After parting ways with its parent company First Look Media in December, nonprofit documentary production studio Field of Vision has four docs at Sundance and is actively seeking new donors and supporters.
Founded in 2015 by former Hot Docs programming director Charlotte Cook, “CitizenFour” Oscar winner Laura Poitras and SXSW award winner AJ Schnack (“We always talk to strangers”), the company run by Cook has become a force to be reckoned with in recent years. The filmmaker-driven visual journalism documentary company’s credits include the Oscar-winning film “American Factory” and Academy Award-nominated features including “Ascension,” “Strong Island” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” (Schnack and Poitras stepped down from their roles as co-creator and executive producer in 2017 and 2019, respectively.)
Overall, Field of Vision has supported or produced more than 260 features, shorts, and series largely through grant money from First Look Media, the company run by eBay founder Pierre Olmeida. Over the past several years, the company has begun to commercially invest in documentaries, including the Sinead O’Connor docu “Nothing Compares” and the Sundance hit “We Met in Virtual Reality.”
“We’re starting to invest in docks to really build toward this sustainable, independent future,” Cook said “I was very hesitant to invest and walk Field of Vision into a commercial space because I really wanted to make sure we could do that and maintain our standards. Fortunately, we found that we can.”
The money that Field of Vision makes from the sale of a film they invest in goes back into the company to help finance other documentaries.
“It’s a very different way of thinking about commercial funding,” Cook said. “We really saw success last year with ‘Nothing Compares’ and ‘We Met in VR’. It was a financial success beyond our expectations.”
Despite that success, Field of Vision will only invest in a “handful” of documents each year.
“We are not aiming to be a commercial studio,” says Cook. “It’s a side part of what we do. It’s a way to generate some revenue and then really support a film and a filmmaker. But we still want the ability to give grants because it’s always good for a filmmaker to get a grant because they don’t have to pay the money back.”
This year, Doc Studio has three features and one short at Sundance: Sierra Urich’s “Zunum” (US Documentary Competition), Milisuthando Bongela’s “Millisuthando” (World Cinema Documentary Competition) and Alison O’Daniel’s “Tuba Thieves” and Ellen McMillion. Sheldon’s “King Coal,” (both later section docs). Although none of the four docs were investment films, they each received multiple Field of Vision grants, usually in the $25,000 range. Every doc is looking to deliver.
Cook said Field of Vision will support every filmmaker at Sundance and beyond.
“Working with filmmakers through strategy is a lot of work so other grant agencies often contribute grants,” Cook said. “Although we really try to be there at every stage. So, we have already called all the managers about their targets and we have connected them with different buyers. In addition, Field of Vision has always been dedicated to providing legal support to filmmakers. So, we have a pro bono legal clinic because we want to empower filmmakers.”
Cook is in Park City this year not only to support Field of Vision filmmakers, but also to raise grant money that will eventually replace the First Look Media investment.
“Last year, Field of Vision was over fifty percent supported by film proceeds or fundraising,” Cook said. “So, it’s not like we’re going out into the world and raising funds for the first time, it’s just that we haven’t been very visible about it. So, the big change this year will be talking more about our investment and fundraising because I think a lot of people didn’t realize how successful we were with our doc investment.
He added: “Making more people aware that we have the ability to fund a certain level in our field and that we can bring in more money and do this kind of work is something I plan to talk about more.”