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Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Independent Lens Spends $2.5 Million on Docs: The Mission, Filters, Budgets, Rights & Submission Process

Independent Lens is the award-winning PBS documentary series that ‘averages 1.2+ million weekly’ US viewers.

IL highlights include:

  • Provided $2.5mn +/- in production & acquisition funding for the 2014-15 season.
  • Schedules 22-24 new programs + 5-7 encores each season in its Monday 10pm slot.
  • In 13 seasons: 358 films broadcast – 313 feature-length & TV-hours & 45 shorts

Here is a link to the trailer.


IL is the winner of every major award in its field including:


  • IL funding and broadcast commitments help filmmakers leverage millions of additional production and outreach dollars from foundations, private investors, international broadcasters, NGO’s and government agencies.
  • U.S. funders who support IL programs include the MacArthur & Ford Foundations, Sundance Documentary Fund, Participant Media, National Endowment for the Humanities, Impact Partners, Chicken & Egg, Cinereach, Catapult, Gucci Tribeca, Fledging Fund, and more.
  • International co-funders include: BBC’s Storyville, STEPS International, ARTE, ABC Australia, CBC Canada, National Film Board of Canada, NZ broadcasters, Danish Film Institute, NHK Japan, etc.

Who Is Watching?

  • There are 114.6 mn US TV households.
  • Independent Lens reaches 98% of the US market.
  • Last season, IL’s highest-rated premieres attracted 2 mn viewers, peaking around 3.8 mn.
  • According to PBS, Muscle Shoals captured 1.8 mn viewers in 2014.

The Curator’s Vision

“Independent Lens funds and presents films that resonate individually and collectively to create what we hope is the best documentary showcase on television.”

“We champion films that represent and celebrate the diversity of America, employ innovative storytelling, and are relevant to the world today. We have a special focus on working with diverse filmmakers who represent different communities and life experiences.”

“Each film on Independent Lens is deliberately unique to assure that we bring first-rate journalistic documentaries and festival favorites to our audience every week. The series is continually evolving on television, online, and with our unparalleled community outreach efforts.”

Lois Vossen, Deputy Executive Producer & co-curator


Independent Lens films represent a broad spectrum of nonfiction film, with a focus on social issue and point of view docs, including:


Still from “The Invisible War”
Filmmakers Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering

Submission process

  • The annual open submission deadline is in late March for the following season.
  • Guidelines are posted here
  • Read more about the IL submission process here
  • “We screen and review approximately 700 – 750 submissions/year”
  • Filmmakers are notified of decisions throughout IL’s rolling curating process
  • 22-24 broadcast premieres (new programs) and 5-7 encore presentations every season

How are films funded?

IL_funding (1)

Independent Lens commits to programs in three ways:

  • R&D
    For 6-8+/- projects each year.
    Available through invitation only.
  • Production funding (60% – 80% of slate)
    Working with ITVS, Independent Lens provides production funding through limited commissioning.
    Projects are commissioned at R&D stage or when in production with treatment, rough cut or fine cut.
  • Acquisition (20% – 40% of slate)
    Films acquired at fine cut or completion.


Success rate, 2013

Acquisition and Broadcast Schedule

  • The series is actively curated from September through the following May.
  • Curators scout films at 15+ festivals and markets in the U.S. and worldwide each year.


  • ITVS’s annual operating budget to fund productions is $2.5mn.

Production Budgets

  • Budgets for IL films range from around $85,000 to $1-3 mn.
  • The average is $500,000 +/-

Who Owns Rights?


  • US television premiere
  • 3 years exclusive U.S. television rights.
  • Post-broadcast streaming windows for catch up viewing for 30-90 days on PBS Video.


  • 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.
  • ITVS maintains successful, collaborative relationships with all distributors

Marketing & Publicity

  • The IL Marketing and Publicity team pitches all films in a season for long lead and short lead press.
  • According to ITVS, last season IL generated $300mn+/- in free publicity for films in the series.
  • All films leverage the 350+ PBS stations to reach deep into communities and connect with viewers on a local level.
  • Using IL and ITVS platforms, films get support on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as websites, newsletters, and blog posts.
  • Films are featured and promoted on org and the IL homepage.
  • Select films receive promotional paid campaigns that may include radio, print, online, social media and on-air paid advertising.

More on PBS



Community Cinema

  • Goal: connect intergenerational and diverse audiences with independent films, and ignite conversations around social issues
  • Bring viewers together with their local public television stations, community groups, education organizations, and NGOs to assure IL films have impact before and after broadcast.
  • Community Cinema partner organizations host events consistently in more than 75 U.S. cities
  • Since 2005, Community Cinema has presented free screenings and discussions in communities nationwide for select Independent Lens films during the show’s broadcast season
  • Community Cinema screenings provide unique and dynamic engagement experiences, and include a post-screening activity such as a panel discussion featuring local experts and organizations that participants can connect with to learn more and get involved

Interactive Strategy

Independent Lens has supported a range of projects to increase exposure for IL content on multiple platforms. Innovative digital (transmedia) initiatives build audience for broadcast premiere and long-tail outreach and distribution. Projects include:

  • OVEE (public media’s Social TV platform, created by ITVS)
  • OVEE events can incorporate a variety of tools to build buzz and engagement around the film
    • Previewing a sneak-peek prior to TV broadcast, or screening the full-length film post-broadcast
    • Participation from the filmmaker or relevant thought leaders either in an online chat or livestream Q&A in conjunction with the film
    • Polling and moderated discussion throughout the film to create an active, ‘lean-forward’ viewing experience for the audience


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