DIANE BECKER: Breaking through the Strata in the Indie Documentary Space

By Rebecca Green

Having recently premiered NAVALNY, winner of both the Sundance Festival Favorite Audience Award and the U.S. Documentary Audience Award, a film she had to produce in secret, Diane Becker is 15 years deep into her producing career in both the documentary and the feature film space. 

With a string of music documentaries under her belt, including IF I LEAVE HERE TOMORROW: A FILM ABOUT LYNYRD SKYNYRD, SID & JUDY, and most recently TINA, Diane sits down with Dear Producer to frankly discuss the shifting tides inside the indie documentary space from exploring the new strata of celebrity-driven deals to how they’re changing the rules for what it takes to finally break through to a more sustainable career.

You’ve been partnered with Melanie Miller for over a decade now, how did that relationship start?

Mel and I met in 2005 while I was at the American Film Institute in the producing program. Mel was the Artistic Director at the Jackson Hole Film Festival at the time with a heavy schedule. She was producing an AFI Directing Workshop for Women short for director Jennifer Getzinger, and Mel told her, “Listen, you’ve got to find someone at AFI to help because I can’t do all this on my own.” That was me.

We had a great working relationship on that film and Jen, Mel, and I have become best friends since then. After that film Jen went on to direct some of my favorite episodes of MAD MEN and she’s a very successful television director now. 

I graduated from AFI in 2006 just before the writer’s strike, followed shortly by the financial collapse in 2008. I was also at a point in my personal life where I was thinking about starting a family and just felt like maybe I needed to partner up with somebody because producing in a vacuum can be so lonely. Mel and I decided to start Fishbowl Films officially in 2009, but we had no overall development deal. We had no deal anywhere. No financing, we had nothing.

We were developing projects and trying to meet filmmakers and make something happen while holding down various other jobs. I started working with Greg Barker, John Battsek, and Julie Goldman on Greg’s award winning documentary, SERGIO. Mel, after leaving her role at the film festival, began working with Gravitas Ventures for a number of years.

We made a tiny indie feature called DETOUR in 2009. My newborn was in a crib on the stage while we were trying to shoot this film with dirt in every corner of the location [laughs]. We made it for no money and it made no money but it’s a film I’m really proud of and showcased our ability to do a lot with very little. We met director Shaz Bennett a few years later to help her produce her feature film debut, ALASKA IS A DRAG. We fell in love with her vision for this wonderful, quirky story about boxing and drag queens. 

There’s no easy or soft way to say it – that experience broke me for a number of years. We were frauded and lied to by the “investors,” we did not have the right support paying enough attention to the situation to help us navigate out or around what was happening. And we had just enough financing and credit cards available on a small budget with a very specific, short schedule to keep moving forward. It’s always easy from the outside or in hindsight to see where the potholes were, but in those moments there was always just enough happening to keep moving forward until it was too late. It shattered Shaz’s trust in us, it shattered the crew. It shattered all of us. We ultimately paid the debt out of pocket over the last 6 years and it’s a miracle I did not go bankrupt. We basically had to work nonstop for years to just keep paying off the six figures of personal debt and keep our heads above water. The experience would have sent most people packing and leaving town but I love what I do, and besides, I still have student loan debt! It was a masterclass in failure and I mention it not to dwell on the past, but most people in this business do not share their failures which is a shame because we all need to know how difficult this is and that even the best of us can get caught up in some terrible situations.

On the positive side, because the schedule was short we were able to complete filming. So once we slowly began to untangle all the issues, Shaz was able to finish the film and through her working relationships was able to bring the film to Array who was able to distribute it through Netflix. But let’s be clear – there is no financial upside to that for the filmmakers. Shaz was able to continue moving forward with her scripted career and to this day still has people reaching out to her about how much Leo’s story touched them. And at the end of the day, that is the gold and the reason we all keep moving forward. 

Mel called me one day and said, ‘Listen, I have this idea for a doc. What do you think?’ It was about the biggest science fair in the world and the kids that use science to change the world. That was the seed of INVENTING TOMORROW. We partnered with director Laura Nix, who made it in her own voice, focusing on climate change, and we were able to take that film to the Sundance Catalyst program in the fall of 2016 just before Trump was elected. We spent all of 2017 inspired by these kids through our despair at the changing world. I was chosen that year to become a Sundance Documentary Producing Fellow. That experience came at a crucial time and helped me through the difficulty of what had happened the previous few years. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and ultimately won a Peabody Award. We just wrapped up a big impact campaign where the film has been all over the world and in classrooms offering lessons from the film for the last 3 years.

I see you have four credits for 2021 on your IMDB page. Is it pandemic overflow? 

Yes. TINA was on a schedule to finish in 2020. I think the edit schedule went a bit longer and then the pandemic extended it out further. WHITE COAT REBELS was a film I produced with Greg Barker and Participant Media about these young doctors using activism to fight back against Big Pharma. We probably would have finished at some point in 2020, but again, the pandemic hit, delaying post-production. We spent most of 2020 working on the edit. DETAINEE 001 was another film Greg had been working on and off on for a number of years for Showtime and it finished around the anniversary of 9/11 – sometimes you just don’t know the trajectory these films will take but hopefully they arrive when they are most needed in the world.

With ON THE DIVIDE, directors Leah Galant and Maya Cueva had been working on that film for six years. We came on to the film in 2018 to help them. They reached out to us when we were at Hot Docs with INVENTING TOMORROW. We were fried. We met them and they said, ‘Look, we have this story about this abortion clinic on the border of Texas, and we have no money.’ Sometimes the first thing you want to say is, “No.” You’re just thinking, ‘I am exhausted. I am tired. I’m not going to get paid,’ but the truth is, they are very bright, very talented, and had a great idea for a film. They had also done so much work on their own and we instantly loved them and their passion for the story but we knew it was going to take a village of women to get it done. So we partnered with producers Amanda Spain in LA and Elizabeth Woodward in NY so we could all continue working on projects that kept the rent paid while we supported Leah and Maya and this wonderful film that will finally premiere on POV in the spring. 

Mel and I love working with emerging filmmakers. We’re always looking for new talent with a unique voice and point of view. Those are the kind of filmmakers we want to work with. People that inspire us. 

How do you balance a career and build a slate so that you can do the films you love and also pay the bills?

It’s almost three plates that overlap a bit, like a Venn diagram. You can really only take on one project like ON THE DIVIDE at a time. I don’t come from money. I have worked for everything I’ve ever gotten, and then some. That’s a project where you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s for the cause. I’m doing that one for the cause.’

For TINA, it was a work for hire. Lightbox was the production company and had the relationship with Erwin Bach and Tina Turner. I came on that film to help produce the day to day, on-the-ground work alongside Dan and TJ. Jonathan and Simon Chinn are obviously involved in all aspects around the film and it was an absolute joy to collaborate with Dan, TJ, Ben, and the entire team. Tina has been an inspiration for most of my life and being able to share her story was one of the more gratifying experiences I’ve had making a movie. Not being able to share that film with an audience in a loud theater because of Covid was heartbreaking. I really miss the collective experience of watching movies. 

I’ve been able to sustain myself by cobbling a full-time living out of a handful of projects at a time. Many of these budgets can’t afford to keep someone on a full-time salary through the duration of the film, especially when the schedules shift (and they always do). I’ve always had to juggle multiple projects. On the plus side, it keeps things fresh and challenging.

Mel and I have spent the last year doing more development so that we can continue to build the company and expand and grow our team. We know so many talented people we love working with and want to see their careers grow. The truth is that there truly are not enough female-led production companies out there that the studios are engaging with on a daily basis in terms of producing deals. We are planning to change that and have been able to be part of more conversations as our list of credits grow and people see that we are able to lead a film creatively as well as deliver it successfully to the marketplace.

Truthfully, there are only a handful of producers who have deals, let alone female-led or led by people of color. You see the same names on every documentary. Id go so far to say as there is a small group of people hoarding all the funding. 

Yes, it sometimes feels like the same companies over and over. It’s a difficult space to break into. We’ve kept ourselves relevant by being really good producers and collaborators. We know how to get in there and make the sausage, so to speak. We’re able to not only lead the creative side but we also are really skilled at physical production, budgeting, scheduling, and post. Mel has an amazing brain for distribution given her executive experience. I almost never have a post-supervisor or line producer because we can usually handle it and sometimes that is driven by the budget constraints or trying to explain to people how our partnership works. We share a brain!

Is it bothersome to you how everything is becoming either director or celebrity-driven, in terms of who has deals? It seems that its the people who dont know how to produce that actually get the producing deal—theyre more like development producers who then still have to call someone in to actually produce.

In order to scale up enough to get that kind of deal, you need infrastructure for more volume, but you can’t have the infrastructure (which costs money) if you don’t have a deal. Are you trying to get to that place where you have a deal and infrastructure?

Yes, 100% that is the goal. I feel like every year we get a little bit closer to it, but as a result, we have to work just a little bit harder. You’re absolutely right. There are not enough producers out there that actually know how to do all the day to day producing work in a really deep way. 

We’ve been talking about scaling up the last couple of years and are definitely strategizing how to make that a reality this year. Hopefully with the success of NAVALNY and our team who made that film, coupled with a few other things we have on our plate we’ll be able to finally breakthrough to bring the dream to reality. At the end of the day, all we can do is just keep producing good work and growing from each and every experience.

I’m not sure what the situation was with TINA, but I wanted to ask you about this wave of celebrity-driven and backed projects, where the subject of the film is also a producer. Theres Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Tina Turner–they just keep coming and coming. Its obvious why they get made, there’s a built-in audience for them, but do we need a new name for those kinds of documentaries? If it were a book it would be a biography…

Tina’s husband Erwin was an EP on the film, but they were not part of our day-to-day life. They trusted us. We met with Tina for one of our first interviews and sat with her for a couple of days and then we went off and made the film. I think they were both very happy with it and appreciated the point of view that directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin brought. I don’t know if there’s a specific genre for these films because they’re not just biopics, or music docs. Should they be in their own genre? It’s so difficult. How can a film like COLLECTIVE go up against MY OCTOPUS TEACHER? They’re two totally different films. It’s unfair to everybody that it all comes down to only one category for the Academy Awards.

For me, COLLECTIVE is the epitome of what a documentary is supposed to be. I don’t think I knew it until I watched it and thought, Oh this is documentary filmmaking.It was spectacular. 

Should we be calling a film a documentary if the subject is also a producer and has creative control on a project? These are the types of projects that are getting funded, getting the premiere distribution slots. How do we preserve room for the docs that are not celebrity driven? 

Defining what a documentary is in this evolving marketplace is changing rapidly and I don’t have all the answers as I’m still processing it in my head daily. I don’t necessarily think some of these biopics are taking money away from other films. Look, there’s more documentary content being made than ever before. It’s impossible to hire people right now. Everyone seems to be busy, and that can only be good, right?

The scripted independent film space seems really hard right now. Money is scare and theatrical is in flux. The documentary space has grown so much because there are more avenues and places to put these stories, people are watching, and budgets are ultimately smaller so the risk maybe feels lower. 

Issue driven films with more thoughtful or challenging subject matter are always going to be harder to finance. You’re not going to necessarily set a film like that up at a streamer right away because most of them are not taking those kinds of risks at the front. You may have to actually go raise money for it and it’s a longer and more difficult road, but there are people out there that are passionate about supporting this kind of work. 

As an industry we need to keep supporting filmmakers who want to make more challenging work. Distributors need to be braver, audiences are not stupid. And then we need to continue to show up and watch these films and amplify their messages.

I love doing issue driven films as much as I love music docs. It can be a nice balance for the soul – issue driven films can really weigh on your psyche depending on the subject. Music is fun! And good stories are everywhere.  

It is such an individual perspective. “Good stories” are different to every person.

And isn’t that what’s so great?! There’s room for all of us out here because no two people are ever going to be interested in the same thing all the time. 

If you had to make different categories for documentaries, what would they be? 

I don’t know, I’m no expert. It might be nice to see social issues separated from more “cultural” films. Culture is a big wide pool. It could be anything from a nature film to a music film to something more lightweight in spirit. Then you’ve got the more serious social films that seem to encompass more traditional documentaries. Shouldn’t there at least be these two categories?

But there’s social commentary in the cultural films too, like in TINA, shes talking about domestic abuse and violence. Women’s rights and women’s equality. It’s just masked in the music. 

Exactly – this is why it’s so hard to figure out! Hopefully, you would think on some level that even the purest of biopics would address some issue.

Every film needs an easy access point for audiences to get them to turn on the film, you cant always lead with the social message or deeper meaning. Its something I dont think enough filmmakers think about and then they wonder why no one sees their film. I’m not in filmmaking for the money either, but I am in it for the eyeballs. 

WHIRLYBIRD was an example of that. It’s a one of a kind story with an amazing archive but with some difficult moments that aren’t always easy. It was well-reviewed, but it’s been really challenging trying to get audiences to see it. Maybe it was a victim of Covid, or the distribution challenges we had, who knows. Director Matt Yoka and I are always joking that it’s going to be a cult classic someday because once you do turn it on, it’s an incredible watch. 

With INVENTING TOMORROW, we knew how difficult it was going to be to make a film about climate change. Audiences can get inundated with facts which can become overwhelming to plug your emotions into. Laura and the team always talked about that film being a Trojan Horse. The kids are the horse – they are the emotional center and the way into discussing these serious climate issues that are urgent. Their passion was the way to deliver an important message while also entertaining audiences. It’s a tricky balance.

We’re always having that conversation. How do you bring people to a hard subject matter that you can’t quite visualize all the time? For me, it always comes back to the human story, the emotion, because that’s where we as viewers connect.

Big picture question. Where do you think indie documentary films fit right now and are you hopeful about the future? Do you see the great shifts happening as positive or do you see it a little more bleak like I do?

I think I’m kind of in the middle. It’s not that I think it’s bleak, it’s just that I think we have work to do. 

I think it’s harder than ever if you’re starting out, but truthfully it’s always been hard otherwise everyone would do it. You’ve got to be passionate and hungry. Yes, there are more places where content is being created. I think you need to be smart about what projects you choose to develop and what inspires you as a storyteller. How do you want to spend your time? How do you make the distinction between what you think you can raise money independently for and what you think you need to sell straight away. That’s an important consideration that not enough people take the time to make when they are assessing what they want to do.

There seems to be this seductive idea of trying to raise the money independently, thinking maybe you’ll get a fancy premiere at Sundance, with a (big) sale and all the things. But there are only a few lottery winners out there. Most films are not being sold for more than $3 million and there are many great films that premiere at Sundance and never get sold. Twenty million dollar sales are outliers, not the norm. You have no idea if you’re going to be a unicorn. Ever.

I actually don’t think those big sales help the wider industry to some degree because you think, if most of these budgets are well under $5 million, and you could pay someone $10 million or more for a film, it would be possible to take that money, and use it across three other films and sustain the careers of easily another 100 people. The sustainability of it all is a real thing that is not being discussed enough.

If you really look at the films that have been bought for seven figures, most of them dont perform even close to beyond the acquisition price, its baffling. If there was one big industry change you could see or make happen, what would that be?

You’re going to love this answer. You’re going to love it because it’s exactly what you think. It needs to be unionized. Everybody needs to be unionized, everybody deserves health care, everybody deserves a living wage and reasonable work hours. Including the producers.

Maybe we need more transparency in how the costs for these films are laid out. In the documentary space, many editors are now making more money than anybody else on the film (directors and producers work on a flat no matter if the film takes one year or five). I’m not saying they do not deserve these wages, they work crazy hours on impossible schedules and are doing the heavy lifting on a daily basis. I love editors! What’s interesting is that many of the successful ones have now pivoted to directing. And now they are seeing how low budgets are, how hard it is to manage the numbers, and that they actually were paid more in the long run editing. 

If everybody was making a living wage across every department from top to bottom, with the opportunity to provide benefits, and we were able to be more realistic about the budgets in that way, it would help. Sustainability is crucial to the well being of the industry and each individual who devotes their lives to this career. Covid has laid bare how little time we all have here on the planet and has forced us all to reassess how we live our lives. It will be interesting to see how the industry and the world keeps changing as a result.

They’re also making more money and can enjoy things like infrastructure and the support of staff. Its creating this stratum that leaves us boots-on-the-ground producers wondering when, or if, there will ever be space for us to breakthrough.

I’m trying to just focus on what I can control. The only thing I can control at the end of the day is how I work, who I work with, and the kind of job that I do. My mantra is the people and the project. I keep hoping that if people keep liking the work Mel and I bring to the table, then maybe it will be like FIELD OF DREAMS, “If you build it, they will come.”

If I really stop and think about that, and believe me I do at times, it’s possible that I would completely stop. The reality is, there are days where it feels futile. I’ve been lucky enough this year to have fallen into a bit of a once-in-a-lifetime story with NAVALNY that distracted my tired COVID brain. And that’s really part of what keeps this spark alive. Finding what inspires me and just keep moving forward. At the end of the day, I love what I do. Those moments of inspiration remind me of that.

As we round this out, Im curious to know what you do for self-care? How do you take care of yourself while servicing all of these projects that need your attention every second of the day?

I struggle. Honestly, I’m not very good at it and anyone who knows me knows that I do not prioritize myself enough. I feel so much responsibility to either the projects or the team that I still get up at six in the morning to deal with all the questions and issues that come up early hoping I can get a handle on the day. To say nothing of the challenges of being a mother with a young child working in this industry.

Whatever little boundaries I had before the pandemic were completely obliterated the minute I started sitting at my kitchen counter working constantly without anywhere to go. For a time, my son was physically home with me every day and he would come out and say, “Hey, do you need a hug? That sounded like a hard phone call.” [chuckles]

When I try to prioritize self-care, I take a walk or go to the gym and I try to see friends. I started taking an art class where I get to just be very mediocre without any pressure and it’s kind of therapeutic. The irony is, there’s a handful of other documentary producers on the east side of LA that take this art class, it’s very strange and comforting. I don’t know what that says about producers other than we all need a little creative outlet that has no motive other than joy. I’ve found that I’ve tried to enrich my friendships with other producers even more because I actually think that producers need to stick together and continue to talk to each other. It is a really hard job and almost nobody truly understands it. You can’t be complaining to your director or your DP, or your assistant editor, or your PA, about whatever problem you have. There is a bit of a wall you’ve got to keep sometimes because everyone is looking at you to take the lead and keep your sh*t together. There’s a time to be transparent but then there’s a time to just put your head down and get the work done. The only people I’ve found that I’ve been able to really share that with, other than my therapist, are other producers.

I wholeheartedly agree. 

This is why I love Dear Producer so much. I love everything that you do, and I mean that.

Thank you.

You are doing, as they say, God’s work.