After parting ways with its parent company First Look Media in December, the non-profit documentary production studio Field of Vision is at Sundance with four docus and actively seeking new donors and supporters.
Founded in 2015 by former Hot Docs programming director Charlotte Cook, “CitizenFour” Oscar winner Laura Poitras and SXSW prize winner A.J. Schnack (“We Always Talk to Strangers”), the company now 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” as well 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-creators and executive producers in 2017 and 2019, respectively.)
Overall, Field of Vision has supported or produced more than 260 features, shorts, and series mainly via grant money provided by First Look Media, the company run by eBay founder Pierre Olmidyar. Over the last several years, the company has begun commercially investing in docus, including the Sinead O’Connor docu “Nothing Compares” and Sundance hit “We Met in Virtual Reality.”
“We started to invest in docs to really build towards this independent future in sustainability,” says Cook. “I was very hesitant about doing investment and about Field of Vision walking into a commercial space because I really wanted to make sure we could do that and retain our values. Luckily, we found that we could.”
Money that Field of Vision makes from selling a film that they have invested in, goes back into the company to help fund another docu.
“It’s a very different way of thinking about commercial funding,” says Cook. “We really saw success last year with ‘Nothing Compares’ and ‘We Met in VR.’ It was a financial success more than we ever anticipated.”
Despite that success, Field of Vision will only be investing in a “handful” of docus each year.
“We aren’t 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 also really help a film and filmmaker. But we still want the ability to grant because granting is always better for a filmmaker because they don’t have to pay the money back.”
This year, the doc studio has three features and one short at Sundance: Sierra Urich’s “Joonam,” (U.S. Documentary competition), Milisuthando Bongela’s “Milisuthando” (World Cinema Documentary competition) and Alison O’Daniel’s “Tuba Thieves” and Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “King Coal,” (both NEXT section docs). While none of the four docus were investment films, they each received multiple Field of Vision grants, which are usually in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. Each doc is seeking distribution.
Cook says that Field of Vision will be supporting each filmmaker throughout Sundance and beyond.
“It’s a lot of work to work with the filmmakers through strategy so other grant organizations often just contribute the grant,” says Cook. “Whereas we really try to be there at every stage. So, we’ve already done calls with all of the directors about their goals, and we connect them with various buyers. Also, Field of Vision has always been really dedicated to providing legal support for filmmakers. So, we have a pro bono legal clinic because we want to empower filmmakers.”
This year Cook is in Park City to not only support Field of Vision filmmakers, but to also raise grant money that will eventually replace First Look Media investments.
“Last year, Field of Vision was supported more than fifty percent by either revenue from films or fundraising,” Cook says. “So, it’s not like we’re going out in the world for the first time and raising funds, it’s just that we haven’t been very visible about it. So, the big change this year will be talking more about our investing and fundraising because I think a lot of people didn’t realize how successful we were with our doc investments.
She continues: “Making more people aware that we have the ability to fund at a certain level in the field and we can come in with larger money and do that kind of work is something I plan on talking more about.”