fresh ideas and fresh perspectives.
D: Do you have those nights where you're like, 'How am I going to do the payroll? How are we going to keep this going?' How do you feel about the level of sustainability you're at right now?
DOP:That's always a challenge. There are nights I wake up and I'm like, How are we going to fund the next movie or do the payroll? That doesn't really go away. Of course, some nonprofit organizations are very big and powerful in terms of budget, but in the nonprofit world, raising money and funds is a constant. There are basically three things that go on in a nonprofit organization: there are the shows, or the movies, or the labs, or whatever the shows may be; there is fundraising; and then there's the administrator who keeps everything running.
D: What about you Pamela in terms of your comfort level in terms of sustainability as a filmmaker and creative director of Skylight? do you have those nights
py:Funding documentaries is always difficult. Of course I have those nights. But they're more on the creative level: is it a good idea? How am I supposed to hold it? What resources can I access? For example, we are currently following the migrant caravan moving through Mexico, probably towards the US southern border with California. When do I use the few resources I have? When can I have the Guatemalan team I've worked with over the years that followed while I'm here in New York raising funds?
I think two of the ingredients of being an independent filmmaker are that you take a lot of creative risks and you're used to financial insecurity. For me, the financial uncertainty isn't as present as it used to be, but the creative risks are still there. Those two things that might scare other people are actually my lifeblood. That makes me a good director in this field.
I would say that we are relatively safe in our field: we don't have to do other jobs, we don't have to do other day jobs, we don't have to teach or work for a wage. So, relatively speaking, we're doing very, very well. But we still have the creative risks, and that's a lot of fun.
D: What would you say is Skylight's secret sauce?
DOP:I guess we're happy to be here in our roles. It's not like I want to be both a director and a producer. I feel very comfortable as a producer. Peter feels very comfortable as an editor. He doesn't feel like he has to go out on the field for the shoots. And Pamela is the director. Having our roles not because we were assigned them, but because we naturally belong and feel comfortable: that was part of the secret recipe.
py:All of our films start with "A Film by" Paco, Peter and I and at the end of the films we take individual credits for our individual roles. This reflects how we conceptualize ideas, how we research and the ongoing conversations we have about ideas. As we shoot in the field we send footage to Peter who watches it all the time.
The three of us help shape the film really intensively, but we also take on individual roles for which we are primarily responsible. Then we try to give credit where credit is due. Although it has sometimes been very difficult for film festivals to understand that there are three creators behind something, they always want to choose the director, but we try to spread the credit for creativity among us, especially recognizing the anonymous role that editors play play nonfiction storytelling.
Another aspect of our secret ingredient is our relationship to the social and political world. We're always very interested in what's coming and what the political landscape is like. What could a creative collaboration look like? What impact can our stories have? How do we reach the audience?
D: Are you thinking of how you could advise the filmmakers on Skylight, which might be the next set in terms of filmmaking?
DOP:We have mentored filmmakers within Skylight who are now making films, but not as part of Skylight. Peter has mentored many editors who have now gone out and edited.
py:I'm also the director and designer of the Hedgebrook Women's Documentary Film Lab, held every December on Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle. So we gave a lot of tutoring. I think because we haven't been nonprofit that long, we're getting closer to the stage where we can mentor people within the skylight structure.
DOP:I think SolidariLabs will be one of our legacy. And maybe there are some younger filmmakers who choose to continue working within the skylight structure.
D: Pamela, within the non-profit Skylight structure, do you feel that you can still respond spontaneously when responding to events on the ground? Are you able to take a camera and film something you feel is necessary for your work, perhaps before you've received the fundraiser?
py:I have to work for it; it's a creative tension. I have to present my case, we have to talk about it, then I can move on. Oftentimes, when you have to clarify your ideas and present them vigorously and face and overcome resistance, you get away with such creative pressures with a better idea. I think that so far I've been incredibly agile in reacting spontaneously to events.
DOP:Here's another area where a 501(c)(3) can be beneficial: We're talking about having a quick response fund within our budget that would be there if we decided something really needed to be triggered immediately. Pamela would only have to argue that that's why we should do it, and the fund would allow that, at least to get started. It wouldn't be a big fund, but it would be enough to start something.
D: As CEO, Paco, did you ever have to say no?
DOP:(laughs) I tried, but I couldn't!
py:He said no, but I found ways to turn no into yes... One thing I've always liked as a documentary maker is that you often step into an environment and try to gain access. and they don't give you access, and it's a big, fat "no". I've always loved turning those "nos" into "yes."
D: Looking back at Skylight's history, what are some of the key lessons you've learned?
py:I think we recognized very early on that it takes a long-term commitment to bring about any kind of societal change. In fact, it's the heart of whatGranite: How to Catch a Dictatoris about. Knowing and understanding this and staying connected to all the people and places where you have made films in the past will really help you to understand how history develops and the role documentary storytelling can play in social change. It is very much the subject of the master class, which we also put online.
I also believe that in this sense we should celebrate our victories and mark our defeats. We must continue to observe what our films are doing or have done in the situations in which we bring them into the world, how they are used, how they can be used, how we understand the audience in order to move forward and make other films. And constantly being open to new ways of getting our films out there, getting them out there and understanding what kind of impact they can have, how they can bring social benefits and financial benefits.
DOP:And how to create effective ecosystems around every film using digital platforms, short media and social networks.
D: Are there any dangers that you would advise other filmmakers to take?
We always say to filmmakers who work alone: try not to work alone. Try to form a team.
It's very difficult being an independent filmmaker, so build a team that works well. Additionally, if you are a filmmaker committed to social justice, think carefully about how you will distribute your film.
D: And you, Pamela? any word ofwisdomHow to avoid traps?
py:As my mother used to say, I'm an optimist by birth. It's also just the type of work we do, which is very difficult, you have to have a certain optimistic attitude, otherwise you'll never be able to keep going. I would just say we are not rich but we have rich lives. So make sure you use your life and the time you have wisely.
Ken Jacobson is Senior Programmer for Documentaries and Specials, American Film Institute Festivals and Contributing Editor at Documentary.