The film credits roll and dollars talk
BRAINTREE, MASS. — Let's say your name is Bill Mosher, and you know there is a non-profit organization in Nepal doing remarkable work teaching tens of thousands of illiterate women to read.
You envision a half-hour documentary film on the organization, a very positive kind of film as part of an overall strategy to counter what you see as television's penchant for presenting unending negativity.
So, it's no surprise when you go to the networks and a few corporations for funding, and they say, "Go away, Bill Mosher. We're not interested. Good news doesn't sell. Why should we fund you?"
But as a dedicated, inventive, and tireless Bill Mosher learned, there is more than one way to raise money for good news in a so-called bad-news environment.
Turning rejection into propulsion, Mr. Mosher went on to create a unique, even controversial, funding method to make dozens of "good news" films about remarkable people, including the Nepal literacy organization.
"Once we identify a nonprofit organization [to film], and to be honest, this is a gray area," he says, "we work closely, for instance, with a homeless organization to identify third-party funders who are interested in, let's say, the issue of homelessness, and we raise the money for the film through them."
The result of this approach is "The Visionaries," Mosher's international "good news" series, now in its sixth season, airing on more than 150 PBS stations around the United States.
After a "Visionaries" film has been made - usually at a cost of about $100,000 each - and aired, the nonprofit organization covered in the film then uses it as a development tool to raise funds or increase awareness of its work. Some 36 half-hour episodes have been produced this way, spotlighting humane efforts in such countries as Bosnia, El Salvador, Vietnam, China, Israel, Bolivia, and in many American cities.
Mosher admits his approach blurs the line between the impetus of a documentary film - traditionally an independent examination of a subject - and its ties or obligations to the source of the funding.
"We don't go out and say these are objective films," Mosher says of his series. "We are offering a different genre, not using negative emotions to accomplish positive goals. This is something many journalists have a huge problem with."
In a Mosher film, you won't see footage of bloated bellies of fly-covered starving children designed to elicit big checks and pity from viewers who hope something good will be done with their money. Nor will you see a thorough examination of hotly debated issues.
You see the personal effort of tireless people dedicated to changing a small part of the world and working against formidable odds. Mosher calls it, "the magic that occurs when one human being helps another."
But is Mosher producing "promotional" or "informational" films that are only quasi-documentaries? And if he is, does an ethical alarm go off? From his point of view, what's wrong with good news?
"The first prerequisite of a documentary is that it is an honest, objective evaluation of a subject," says Martin Doblemeier, president of the documentary film company Journey Films in Alexandria, Va. "I haven't seen any of "The Visionaries" series, but my guess is that if you asked Bill Mosher where he would have preferred to raise the money, he would have said a totally unaffected source."
PBS guidelines preclude film producers from accepting money from subjects they film. "Because funding has become so difficult to raise," says Mr. Doblemeier, "especially in the public television marketplace, producers are forced to look for all kinds of ways to fund projects. It seems logical, at least, to go to sources that would be sympathetic in principle. The networks certainly aren't going to do [these] kinds of films."
Mosher contends that the scope and success of the nonprofit sector today are for the most part ignored by the media. In the competition for readers and viewers, negative gets the nod.
"When NBC News creates a segment called 'The Fleecing of America,' " he says, "they look for someone gouging someone. If they don't find it, they don't air it. We go out with the presumption to catch somebody doing good. If we don't find it, we don't air it."
Journalists are uncomfortable
Lee Wilkins, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., offers restrained admiration for Mosher's approach. "He's found a real canny way around not accepting money from people he films," she says. "But I'm not sure I would be comfortable with an agreement going in that says, 'Oh yeah, when I'm done with this, you will be able to use it to raise dough because this will be pretty positive.' That bothers the journalist in me."
For Ms. Wilkins and others, the ethical issue is important in this, but she says, "ultimately it gets decided by the viewer, not you and me."
For "The Visionaries" producer Beth Murphy, her films have a different mission from a hard news approach. "But it doesn't mean we overlook controversy," she says.
Her recent film about the work of Christian Solidarity International (CSI) in Sudan includes the issue of slavery but is not intended to be an in-depth exploration of contending forces.
CSI has a controversial humanitarian program of buying freedom for slaves taken in an ongoing civil war. Tribal chiefs have recently charged that the buy-back strategy has actually encouraged more slavery.
"On camera," says Ms. Murphy, "we have a man saying, yes, it may seem completely immoral in the West to buy and sell human beings, but how can he look into a mother's eyes and tell her the one way I can get her son back is to buy him, and then not do it. Unfortunately, money talks."
Mary Steele, a former Emmy Award winner at NBC News, and now a producer for "The Visionaries," says a fine line does exist between the content of the film and the funding source.
"But we make it absolutely clear going in that the subjects have no editorial control," she says. "In fact [an organization] yesterday asked me if they could see the questions before they were asked on film. I said absolutely not. That is not going to happen ever, nor do they see the film before it's done."
Mosher is a former newspaper owner and freelance writer. For the first five seasons, he and a staff of three did all the fund, raising and filming on a shoestring, sometimes using overextended credit cards. Actor Sam Waterson volunteers his services as the host of the series.
Then two years ago, Mosher decided to include others.
"A dynamic, adventure-seeking person wanted to travel the globe for an established PBS series," said the ad he placed on the Internet. "Must be committed to changing the world. Must be able to take a project from funding to completion. Only idealistic, socially conscious risk-takers need apply."
Spreading the good news
Hundreds of applicants sought the job. "Five were selected," says Mosher, an affable, informal man convinced that his methodology and philosophy can be replicated for the good of anybody touched by the 1.3 million nonprofits in the US and thousands more internationally.
"This has been a year of my irrelevancy," he says with a grin, because for the first time in five years, he has not picked up a camera and traveled to another corner of the world. Now, he oversees productions, works on new ideas, and plies the windy waters of raising funds from corporations and foundations.
In June, Mosher and Suffolk University in Boston announced the creation of The Visionaries Institute, which will offer the country's first master of science degree in philanthropy and media. Students will pursue an academic curriculum as well as join a production team as working members of the crew.
"I feel these shows really make a difference," says Kevin Sullivan, a "Visionaries" producer just back from filming refugee workers in Kosovo. "When I first talked with Bill, I wasn't sure I really believed him. But now I've seen it, the power the films have to raise awareness about issues and organizations that aren't talked about all the time, and how they help the organizations grow and prosper."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society