Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Entry # 135 - Lance Kramer, Interview with Co-Founder of Meridian Hill Pictures

Lance Kramer, Producer, Co-Founder of Meridian Hill Pictures
is a documentary filmmaker, educator, journalist and a co-founder of Meridian Hill Pictures. At MHP, Lance produces the studio’s documentary films and media education projects, spearheads development, social media, outreach and engagement strategy, and curates the PictureHouse pop-up public film screening series. Lance has participated in a variety of successful projects with emerging digital technologies, including the Mozilla/ITVS/BAVC LivingDocs ‘Hackathon’ project at Silverdocs 2012. In 2009, Lance helped lead a digital and grassroots outreach effort to screen the environmental documentary Hope in a Changing Climate in over 20 countries. As a journalist, Lance has written on news, music, film, arts and culture, for a variety of publications. Lance holds a Bachelors Degree in History from Dartmouth College. He is the author of Great Ancient China Projects You Can Build Yourself, a children’s book selected to the American Bookseller’s Association Fall 2008 Indie Next List. Lance serves as Board Chair of Docs In Progress, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to building community through the power of documentary film. Lance has also served as a Humanities Council of Washington DC humanities scholar.

Jan:    Congratulations, Lance. This summer you and your brother, Brandon, celebrated two-years of film-making with your new film company, Meridian Hill Pictures (MHP). I appreciate your taking time to answer some questions.
What do you truly love about having your own film company?

Lance:    We grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs in our family. My dad is an architect and a sculptor and for many years, he had an office and studio in our house. I remember as a kid, going down into his workspace in the basement — playing on the computer, sitting with my legs dangling at his drafting table, borrowing his pens and pencils (and more often than not, forgetting to return them), flipping through his architectural drawings, and playing with his blocks of clay. 

Since starting MHP, I’ve never had a morning where I’ve woken up and not wanted to go to work. No two days have been similar, and each day is challenging, but I find myself constantly motivated to face each challenge, learn and grow from the experience. Though I wish I could say otherwise, I think that’s rare to find in a day job.

Jan:    Your family has deep roots in the Washington, DC area. How has this also inspired you?

Lance:    My grandfather Sam also had his own business, a meat and produce shop in Northeast DC called Kramer & Sons, which was actually started in the early 1900s by my great-grandfather Isadore. As a teenager, I loved going to the market to visit, wandering through the aisles of pig’s feet, wheels of cheese and stacks of paper products. The market was also where I first experimented with taking black and white photographs. It’s age and history and weathered-nature, to a certain extent, made it feel like such a visually dynamic setting full of countless stories. Though I always appreciated and admired what my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did, it wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized a big part of what I respected was the fact that they had each figured out how to translate something that they loved into an actual job and sustainable enterprise. 

For my dad, he found a way to create a living out of being an artist. For my grandfather, he took his own father’s business, made it his own and created a lifelong sense of community with his customers. For Brandon and I, the real gift is being able to work with my brother on something we care deeply about, finding those ways of turning the art form we love into a sustainable career that has positive (and hopefully lasting) impact. Even more important than creating something that we care about, it has been inspiring to create a sense of community around MHP, watching how other people have gotten just as excited about MHP. I feel like we bring a lot of the qualities and lessons we observed and absorbed from our family into the way we have tried to build MHP, and we are certainly trying to do our best to carry those legacies and traditions onwards.
Jan: What is the mission for MHP?
Lance:    This is an important question for us. I suppose some businesses simply have ‘making money’ as their sole mission. For us, it was essential that we established an entity where the mission and desired social impact was deeply embedded into Meridian Hill Pictures’ DNA. From the moment we started MHP, we had faith that it was possible to create a sustainable mission-driven business (though we didn’t necessarily know how from Day One). We were intrigued by the idea that there could be many different pathways to addressing a social issue or problem — and that a non-profit structure is one method, but that a business could also achieve meaningful impact. 

Unlike a non-profit, it’s not formally required that a business identify a greater mission, so we took it upon ourselves to self-impose and communicate that aspect of MHP. In a lot of ways, though we’re technically a business, we’ve adopted many aspects of how a non-profit operates (for example: we don’t make a lot of money, and we re-invest almost everything back into the company to help the studio grow and sustain itself). In short, we’ve tried to create a hybrid structure that incorporates and leverages the best parts of a company and a non-profit. So far, while not perfect, it’s worked well for MHP.

With that in mind, we feel that MHP’s mission is to help provide access for diverse individuals and communities to tell and experience real stories of importance and relevance to their lives. 

Jan:    So how do you make those connections between diversity and community?

Lance:    Our programs and services encompass several different areas. Our independent documentary films focus on stories that examine critical issues and moving personal narratives, connecting the power of documentary film with efforts that advance dialogue, impact and engage broad audiences. We also facilitate media arts education residencies in schools and community groups, working with youth and adults to build their visual storytelling and literacy capacity. We also regularly facilitate ‘pop-up’ public screenings, to bring documentary films to spaces and communities where access and infrastructure may not be in place.

Jan:    So how do you make media that matters, that stays relevant in the face of rapid technological changes?

Lance:    We are surrounded by more visual media nowadays than at any time before. Technology has done amazing things to reduce barriers, democratize media and improve access, through much more affordable equipment and methods for self-distribution that were unimaginable just a decade ago.  Even still, we are in a real mixed-bag media landscape. 

It’s still harder than it should be to find media that matters, particularly through mainstream venues beyond social media and public broadcasting (thank goodness for PBS and NPR). It’s certainly much easier to find plenty of puff, and in some cases, even destructive or degrading media. Through our own filmmaking, teaching and public screenings, we hope that we are playing at least a small role in the emerging movement to create more outlets for the public to access and engage with meaningful media from under-represented perspectives. We are committed to helping provide the tools for diverse people of all backgrounds to become more active participants in creating media and authoring their own representation in the media.

Jan: What is the most difficult part of getting started with a film project?

Lance:    Though the funding landscape feels like it is becoming a bit easier, it definitely remains a challenge to secure the resources to make a project happen.

That said, the real challenges are more rooted in the creative process. For us, the thing that almost always takes the most time and energy is the process of building relationships and trust with individuals and the communities participating in a project. It’s an essential element, because without this, a project can never be successful, and may not even be possible in the first place.

Jan: How do you go about selecting film projects? 

Lance:    Sometimes we joke that the projects find us. Happenstance, curiosity, accidents, relationships and wrong turns have all been responsible for leading to new projects. For example, after moving into our studio in the Josephine Butler Parks Center in 2010, we learned that Washington Parks & People (the organization which manages the building) was helping to build a community garden in a formerly abandoned, vacant alley nearby in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. We decided to spend an afternoon at the garden one day with our cameras to film some of the effort. We found the whole project to be totally fascinating and wound up returning several times to document more of the process. From that footage, we created a short film called Community Harvest, which actually went on to get some recognition in local film festivals. After completing Community Harvest, we realized we were more interested in the story of the people who built the space, even more so than the space itself. That question led us on a two-year path to tell the story of the Green Corps, which has become a major initiative of the studio and our first feature-length documentary.

Around the same time in 2010, when walking to grab lunch in Adams Morgan one day, we decided to pop into the Sitar Arts Center and have a look around. We had passed by countless times, but for whatever reason, we decided that day that we should learn more about the Center. We got a tour by one of the wonderful Sitar staff and were blown away by all that the Center was doing for youth in the neighborhood to provide access to arts education. We decided to teach a documentary production class at the Center ourselves, which ultimately led to the film Life as a Collage. The experience of teaching at Sitar and making the film with the Center’s young people was a life-changing experience for us. The film itself was screened all across the country, including at the San Francisco International Film Festival. We also now have a formal partnership with Sitar and are expanding the documentary filmmaking class into a robust long-term program.

In all cases, it’s been about remaining open to anything, while at the same time having a good idea, at least in abstract terms, about what we want to do, how we want to do it, and what kind of impact we are looking to achieve. Thinking about these things has helped to provide a kind of rubric that’s allowed us to think strategically about whether a project will be a good fit. Often these projects can take anywhere from six months to several years to complete, so we want to make sure that we care deeply about the work and that the care can be sustained day-by-day, month-by-month.

We’ve also tried to create and pursue projects that are demonstrative of the kind of work we hope to do in the future. It’s funny how you can actually create these kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies. When people understand what you want to do, then it becomes easier for those things to actually happen. Now that we have built a portfolio of our work, I think people are better understanding of our identity and what constitutes a Meridian Hill Pictures film. Now some projects have started to come our way, where people or organizations are seeking us out based on some knowledge of our interests or strengths. It has been very encouraging and I hope it leads to more great stories and collaborations in the future.

Jan: And how do you finance them?

Lance:    As I mentioned, financing the projects is always a challenge, but I think we have found ways, through a combination of hard work and lots of luck. In some cases, non-profit organizations have helped to underwrite the costs of a production, particularly when the film speaks to an issue area, subject, person or community related to their work. We have also started receiving some grants from foundations and public arts agencies for our independent films. Given that the documentary field is changing so rapidly, this is something we think about a lot. Currently, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about different models and new ideas for funding that can help make producing a documentary easier. If you have any ideas, send them our way.

Jan: How do you go about obtaining rights?  Do you purchase options for projects or what? 

Lance:    Because we are not creating films from books, in some ways this isn’t an issue for us. We’re typically looking for a story to tell that already exists out in the world, but hasn’t been told yet. Rather than obtain rights for a literary entity like a book, a bigger challenge is securing the willing participation from each individual person and community in a film. The personal release form, and the trust it represents, is crucial in our field. Though there are many aspects of informally building trust, the release form is where a person formally offers and indicates their support and buy-in for a project. We take these very seriously and do our best to thoughtfully explain with each person what is involved when they participate in a project. If a person refuses to sign a release form, in most cases they have effectively blocked access to their story being included in a film. Being in front of a camera requires a tremendous amount of trust and openness to being vulnerable. We do everything we can to respect that people have shared this trust with us. As a result, we try to do everything possible to ensure they get a lot out of the experience.

Jan: You both have sturdy journalism backgrounds. How does that experience inform and support your documentary film-making decisions?

Lance:    I am so thankful for my early experiences with journalism, especially at the Black & White at Whitman. There is no doubt that your class and inspiration had a substantial impact on my growth, development and career. 

I learned as early as high school that I loved listening to, researching and investigating stories, and the act of creatively bringing those stories to an audience. At the time, I thought print journalism was the only way to do that. In college, I continued writing for my school’s paper. After college, I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I worked as a print journalist for several years, mostly at a wonderful alternative newsweekly called Willamette Week. All of these experiences as a journalist, especially my time in Oregon, taught me how to find good stories, become a better storyteller, how to ask critical questions, connect the dots, build trust, and my own confidence in sharing my work with audiences.

Jan:    So how did you make this transition to film?
I also always loved film from a young age, but for whatever reason, I never really thought that film and journalism were inter-connected. It wasn’t until several years after college that it occurred to me that documentary was the perfect blend of film and journalism. Around the same time, there were some aspects of print journalism that were becoming more difficult — in particular, the constant, short deadlines, and the fledgling nature of the field overall as everything rapidly shifted focus to the web. A move to documentary filmmaking felt natural and allowed me to continue honing the non-fiction storytelling muscle. At the same time, I appreciated how documentary as a medium afforded more time to thoroughly explore a story and also embraced a range of new-media approaches that only continue to become more prolific. So it feels like a medium that is growing and developing, which is exciting to be a part of.

Jan:    Are you still writing? 

Lance:    Oddly enough, though I work in documentary film now rather than print journalism, I write just as much, if not more, than when I worked as a journalist.

Jan: What particular skills do you and Brandon each bring, as individuals, to film production projects?

Lance:    First and foremost, I like to think that both of us bring a strong sense of story to each project. Because we think about story from different perspectives and use different techniques, usually, our collaboration leads to something stronger than either one of us might have created on our own. Brandon is such a gifted director, he has such a beautiful knack for asking insightful questions, building trust, understanding how to visually tell a story and how to lead and inspire a creative team. I’ve seen my role as a producer to help put the footwork in-place to support a director’s vision for a film, whether the director is Brandon, our collaborator Ellie Walton, or anyone else. If I can take the lead thinking about fundraising and development, outreach, engagement and distribution of the film, then the director can focus on the art of storytelling and the creative minutiae that go into making a great film.

Jan:    Do you think your strong business sense is innate or learned?

Lance:    Though neither one of us realized it, I think we’ve also both inherited a decent sense of business and knack for building and running a real organization. Being able to step away from the films themselves, and creatively and strategically think about the operational end of things, has helped us to build a sustainable platform for doing the work.

With all that said, I am reminded each day of my own weaknesses and areas where I would like to grow. It is something that’s always on my mind and I find myself constantly thirsty for learning more. Brandon and I both often talk about how one of the things we love about this work is that we can see how it can be a lifelong process, that there is potentially an infinite space for improvement and mastery. There is still so much separating us, as young peons, from the masters of the craft. It gives us a lot of motivation to keep at it.

Jan:    What are the pros and cons to working together as brothers? 

Lance:    The pro is that alongside my parents, I love my brother more than anyone else in the world. Being able to see and work with him every day to create work that I care about is the greatest gift I could ever imagine.

Of course, it can also be very difficult. Because we are so close to each other and know each other so well, we can take a lot of things for granted. Often times we get into trouble when we get too comfortable with each other. For us over the past few years, working together has been a constant process of learning how to build a new chapter in our relationship as brothers. We have tried to create new ways to listen and understand each other and handle conflict.

More than anything, the most important thing for us is always to preserve our relationship as brothers. As much as I passionately care about Meridian Hill Pictures, if anything ever came down to the company or my brother, it would always be my brother first.

Jan:    What is the most useful advice you ever received? 

Lance:    Find a mentor. Don’t spend money until your reach a breaking point and absolutely need to. Business, and documentary filmmaking, are largely about relationship-building. Be confident and vulnerable at the same time. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. 

Jan: What advice have you chosen to ignore?

Lance:    “Don’t start a business in a recession.”

Coming Soon - see a follow-up interview with Brandon Kramer - co-founder MHP


2010    Meridian Hill Pictures    (MHP)

2012 Our City Film Festival "Best Short Documentary" (Porchfest)
2012 Our City Film Festival "Best Student Documentary" (Life as a Collage)
2011 Our City Film Festival "Best Short Documentary" (Community Harvest)
Official Selection, 2011 Columbia Gorge International Film Festival (Community Harvest)
Official Selection, 2011 Southern Appalachian Film Festival (Community Harvest)

Meridian Hill Pictures is an innovative documentary production company dedicated to producing, teaching, and sharing films that inspire meaningful community participation and engagement.
General Information
Meridian Hill Pictures was founded in 2010 by a dedicated crew of filmmakers and educators interested in leveraging the power of documentary film to create social change.

Meridian Hill Pictures is a fully licensed and insured limited liability company proudly doing business in the District of Columbia.


Bio Notes

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction.  Glimmer Train nominated a story as an Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. Her stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, two O’Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. A story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. Her nonfiction work appears in Pen-in-Hand and Trajectory. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers, editors and publishers.   Learn more at:

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