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UNITED SKATES: A First Documentary Feature Wins the Tribeca Audience Award and a HBO Deal. A Case Study

UNITED SKATES won the 2018 Tribeca Audience Award, attracted John Legend as an executive producer, and earned a deal with HBO.

It’s a great achievement for the producer / director team of Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown: They worked for five years on their first documentary feature.

Tina Brown shared the filmmakers’ inspirational story for this Case Study, which is sponsored by Sunny Side of the Doc.



When America’s last standing roller rinks are threatened with closure, a community of thousands battle in a racially-charged environment to save an underground subculture– one that has remained undiscovered by the mainstream for generations, yet has given rise to some of the world’s greatest musical talent.

Introducing the Filmmakers:

Tina Brown

  • A studio publicist then magazine editor in Brisbane, Australia, before becoming a producer in the U.S.
  • Married Matt Peterson ACS, a leading Australian cinematographer.
  • They moved to U.S. in 2007.
  • Tina had co-produced a documentary about life in Durban’s harsh townships, earning a Sundance grant for post-production.

Dyana Winkler

  • A film festival programmer, grant reviewer and writer.
  • Her narrative screenplay “Bell” was a participant in the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab and awarded a Sundance Sloan Commissioning grant.
  • She worked at the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program.
  • And later at the Tribeca Film Institute Feature Film Program.


  • Tina Brown and Matt Peterson had settled on New York’s Upper West Side.
  • They had become fascinated by the Central Park skaters – a mainly older and white group – who gathered to ‘roller dance’ each weekend.
  • She and Matt began to film them alongside Dyana who had moved to New York, and she also wanted to pursue a film about the skaters.


  • In May 2013, two African American skaters invited them to come to a National Skate Party in Richmond, Virginia.
  • They took a 3AM bus from New York to Richmond, and there they entered an electric world that revealed the themes that came to be central to the film:
    • The spectacular artistry and athleticism of the roller skaters.
    • A dance culture that fused hip-hop, breaking, animating and a new style all its own.
    • The importance of roller skating to the African American communities across the U.S.
    • How roller skating’s history and practices today capture an all-American story of discrimination and segregation, and commonly involve aggressive policing.
    • How the forces of gentrification are closing rinks nationwide, and thereby stifling roller skating culture.
  • The filmmakers worked to create a compelling structure out the complex menu of themes and potential storylines that they had uncovered.
  • They deepened their commitment to the film by attending Independence Roll in Chicago in July 2013.


  • Tina and Dyana cut a sizzle to screen at the upcoming Sk8-a-thon Atlanta.
  • They earned a standing ovation.
  • “And then, doors opened!” says Tina Brown.
  • “We fell in love with the skate community and were determined to do right by them. The Atlanta sizzle in turn showed our good faith to them, and they saw how they could use us to amplify their voices.”

Funding: Kickstarter

  • In October 2013, they launched a Kickstarter campaign.
    • Ask: $50,000
    • Get: $58,000
    • Net: $38,000
    • Backers: 428
  • The cost included the production of a Kickstarter trailer.

R&D and Funding

  • The strategy was twofold:
    • Concentrate on developing the story and key characters.
    • Add to the richness of the pitch materials as they rolled out proposals to funders.
    • Each application required re-editing of the basic pitch.
  • The California Humanities Documentary Project committed $30,000 in 2015, the first sizeable grant.
  • Lots of other small grants kept the project going.
  • They received significant funding during post-production, including from:
    • Sundance
    • NY State Council for the Arts
    • Women In Film
    • Investors and donors

Funding Takeaway

  • “Women tend to get funding for their projects later in the process than male filmmakers.” (Tina Brown).

“Sunny Side of the Doc is pleased to launch a full-year content partnership with Peter Hamilton’s Through case studies, podcasts and our conference sessions, we will inspire international documentary professionals with the information they need to create, co-produce and successfully distribute their stories.”  Yves Jeanneau, CEO of Sunny Side of the Doc

Field Production

  • Dyana and Tina recorded hundreds of interviews, beginning in January 2014.
  • They couldn’t afford a 3rd person on the crew, so, as a two-woman team, they both shot and recorded sound.
  • They drove to lots of communities and events nationwide.
  • “We became friends and family, staying in the homes of our key characters, filming their intimate family moments.”
  • Hours recorded: 500+


  • Began in January 2016 and completed in April 2018.
  • Katherine Garrison came on board as fulltime editor in 2016 after seeing the Kickstarter trailer and pitching Dyana and Tina to work on the project.
  • It was her first feature documentary.


  • Around $800,000 +/-

Tribeca 2018

  • The producers considered SXSW for the premiere screening, particularly because musical innovation is a powerful theme within the film.
  • The timing, status and venue were better for Tribeca, and they were accepted into competition.
  • Seven Tribeca screenings sold out.
  • The skater community turned out in force.
  • John Legend had come on board as an EP in February 2018. He attended the premiere and created buzz on the red carpet alongside Salt from Salt-N-Pepa, and Vin Rock from Naughty by Nature who were both featured in the film.
  • United Skates won the Tribeca Audience Award for Documentaries.

Response from Distributors

  • Received several offers and expressions of interest.
  • HBO Documentaries was the strongest, most prestigious, and best fit.
    • U.S. and International television
    • Accepted limited theatrical run in NY and LA to qualify for Oscars (Nov / Dec 2018)
    • Premiered on HBO on February 18, 2019

Engagement Campaign

  • “Three rinks are closing a month in the United States. Our goal is to use United Skates as a tool to keep them open!”
  • “As a part of the year-long Fledgling Fund Engagement Lab, we are building an impact and outreach campaign strategy where roller rinks across the country will host community screenings. One partner for these screenings is the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers who selected us to screen and discuss our film at community centers and colleges in North Carolina and Florida March, 2019.” Tina Brown
  • The filmmakers are screening United Skates nationwide and overseas.

Peter’s Takeaways

  • United Skates is a special film that is joyful, even ecstatic at many moments.
  • Yet it powerfully captures the bitter situation of African American communities that remain ensnared by the class and racial legacy of Slavery.
  • I marvel at how the filmmakers uncovered this story by happenstance, beginning with a walk in Central Park, and how a bit at a time, they discovered its powerful characters and situations.
  • They persisted and persisted for five years until they had completed an award-winner, a crowd-pleaser, and a gripping new portrait of race and class in the U.S.
  • United Skates is an example of a “found” story:
    • It developed as new themes and characters were discovered.
    • Its final story-telling was resolved in a long and complex editing process.
    • That post process is unlike most recent television specials that are pre-planned before field production and resolved via detailed paper edits prior to post.

Podcast with Tina Brown

More Reading

2018 Achievements:

  • IDA 2018 Best Documentary Nomination
  • Audience Award – Tribeca Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, Twin Cities Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival
  • Best Documentary – Smithsonian African American Film Festival, Bronze Lens Film Festival, DC Black Film Festival, Baltimore Black Film Festival
  • World Premiere – Tribeca Film Festival
  • International Premiere – Hot Docs
  • Closing Night Film – AFI Docs, LA Film Festival
  • Spotlight Film – Urbanworld
  • European Premiere: BFI London
  • Screened in nearly 130+ film festivals


United Skates was heavily buzzed as a short-list candidate for the 2019 Oscars, but missed out.

Favorable reviews and mentions throughout the media include:

  • “…the ingenuity and dedication of the filmmakers illuminate the same qualities in their subjects.” -New York Times (Critic’s Pick)
  • “a must-see doc…” – Variety
  • “One of 2019’s Most Exciting HBO Documentary Debuts.”  -Vanity Fair
  • “United Skates tackles an immense amount of information in short order with sparkling clarity, twisting from heart-thumping highs to melancholic lows and back again.”  -Vanity Fair
  • “Like such trendsetting classics as Paris Is Burning and Rize, this kaleidoscopically vibrant, essential-viewing… plunges audiences into a dazzling underground scene….”  – Variety
  • “Engrossing” – Rolling Stone
  • “… a sobering look at the racial (and racist) politics underlying the small, but dedicated, movement that, decades later, is still hell on wheels.”- Rolling Stone
  • “A Perfect Film” – Amsterdam News
  • “…cultural anthropology at its Hoop Dreams finest.” – TimeOut NY
  • “If you told us that a documentary about roller rinks would induce a full-on ugly cry, we’d tell you to roll out of here, but this one did.” – TimeOut NY
  • “Thrilling to watch. Important to understand.” – IndieNYC

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