Documentary: Jamie Meltzer

Jamie_pic  Not so long ago there was a monolithic distribution model. People bought tickets to get into a theatre. Soon after television was an option, then cable, then streaming. How has non-fiction film followed or defied this model historically. How has non-fiction work always created it’s own model(s) and circuits(s)?

I think documentary filmmakers have always sought and struggled to get their films seen by as many people as possible. The hierarchy of distribution has long been: Theatrical, TV/Cable, and then other forms of digital distribution -DVDs, streaming etc. I’m not sure this hierarchy has changed much, at least in the minds of most documentary filmmakers I know of. That said, it does seem that what has changed is the way in which audiences prefer to see documentaries, and film in general, and that their preference is definitely streaming/digital. Unfortunately, the marketplace for digital film distribution still pays according to hierarchy above- digital/streaming seems to offer the least returns. So while digital distribution has allowed many more films to be released, seen, and available, it hasn’t solved the problem of helping create a sustainable model for independent documentary filmmakers.

2. Could you talk about the path a non-fiction feature or short might take in distribution today?

I think that traditional model still holds to some extent, starting out at festivals seeking distribution, hoping for a wide theatrical release and TV broadcast, and then working towards a digital release. Alternatives are: using film festivals themselves as a form of distribution and the educational market (which is also slowly shifting from a model of DVD purchase to purchasing streaming rights, but which still offer select films a very significant and undervalued marketplace).

  1. Is there an existing documentary festival circuit?Absolutely, the film festival circuit has expanded exponentially in the past ten years, and there is an entire genre of documentary-only film festivals, both domestically and abroad. DocNYC, True/False, Full Frame, IDFA, are just some of the more prominent examples.4. What role do educational sales play, if any?

    For the right film, that has a niche market, the educational market is a very important tool for distributing documentary films and is consistently undervalued by filmmakers. The trick is to take advantage of the educational market before the film is available digitally, to maximize the window of time where the film is not easily or widely available except through the filmmaker themselves (self-distribution) or their educational distributor.

  2. What other types of venues such as galleries, installations, micro cinemas and web distribution play?

I think these forms of distribution are relevant and important as ever, though I think they don’t tend to create much revenue for the filmmaker. Still, they are very important for getting work seen and connecting with audiences.

6. What advice would you give to a student who wants to make non-fiction work re. getting it seen?

Start with the traditional model and improvise (self-distribution etc) when the traditional model fails you. The competition is so fierce these days that many great films don’t get channeled through traditional distribution, but the story doesn’t have to end there- the possibilities for self-distribution have grown and filmmakers (those just starting out and veterans) should take advantage of an evolving digital landscape that rewards experimentation and innovation in terms of how one approaches getting a film out in the world.

Thank you!

Jamie Meltzer’s feature documentary films have been broadcast nationally on PBS and have screened at numerous film festivals worldwide. His current documentary project, Freedom Fighters (in progress), is a co-production of ITVS and the recipient of a Sundance Institute grant and a MacArthur grant. Informant (2012), about a revolutionary activist turned FBI informant, was released in theaters in the US and Canada in Fall 2013 by Music Box Films and KinoSmith. Previous films include: Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story(Independent Lens, 2003), about the shadowy world of song-poems, Welcome to Nollywood (PBS Broadcast, 2007), an investigation into the wildly successful Nigerian movie industry, and La Caminata (2009), a short film about a small town in Mexico that runs a simulated border crossing as a tourist attraction. He teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University.






Microcinema Tour: Mallary Abel


  1. I’m talking to filmmakers and curators about the state of distribution today. You and a partner started a roving film festival (feel free to re-name that), Cut and Run. Can you talk a little about that? What was the inspiration to start Cut and Run?


Yes – Cut and Run was a roving film festival where we did not just screen at the same microcinema. We travelled to microcinemas all over the place and screened our programs there. Brenda Contreras and I met at San Francisco State University in a film program. We were both were interested in starting a curatorial project that featured not just new – but older and classic works. We concentrated on screening experimental, avant-garde, and even an occasional home movie. At the time, we were just breaking into the microcinema community, and it was very exciting to see how such a genuine and unique niche in the art world has such a close knit web of people all working together, keeping it vibrant. 


  1. From my understanding, Cut and Run mostly visited microcinemas . Can you define microcinema? How do they function?


A microcinema is like a small movie theatre. It can be anything though – a studio, an old church, a converted store front…or a dedicated space that strictly runs as a venue to project films. Small cinemas are able to be set up almost anywhere. They’re different from your normal, high end movie theatre, in that the entire atmosphere and experience is much more personalized (I think). Because the films are generally smaller scale, a small scale cinema can offer the right type of set up… a cozy space, with discussions about the work, Q & As with the artists, etc. Microcinemas can program any films or curated programs they want to. So, the programming can be very diverse. That’s a great thing… 


  1. Getting into the logistics: How did you fund Cut and Run? How much did it cost?


Well – Cut and Run was sort of complex. We’d do screenings at Artists’ Televsion Access in San Francisco, then we’d hit the road and travel. We traveled all over – the West coast, the East coast, and the South. We even managed to get ourselves to Europe to do some screenings with the help of a kickstarter campaign. During that campaign, actually a bunch of filmmakers who’s work we were screening were generous enough to donate. They were supportive and wanted their work to be seen! That European tour was largely possible due to the fundraiser – everything else was funded by us, door revenue at screenings, and submissions. 


  1. How did your tour fit into the larger DIY movement, if it did at all?


I think Cut and Run is a good example of a low-budget film festival that was accessible not just for the audiences we were looking for – but also for filmmakers who needed a certain liaison for which to support the presenting of their work. We’d see a lot of the films we programmed in other experimental film festivals around the country, and that was a reminder that many of us were working towards the same thing. I think we helped get some filmmakers work out there and keep it out there. 

There were times we’d put a film from the ’60s in a program. We had no limits really, we just wanted to screen important work as often as possible. 


Like the rest of the DIY movement, we weren’t going to let our grand goals of running a film festival (albeit small) get away from us, even if it wasn’t financially giving us much revenue. 

We helped keep that beat of experimental film – and microcinemas – alive. 


  1. What were/are the advantages of curating one’s own program and taking it on the road? What were/are the disadvantages?


The advantages were that we were in complete control of where we wanted to go, and that we would get a lot of invitations to screen places. We were very much free, and had some amazing experiences.

The disadvantages were perhaps, that we worked a lot and invested a lot, and while we were returned with an immense amount of gratification from that film festival, it became hard to maintain. Money was perhaps an issue, but that wasn’t a major contribution to why Cut and Run ended. 


  1. Is there a type of film work than lends itself more gracefully to a  tour such as yours?


To me, films that have a specific message or feeling, and films that might push boundaries, or not be afraid to say what they want to say. Experimental, avant-garde, and documentary films lend themselves to a project like Cut and Run. Film that are one of a kind. Short films also are generally more feasible for these types of festivals.


  1. What advice would you give a film student or an out-of-school maker who might be interested in developing a film tour?


Obviously, I’d say, do it! Act responsibly, but gather your resources and get creative, and write down your vision of a film tour. Then start taking the steps to get there and you will see that it will beautifully unfold. I’d also say that, without the filmmakers themselves, there would be no film tour. It’s all about them and their work, in a way. 


  1. What are you up to these days? Talk a little about Gaze and any other recent curatorial projects.


Cut and Run ended it’s tours in 2011. Before C+R said so long though, I was approached by the programmer of Artist’s Television Access to help start a film festival strictly dedicated to screening work made by women. I teamed up with a group of people in the bay area and started running the new festival called GAZE. This will be GAZE’s 4th year. 


The unique thing about GAZE is that we screen works made by female identified artists. While a large part of the film world is controlled by men, GAZE is entirely run with the female gaze ideology. We’re also hoping to take a show on the road this summer – like Cut and Run would.

Aside from programming GAZE, I teach 5th grade and tinker with other film and art projects on the side. 

Mallary Abel is an educator and artist living in Oakland, CA. In 2004, she graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in Cinema. She is also a recent graduate of Mills College where she studied Education with a focus on social justice. Since 2004, Mallary has been largely involved with curating and programming film screenings, nationally and internationally. She helped co-found and run an experimental film festival called Cut and Run. Currently, she teaches 5th grade, and co-runs GAZE,  a women’s film festival based out of Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco. She can always be reached at

GAZE: http://