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Reporter gets real about movies

Bob Bowdon never thought he’d be a documentarian. The veteran New Jersey-based TV producer, anchor and reporter — whose experience spans from Bloomberg Television to the Onion News Network — made his foray into filmmaking with "The Cartel," an exploration of the need for education reform in the U.S. that opens Friday. He spoke with amNewYork about breaking into the documentary film industry.

What's the best way to get started?
Find a topic about which you're passionate. Then buy a camera, some lights, some microphones, and call some friends for help. Then start scheduling interviews. Oh yeah, I might have also included "be a TV reporter for 15 years first." (Put that under "preferred but not necessary," like in a job ad.)

How do documentarians make a living?
The flippant answer is that documentarians, in fact, don't make a living, which actually is the case for the great majority of filmmakers. In my case, I spent my own personal savings to make the entire film, and only after it started winning festival awards was I offered money to distribute it, a small percentage of which (10 percent) I was able to keep as a "licensing fee."

I'm told … that with a successful movie, I can't expect to make back my production expenses and dare I say turn a profit, unless the movie sees a wide theatrical release, we sign a TV deal, or we sell a lot of DVDs.

What would your film a success?
I already consider "The Cartel" a success. It's not only been accepted at a number of highly selective festivals, it's won seven awards.

For a guy who bought an HD camera three years ago to now have a national theatrical release, and a network of education scholars supporting it — yes, I'd humbly call that successful.

You’ve said you became interested in the topic because of a friend who taught English at an inner city school. How did you develop your expertise on the subject?
I began by reading news articles and studies about education policy. Then I called some reform advocates whose opinions made the most sense to me, and I started asking questions. It’s sometimes amazing how much assistance and support you can get on a project just by asking for it.

What are some challenges you faced?
I've learned that if you suggest reforms in something, the beneficiaries of the status quo will likely call you names. Surprise, surprise. Change in anything, it turns out, even the most demonstrably failed institutions, always brings howls of agony from the entrenched interests.

Another downside is having no employment benefits. No 401K. No paid vacation. I pay for my own health insurance.

Why do you think the documentary film industry is currently growing?
In my opinion, there are several factors. First, the increasing share of Internet news delivery has taken money away from traditional media — which in turn has reduced the number of investigative journalists. This has created a need that documentaries increasingly fill.

Fewer ad dollars and increased competition have driven many broadcast and cable news programs to the lowest common denominator to make a buck. So even as a contrast in tone, documentaries are providing a welcome relief to the frequent din of know-nothing punditry.

And finally, the serious drop in the prices of high-definition video equipment and editing systems have made a big difference.

When you’re not focused on docs, what movie is your guiltiest pleasure?
I'll finally have the perfect answer to your question once we get "TMZ — The Movie."

What's your favorite concession snack?
Cracker Jacks. Lots of people make a big deal out of the prize, but I'm really more enthusiastic about the occasional peanuts that appear unpredictably in certain handfuls.


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