The Life of Documentary Filmmakers In Houston
“We made a little money off of T-shirt and sticker sales and a screening last year,” says Alex Luster, whose three-year-in-the-making documentary about Houston street poster artists “Stick em Up!” will be screened again at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in early May.
“But it all went to entrance fees for film festivals. “Now we sit and wait and see if we can break even on the film.”
Marian Luntz, MFAH’s curator of film and video, agrees that the life of a documentary filmmaker in this city isn’t always easy. “But I do think the community has become more active in recent years. There’s a new generation of filmmakers here doing some incredible work and they’re very supportive of each other,” she adds. “It’s not that different then when Rick Linklater started the Austin Film Society to support like minded filmmakers there.”
Lunzt points out that the MFAH screens local documentaries and there are several venues of support from the Houston Film Commission to the Documentary Alliance and the Southwest Alternative Media Project, lovingly known as SWAMP, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year of supporting citizen filmmakers and their non-commercial films.
“I think the documentary community here is very rich,” says Mary Lampe, executive director of SWAMP. “Michael Moore, love him or hate him, really increased awareness of the genre. And we’ve really had some wonderful Houston documentaries in the past few years.” Lampe ticks off such high profile films as “Hot Town, Cool City” by Maureen McNamara and “For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair” directed by Bruce Bryant.
“Some have gone on to the festival circuit and are gaining some national attention,” she says. “But is it possible to make a living doing them? I don’t know; most documentaries are a labor of love.”
That’s true for Luster who works a day job in television but says he doesn’t mind pulling an eight-hour shift and then working on documentaries for ten hours. “I love living life through other people’s eyes,” he says. “I like to see their perception of this city I love.” Luster adds that he can see the day where he can make a living doing documentaries. “Not only can I see it, but I will do it,” he says.
Retired attorney Vivienne Schiffer is a first time documentarian, working with filmmaker John Carrithers on “Relocation, Arkansas” a film about the Japanese American internment camp in the town Rowher, Arkansas where she grew up. Schiffer previously wrote a novel about the camp called “Camp Nine.”
“Writing is such a solitary pursuit,” she says. “It’s been a hoot to do film because it’s such a collaborative experience. And it’s been great for me to work with a story in a different medium.”
Schiffer says her legal background has been an asset in the business aspect of filmmaking and she’s had help from SWAMP in the technological side. “Anybody with a iPhone can go out and make a documentary now,” she says. “But to make a quality film takes money.”
“Relocation, Arkansas” should be finished later this year, and Schiffer plans to hit the festival circuit and hopefully swing a distribution deal with a network. And now that the documentary bug has bitten her she’s already at work on a second film, and has about “30 more ideas.”
As for Carrithers, he has more than 14 years experience in producing, filming and editing documentaries, commercials and television programs and is currently working on a documentary directed by Francois and Susan de Menil about the Byzantine Chapel.
“I’m a for-hire filmmaker and in another part of my life I do my own documentaries,” Carrithers, an Army brat who moved here 12 years ago says. “The commercial stuff helps pay the bills and buy equipment for my own work. I’ve been lucky to be able to support my wife and son doing work I like.”
Carrithers believes there are a lot of talented filmmakers in Houston and there’s some networking going on, although there’s room for more.
Douglas Newman’s experience is a little different than most documentary filmmakers here. Although he grew up in Houston he made his bones in New York City where he spent five years as a producer at ABC News Productions working on long form documentaries for the Discovery Channel, A&E and the History Channel. But now he’s back in Houston.
“I don’t feel like there’s a need to be in New York City to make documentary films,” Newman says. “I feel like there’s more opportunity here, smaller pond, bigger fish, and compared to my friends in New York I’m doing more interesting work here.”
Newman’s documentary “The Reconstruction of Asa Carter,” an hour-long film exploring the life and legacy of the best-selling author of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “The Education of Little Tree” airs on PBS on April 24. And he’s currently working on two historical documentaries for Rice University and “Mothers at War,” true stories from mothers serving as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Mothers at War” has a strong web presence,” Newman says. “And that’s huge, especially to create buzz and maybe generate a traditional distribution deal, for documentaries.” Newman is director of creative programming at Mouth Watering Media, a Houston-based multi-platform company his brother Stephen founded, so he’s very savvy when it comes to the Internet.
Between the Internet and Houston’s airport, Newman sees no reason not to be based here.
“When I need to go to New York or on location somewhere, I go,” he says. “I just don’t feel the need to live there and pay those high prices. I don’t think of myself as a Houston documentary filmmaker, I think of myself as a documentary filmmaker who lives in Houston.”
And that may be the key to future success for local documentarians. “The use of social media as a way to raise funds and generate interest is changing things,” says the MFAH’s Luntz. “And I think the accessibility of equipment has made a difference.”
Who knows? Maybe the teens of today, shooting documentaries on their iPhones and linking them to postings on YouTube via Twitter and Facebook will someday be holding Oscar statuettes for Best Documentary.
“The technology is great,” says Luster. “We sold out three screenings of “Stick em Up!” last year using only social media. But it does lessen my chances of getting into film festivals because there are more entries.” And, much like the book-publishing world and print journalism, so far no one’s really figured out how to make money online without a traditional distribution deal.
But that isn’t deterring the new wave of Houston documentary filmmakers.
— Marene Gustin
Marene Gustin writes about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts and even Lone Star politics and crime for magazines, websites and newspapers nationwide.