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Independent Lens: The Curators’ Vision & Commissioning Process (2/2)

Last week, we began our coverage of Independent Lens (IL), the flagship U.S. public television documentary strand.

  • This week, we cover IL’s vision and commissioning process

AND, we asked Dana Bramble to pick 3 recent IL docs that each lit a fire for her classmates at American University.

  • See the clips below.

PLUS, for doc producers:


Curatorial Vision

According to IL co-curator Lois Vossen:

Independent Lens aims to be the best showcase of documentary film. We support films that represent the breadth of work being done by independent nonfiction filmmakers, from across the spectrum of documentary genres.

We’re looking for consequential films that resonate individually and together create a slate that captivates a television audience over the course of our nine-month season.

IL expects films to be extremely well made, compelling in their storytelling, relevant, and to provide insight into the world or a topic our audiences haven’t seen or heard before.

We’re focused on working with diverse filmmakers, and bringing stories to underrepresented audiences. Each film is deliberately unique and brings something different to our audiences every week. The series is continually evolving on television and online.


Key categories in IL‘s social issue and point of view documentary genre are:

  • Political history
    (The New Black, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague, Let the Fire Burn, Black Power Mixtapes, The Weather Underground)
  • Current affairs
    (The Kill Team, Park Avenue, The Invisible War, The House I Live, The Waiting Room, Detropia, Hell and Back Again, Love Free or Die)
  • Artist profiles
    (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Muscle Shoals, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Woodmans, Art & Copy)
  • Culture
    (Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Soul Food Junkies, Seeking Asian Female, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes)
  • International topics
    (God Loves Uganda, Blood Brother, Summer Pasture, The Island President, Waste Land, Iron Ladies of Liberia, Please Vote For Me)

Curatorial Team

  • ITVS and PBS co-curate IL.
  • Members of curatorial team are:
    Lois Vossen, IL Senior Series Producer
    Claire Aguilar, ITVS Executive Content Advisor
    Donald Thoms, Vice President, Programming at PBS
    Kathy Lo, Director, Program Development at PBS

Content & Editorial

We program nonfiction films in a character-driven documentary format.We present films that open and shape conversations today, and remain relevant over time. We are focused on social issue storytelling, told in entertaining and innovative ways. We feature first-rate journalistic documentaries and festival favorites with wide audience appeal.

  • Filmmaker has final cut
  • Independent Lens Senior Series Producer work with filmmakers to assure films meet FCC broadcast standards and PBS Editorial and Broadcast standards
  • IL doesn’t program news, reality television, purely experimental film, and narrative fiction

Submission process

  • Open Submission: The annual open submission deadline is the late March. Guidelines are posted here
  • Read more about the IL submission process here
  • Receive 750+ submissions / year
  • Filmmakers are notified of decisions as they are made during the curating process
  • 22-24 broadcast premieres plus 5-7 encore presentations per season

IL Funding Mix Chart

Funding Commitments

Independent Lens commits to programs in two ways:

  • Production funding (60% – 80%) – Working with ITVS, Independent Lens provides production funding through limited commissioning. Projects are commissioned at R&D, production with proposal/treatment, rough cut, and fine cut.
  • Acquisition (20% – 40%) – Films acquired at rough cut, fine cut, or completion

Acquisition Timeline

  • Actively curate the series from September through May
  • Curators attend 15+ festivals and markets in the U.S. and internationally each year to scout films
  • Slate for the new season is finalized each April/May
  • Slate for the new season is announced in August
  • The summer months are spent in production: produce host introductions, contracting, work with filmmakers to deliver programs to Independent Lens, package shows, deliver shows to PBS, create marketing and publicity collateral for new season launch
  • New season launch is Fall

Format & Delivery

  • IL has worked with films shot and completed on all formats (film, video, HD)
  • Final delivery to PBS is HD

Spending Funding

  • $2.5 million annual operating budget
  • Funding sources: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and MacArthur Foundation


  • The Independent Lens Marketing and Publicity team pitch all films in a season for long lead and short lead press. 
  • All films can leverage the 345+ PBS stations nationwide to reach deep into communities and connect with viewers on a local level. 
  • Using IL and ITVS platforms, films will get support on the robust social media platforms including newsletter, blog, and leverage longstanding media partnerships. 
  • Films are featured and promoted on and the IL homepage.
  • Select films will be presented and receive promotional paid campaigns that contain radio, print, online and on-air paid advertising.   

Read more about IL social media and marketing here…


Why IL Matters

Dana Bramble, a senior at American University and a recent Nat Geo Channels intern selected three IL documentaries that particularly speak to her and her friends.

The Invisible War


Kirby Dick’s Academy Award nominated documentary uncovers the horrifying epidemic of sexual assault in the military.

The House I Live In

The true nature of the nation’s War on Drugs is examined in this powerful film.

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

China’s most controversial artist proves that loving your country sometimes means fighting against it.


Next Workshop / Tutoring Session:

World Congress of Science & Factual ProducersMontreal
Co-Production Surgery: US Funds and Foundations
Thursday, December 5th 9:00-12:30


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