Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Independent Lens: Nearly $2.5 Million for Indie Docs. How Many? How to Get It! What are the Odds? (1/2)

Where do independent doc creators go for funding?

Independent Lens is a highly promoted PBS strand that averages 1.2+ million weekly viewers in its Monday 10pm slot.

Lois Vossen is the Senior Series Producer and co-curator of this flagship PBS brand. She describes Independent Lens as a ‘Film Festival in Your Living Room’. We recently caught up with Lois and the IL team.

First, here is the trailer for the current season:

And the link is here:


Independent Lens first 11 seasons:

  • 330 films broadcast, more than 250 films presented
    • 288 feature-length and TV-hours
    • 42 shorts
  • Every major journalism, television and independent film award
    • Seven Academy Award nominations including The Invisible War, How to Survive a Plague, Hell and Back Again, Waste Land, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and The Weather Underground
    • Two Primetime Emmy Awards for Have You Heard From Johannesburg and A Lion in the House
    • Seven Emmy Awards News and Documentary
    • 10 Peabody’s
    • 4  DuPonts
  • Here is a link to the IL video promo.

A Funding Magnet

  • A commitment from IL has given filmmakers the leverage to raise millions more from foundations, family foundations, private investors, NGO’s, and government agencies
  • U.S. co-funders include Ford Foundation, Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Impact Partners, Chicken & Egg, Cinereach, Catapult, Gucci Tribeca, etc.
  • International co-funders include: BBC’s Storyville, STEPS International, ARTE, ABC Australia, CBC Canada, National Film Board of Canada, NZ broadcasters, etc.

Television Audience

  • PBS reaches 115 million TV households and IL reaches 98% of the PBS footprint.
  • In recent years, high profile IL premieres have reached nearly 2 million viewers (Half the Sky, The Invisible War, The House I Live In)
  • The average weekly audience is one million plus viewers

Program Length / Formats

  • Feature (83:25 minutes)
    • 10-15 feature length films each season
  • TV Hour (53:25 minutes)
    • 10-15 TV hour length films each season
  • Two-hour (113:25 minutes) and longer
    • 1-2 per season including Bhutto, Young@Heart, The House I Live In, and this season The Graduates/Los Graduados and Muscle Shoals (2 hrs.) and At Berkeley (4 hrs.)
  • Multi-part or limited series
    • IL continues to support and champion multi-part series such as A Lion in the House, The New Americans, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, Half The Sky
    • Shorts (varying lengths)
      • We have scheduled entire episodes of shorts
      • Currently we program shorts to accompany a film when it doesn’t fill a broadcast time slot
      • The number of shorts per season is 1-4
  • Host introductions
    • IL films a one-minute host introduction for all films
    • Hosts include Stanley Tucci, Don Cheadle, Edie Falco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Mary-Louise Parker, America Ferrera, and Susan Sarandon

Production Budgets

  • IL films have had budgets from $65,000 to $3 million.
  • The average production budget is $500,000 +/-.

Acquisition Fees

  • Varies, depending on market demands
  • Acquisition fees for TV hour and feature length vary from $40,000 to six figures for top tier award winners


  • 3 years exclusive US television rights
  • IL allows filmmakers to have theatrical release prior to broadcast
  • Filmmakers retain festival, theatrical, home video, educational, and international television rights
  • Filmmakers are encouraged to pursue their own deals with specialty distributors and IL maintains successful, collaborative relationships with all distributors


  • PBS Primetime
    • Monday nights at 10PM
    • IL season is nine months, from October through June
    • IL is one of the top PBS series in reaching viewers ages 18-39, and have one of the highest proportion of Black households of any PBS primetime series.
  • Specials
    • 4-6 per season
    • Selection criteria:  Content with broad appeal, speaks to diversity mission, critically acclaimed and award- winning.
    • Approximately half receive PBS common carriage. Criteria same as above and PBS programming priorities
  • 2nd Window
    • ITVS sometimes provides a second television window, with a second license fee, for approximately 25% of the IL films on Global Voices, ITVS’s international series that is broadcast on the PBS World Channel

IL Success Rate Chart


  • 750+ submissions received / year
  • 22-24 broadcast premieres
  • Plus 5-7 encore presentations per season

Next Week

  • The Filters


Next Workshop / Tutoring Session:

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