Production Values

Film Producer Lance Kramer on Daring Documentaries and Streaming Services

If Netflix’s “Recommended for You” section hasn’t been delivering lately or your queue is sparse, try adding City of Trees (2016, Dir. Brandon Kramer) to your list. It’s the first and award-winning feature-length documentary from production company Meridian Hill Pictures (MHP), founded by brothers Brandon and Lance Kramer and based in Washington, D.C.

City of Trees takes place over roughly two years: the amount of time that Washington Parks and People (WPP)—a non-profit started in Meridian Hill Park—has to spend a stimulus grant received at the height of the recession. As the country faces a slow and steep climb out of the Great Recession, WPP’s job is to hire 150 unemployed people, train them to plant trees, and hope that something will stick, even though the paycheck won’t.

Trailer courtesy of Vimeo and Meridian Hill Pictures

To make City of Trees, the Kramer brothers had to build trusting relationships with WPP’s employees and ask people already in a position of financial vulnerability to be even more vulnerable in front of a camera.

That can be quite uncomfortable for subjects and a difficult skill for filmmakers to hone, especially if the one asking isn’t comfortable with being vulnerable themselves. This skill is something Lance Kramer is working on in his own life—and in interviews.

When asked about a moment of his life that Kramer wished for the retroactive opportunity to film, he remembered a period of time surrounding his late grandmother’s battle with cancer.

After her death, Kramer recalled that “it took years for my mom, my brother, myself, my dad, to open up and talk more. We all retreated into our corners, and we probably each suffered or struggled way more than we needed to had we felt more comfortable being open.”

It might seem counterintuitive, he acknowledged, to wish for the presence of a camera in a moment of grief.

“When you know how to introduce something like a camera, a pen, or your recorder, into the mix, in even very personal vulnerable moments like that—you do it the right way, it can actually be a part of healing that serves the people who are going through something hard even before it might be of interest to an audience,” Kramer said.

This same strategy seems to be at work in a project like The Messy Truth, a 3-part web series in which CNN contributor Van Jones facilitates conversations between a mixed bag of voters—Trump, Hillary, undecided—just before the election. Though many moments are tense or tearful, they’re rarely silent or hostile.  

Video courtesy of Vimeo and Meridian Hill Pictures

But in a political climate fraught with communication breakdowns, executing a concept like The Messy Truth seemed risky. The project was filmed in a day and edited in less than two weeks—and with virtually no budget. The gamble paid off, and the series was picked up by CNN and earned over 4 million views. For MHP, the team’s respect for risk-taking strategies is clear.

“Films which often times take the greatest risk—because the filmmaker is putting the most on the line, could also be the films that compose the potential for the greatest reward,” Kramer said.

To make City of Trees, MHP put over $400,000 on the line. In an article for documentary.org, Kramer makes a nearly mind-numbing list of numbers, totaling up the film’s “low budget,” which came from a patchwork of personal savings, loans, and grants. Kramer acknowledges that he and his brother were in a position of privilege to receive $50,000 in loans from family members when they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to pay the company’s bills. Kramer’s article argues that the financial model for documentary filmmaking is broken and marginalizes filmmakers.

“Broken aspects of the system are keeping out exceptional stories from exceptional filmmakers,” Kramer said, “that could have broad reach and mean something to people and also make money.” This system, Kramer argues, shuts out diversity of gender, race, class, and geography from mainstream channels.

“Rather than distribute daring and bold work that takes risks,” Kramer said, “there’s the desire to mass market something that is easier to predict potential success and commercial viability. But I hope that that’s not the field’s answer to the sustainability crisis.”

Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon seem to think that algorithms are the answer, and that giving audiences exactly what they like is a job well done.

But if plugging data into algorithms becomes “exclusive fuel to drive content and substance, it’s a slippery slope,” Kramer said. “It undermines the way that we value the artist and their instinct, perspective, and what they are seeing in this world that needs to be said.”

Further, Kramer notes that perfectly-tailored recommendations can “deny people the pleasure of being pleasantly surprised”—not to mention preventing any feelings of unfamiliarity or discomfort, a zone of emotion that documentaries often work within and utilize.

Though City of Trees is streaming on Netflix, Kramer still believes the film “hit a relatively small pocket of the world.” Now, his company is looking to balance the desire of “making things that can reach more people” while challenging themselves “to see what feels the hardest right now, and work through that,” Kramer said.

Speaking about the issues and ethical compass that MHP aims to follow, Kramer returned to the story of his grandmother and the lesson he’s learning about being vulnerable and uncomfortable.

“I want to fall into that same boat as much as I can,” Kramer said, “and put things out into the world that were the reflections of the greatest lengths we could stretch ourselves. That’s what I want to see from other people, and it’s what I hope we can offer the world.”

Further, Kramer is still thinking about the themes that City of Trees explores in the context of the recession and applying them to his own work in the field of documentary.

“I’m trying my best,” Kramer said, “to participate in part of a movement amongst filmmakers to work on issues of sustainability, equity, inclusion, transparency—all of these structural inequalities and injustices in the field that have held things back, and try to see where I can be an ally, if I’m part of the problem, where I can check myself and do better.”
City of Trees is available to stream, buy, or rent on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu. Visit meridianhillpictures.com to watch The Messy Truth and for more information on previous and upcoming films.

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