Dawn Porter Talks Doc Techniques

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter, the founder of Trilogy Films, shared her creative processes in a MIPDoc keynote before discussing the challenges and opportunities in the market with World Screen’s Anna Carugati.

“We’re all quite aware of the difficulties of commissioning and the challenges in our market, but I do want to stress that there is still quite a good path for quality filmmaking,” Porter said in her keynote address in Cannes.

“The films that we make and the products that we produce are really popular,” she said. “There’s a reason why nonfiction is resonating with audiences. Our films do a longer look, a deeper dive. They’re creative, interesting and innovative. I’m also finding that commissioners are giving us a little bit more  development money in order to bring these stories to life.”

Discussing The Lady Bird Diaries, streaming on Hulu, Porter noted that the series was commissioned by ABC News Studios, “which is a really important supplier these days. And I find that with a number of the news studios in America. This is an all archival series. There’s no presenter, but there are also no talking heads. We were able to piece it together using all archive from ABC, but also through other sources around the world. It’s the story Lady Bird Johnson gets to tell through her own diaries. She recorded 123 hours of diaries while she was in the White House. And then I married those diaries with archive. And we made the point that you can tell history from this perspective. This was in the top ten of Hulu across America when it debuted, which underscores that there is certainly an appetite for this history, but also this history from a different vantage point. This came after I had done films about John Lewis, the civil rights activist, and Bobby Kennedy.”

Porter also works on projects about contemporary matters, including Deadlocked on Showtime, which explores the evolution of the U.S. Supreme Court. “The challenge in doing this was that the news out of the court was coming faster than we could capture it. At some point, we had to stop and not chase the news of the day. But that’s also what our films do; they give history and context.”

Porter also showed MIPDoc delegates a trailer from The Sing Sing Chronicles, commissioned by MNSBC Studios, about individuals who were wrongfully convicted.

Porter’s background is in the law, having practiced for five years in Washington, D.C. before switching gears and moving to television, first as a fact-checker and then as a filmmaker, landing a commission from HBO for Gideon’s Army in 2013. Since then, the commissioning landscape for documentaries has shifted dramatically.

“I think it’s important for all of us to be honest about what’s happening,” Porter said in her keynote conversation with World Screen’s Carugati. “I’m looking at how we make films, how the budget constraints are changing and trying to go back and have honest conversations with all of the partners about how we’re going to do this together. They need us to stay working! It is important to recognize but not be devastated by the changes that are happening in our market. We are also reaching out to do some private funding. I have a brand-new project about Winnie and Nelson Mandela and the first money in there, which is substantial, is from a private foundation. Having that money allows us to shape the story and really dig into how it’s going to be differentiated. But it’s an epic story, so we would definitely need a broadcaster to come aboard.”