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AIDC keynote: Diane Weyermann's inside story on Participant Media

David Tiley

Participant Media is a key company in progressive indie US production, and Diane Weyermann is a core changemaker.
AIDC keynote: Diane Weyermann's inside story on Participant Media

Alex Honnold in Free Solo, a Participant Media film which won the documentary Oscar this year. Image: IMDB

Diane Weyermann was the first day headline keynote speaker at the AIDC, in a slot designed to set the tone of the conference. She is president of documentary film and television at Participant Media which is dedicated to ‘entertainment that inspires and compels social change’ according to the website.

At the moment the fiction projects dominate the headlines, as Participant is involved in both Roma and Green Book which scooped the key Oscars. But Participant is probably more involved in a mixed slate of prime drama and blue chip documentaries than any other production company in the English language.

‘We have a double bottom line which makes us unique,’ Weyermann said. ‘We go into a film because we really want the film to reach an audience. We aim to start a conversation, or create perceptual or personal change. This connection, and finding distribution, is key.’

Weyermann has been at the heart of the company and foundation infrastructure sustaining the stubborn US indie documentary form, which has evolved from lean 16mm observational documentaries to the extraordinary lush cinema documentaries empowered by digital technology. 

The US sector is very different from Australia because it exists without government support and relies on foundations and philanthropists. The system valorises entrepreneurship, with distinctive voices rising to the top through dogged attention to income and the bottom line. It is a sector of extremes, where ego and personal brand has always been a key asset in a combative, individualistic society.

Weyermann started as a public advocate lawyer, switched to documentary, ran the New York arts and culture program for the Soros Institute and set up its documentary fund in 1996. She became the director of the Documentary Film Program at the Sundance Institute and created the annual documentary labs, one on editing and storytelling and the other on music. The funding is based on George Soros and Robert Redford, both corporate figures with large warchests and high profiles. 

Armed with this deep experience she arrived at Participant in 2005, just a year after it started. Participant too is a creature of high wealth, as it was started by Jeffrey Skoll, known as the first employee and first president of eBay. 

Weyermann calls herself an executive producer rather than a producer, out of respect for the roles of the producers who have already been involved through inception and development, often for years. 

Her involvement tends to begin in the editing process, watching cuts and providing legendarily good notes. She is at the disposal of the production team, sometimes watching cuts weekly, sometimes almost completely outside until the rough cuts are launched. In one case, for instance, that was a six hour cut for the first half of a film which oscillated between a feature length documentary and a series. 

It is easy to imagine her as an earnest proselytiser, trying to get us to see what we need to watch for our own and the planet’s good. That could not be further from the truth. She acknowledges her commitment to passion and integrity in projects, and her determination to embrace an extraordinary variety of forms. 

‘We are curating rather than initiating. We want a variety of styles and approaches. In that variety the issues which emerge are all fundamental to the world we live in and should be considered. From food to refugees and social justice issues – all major, enduring topics which will continue to be vital.’

She showed two clips, one a piece of American Factory [sequences not publicly available] and the trailer for Aquarella. The first is a classic observational documentary about a factory in Ohio which closes, opens again, goes broke and then opens with a new Chinese billionaire owner. It makes no judgments but allows us to build our rapport for the people in their emotional journeys. The filmmakers already knew the factory workers well, and they lived in the same town, but the Chinese owner gave  them total access as well, right up to attending board meetings. The film is on Netflix, complete with the executives' opinion of American workers: 'They are slow and have fat fingers.'

 

Aquarella comes from Victor Kossakovsky, a Russian filmmaker, who shot at a very high frame rate. It is an extraordinary hymn to water, massively spectacular with only twelve lines of dialogue and an overwhelming soundscape. It cries out for the cinema. 

Weyermann likes to be deeply involved in the wider documentary community to sense the issues and approaches that are swirling under the surface. The real trick is to find the issues that are beginning to emerge, that will contribute to the debate in at least two years time. 

Participant is involved in three or four films per year, mostly in North America but it has done business with filmmakers all over the world. If it comes in early the deals and responsibility structure is comparatively simple. But they become involved in international productions with complex deals which must be redone to involve Participant, which is probably the largest financier. Sometimes the films have as many as fifteen producers. Thank you EU.

Each film is unique, as is the deal and the relationship between Participant and the production, though the aim is always to create the best film which honours the characters and the filmmakers’ vision. Ultimately the creative control remains with the makers, but conflict at this stage is very rare. 

The intention is to attract an audience by the sheer quality of the film, not by pandering or dumbing down.  Participant is not a distributor, so they have to find a home for each film, usually by a substantial launch at a high profile film festival. 

‘It is tough to get a film to work in that theatrical marketplace,’ she said, ‘and hard to know. Some work we thought would break through did not – and vice versa.’

At the same time, Participant runs a substantial marketing department and skilled outreach/impact work to promote engagement with the issues. That really puts them close to the distributors, so the company will sometimes partner with their chosen distributor to reach an audience. 

The distribution situation is now very fluid. Streaming is emerging as the key medium and cinema releases are harder and harder to get. Having said that, Participant had four hits in succession in the last year – Won't You Be My Neighbour, RBG, Free Solo and the triplets film Three Identical Strangers. 

Here is a clip from the makers of American Factory.

Wendy Chiogi chats with members of the film American Factory at Park City Television including Julia Reichert, Director, Steven Bognar, Director, Xiqian Xhang, Producer/Translator and subjects, Jill Lamantia, Bobby Allen and Wong He.

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.