Ken Burns Gives Voice to Filmmakers' Concerns

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

In the crowded conference room of a Washington think tank yesterday, filmmaker Ken Burns passionately described his affection for the Smithsonian Institution and the vast array of historical materials in its archives. Then he just as sternly rebuked the Smithsonian for developing new rules for filmmakers and researchers.

"This is not us against them. The Smithsonian is not the enemy," said Burns, speaking to a group that earlier this week called on the Smithsonian to break its much-criticized development deal with Showtime Networks. "We love the Smithsonian. We depend on them. We feel those involved made a mistake."

Along with the agreement to develop Smithsonian programming for the cable channel, the Smithsonian told researchers that they would be restricted in their use of the archives for "more than incidental" materials. The broader ideas would first be offered to Showtime and its programming for "Smithsonian on Demand."

The change in policy has outraged a broad coalition of filmmakers, archivists, researchers and academics. About 215 policy opponents signed a petition that Carl Malamud, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, delivered Monday to the office of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small. The group has also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the contract, but Smithsonian officials have said the paperwork is proprietary and private.

"We want them to stop the current arrangement, share it with the public and hold hearings," Burns said. Restricted access to the archives, he added, "will be a great inconvenience in the future" for all filmmakers.

Over 30 years Burns has built an award-winning career as an interpreter of historical material, with programs including "Baseball," "The Civil War" and "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." And he has also attracted the envy of fellow filmmakers for his fundraising skills.

But it wasn't always that way, he told the group yesterday. In 1979 he was working on his first film, about the Brooklyn Bridge. At the Smithsonian was a huge model that depicted the making of the main cables. He got permission to photograph it. He paid $75 overtime for an electrician.

But he needed $30,000 to finish the project. He went to several banks in New York and landed in a manager's office at Citibank. "The person who made the decision was Lawrence Small," then a bank executive, recounted Burns. The documentary went on to earn an Oscar nomination.

Now Burns is appealing to Small once again. "We hope now he doesn't become an impediment," he said. "We want him to reconsider the deal."

-- Jacqueline Trescott

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