'Civic Films' From U.Va. Center for Politics and PBS Rack Up Awards

December 01, 2010

December 1, 2010 — A recent Telly Silver Award for the 2009 documentary, "Locked Out: The Fall of Massive Resistance" is the latest in a string of awards – six so far – recognizing documentary films produced by a partnership between PBS Community Ideas Stations (based in Richmond) and the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

The partnership, begun in 2002, has jointly funded and produced three documentary films, with a fourth due in summer 2011 and a fifth in the pipeline for 2013. 

The partnership's films can be described as "civic filmmaking," said Center for Politics director Larry Sabato, a politics professor in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences. They cover American politics and government with in-depth analysis and long-view insights from scholars, journalists, leading politicians and, frequently, history-makers themselves. Such scope and depth is a rarity in today's media landscape, he added.

The approach keeps racking up awards, earning the partnership "brand recognition" in the documentary film world, said John Felton, executive producer of all three films and vice president and general manager for programming and production for the Community Idea Stations (WCVE in Richmond and WHTJ in Charlottesville).

The partnership's first documentary, "Wilder: An American First," released in 2005, received three Telly Awards for its story of the nation's first elected African-American governor.

In "Questioning the Constitution," (2008) a panoply of experts and statesmen like former Senators John Warner and Bob Dole weigh in on whether the Constitution needs some improvements, drawing heavily on issues raised in Sabato's 2007 book, "A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country." The film received an Award of Excellence from the International Academy of Visual Arts.

In addition to a 2010 Telly Award, the latest film, "Locked Out," also was nominated for a "Best Documentary" Emmy award by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The film explores the tragedies and triumphs of the children of Virginia who found themselves on the front lines of a cultural war during the desegregation of Virginia's public schools.

All three films have aired nationally on hundreds of PBS stations across the country, reaching, respectively, 78 percent, 69 percent, and 48 percent of all U.S. households, Felton said.

The filmmaking partnership helps both organizations better meet their overlapping missions of education and community outreach, Felton said. All of the films have been used in public school classrooms across the nation, thanks to follow-on efforts by both partners. 

The Community Ideas Stations' "Classroom Clips" program breaks the films into brief, teachable segments, with links to relevant Standards of Learning requirements.

Complementing that, the Center for Politics' Youth Leadership Initiative provides related lesson plans, talking points and interactive online tools to make it easy for teachers to utilize the films in their classes.

As a result, it's fairly common for either partner to be contacted by educators from across the country. The films are available by request, for free, for practically any non-commercial use. "We want to get these out there as much as possible," Felton said.

Making a documentary that will be viewed and used in education for years to come is a monumental task, said Mason Mills, producer/director of the three films, an adjunct professor in sculpture and new media at Virginia Commonwealth University and the digital arts manager at Richmond CenterStage.

Fortunately, both partners bring complementary strengths to the process, which "makes a better film possible," Mills said. The Idea Stations bring the film production resources and expertise and national PBS distribution network, while the center brings educational support and distribution to schools as well as access to leading statesmen and history makers whose participation mean the film will remain an important resource for many years to come.

Each hour-long film costs between $100,000 and $150,000, a very lean budget compared the industry average of roughly $250,000 to $300,000 per hour of PBS documentary programming, Felton said. The films are funded entirely by private contributions to both partners, with each raising roughly half the funds.

The next film, "Out of Order," due in summer 2011, will examine the components that have contributed to a decline in civil discourse, including gerrymandering, filibustering, campaign finance, ethics scandals and the role of the media, especially the 24-hour news cycle driven by cable news and the Internet. 

While that film will focus in on civil discourse, promoting civil discourse is really what all of the films are about, said Paul Roberts, a co-producer of "Locked Out" who will lead production of "Out of Order."

The partnership also plans a 2013 documentary on the legacies of President John F. Kennedy and his administration as part of the Center for Politics' ongoing Golden Anniversary Series, a decade-long program commemorating the 50th anniversary of seminal political events of the 1960s.

"The challenge for civic education in a multimedia world is to cut through the clutter and teach vital lessons in an engaging way," Sabato said. "Civic filmmaking combines the talents and missions of PBS and the U.Va. Center for Politics. This creative partnership has really worked, and we plan to continue it for years to come as we examine critical turning points in American politics in our Golden Anniversary Series."

Some people view the recent Silver Telly as the biggest award yet for the partnership, Mills said. But for him, it means the most when someone from a school in San Francisco or North Dakota contacts the station asking for a copy of a film to use in their class. When people are still utilizing a film years after it came out, Mills said, "that means we did something right."

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications