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Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:
While pundits are correct in warning that paying documentary subjects could compromise content, independent documentary production has evolved in recent years (“Docu drama in Gaul,” Daily Variety, Oct. 14).

Advances in video technology, the increasing number of theaters capable of exhibiting video (thereby eliminating the need for a costly blowup to 35mm), miniscule crew size and the sheer necessity of creating on a shoestring budget combine to keep production costs extremely low. If a major upfront production cost is paying non-actors, then truly independent documentaries will be increasingly jeopardized.

That said, why should a $10 million profit be reaped off a subject’s back with zero compensation, as apparently was the case in the recent film “To Be and To Have”? (Particularly when the subjects contribute substantially to the film’s success?)

The answer here is the same as for low-budget feature filmmaking: limited profit participation. Unlike with mainstream Hollywood films, offering net participation on a single-subject documentary wouldn’t be just a gesture, but a practical solution to compensation without impractically inflating the budget. And before anyone objects too strenuously, perhaps they can name 10 independent documentaries that have grossed $10 million.

Elizabeth Schwartz
(The author is the producer of the independent documentary films “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin!” and “Klezmer on Fish Street.”)

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