United States Project

What the San Francisco Chronicle hopes to accomplish with its first feature documentary

March 21, 2016
Kevin VandenBergh

On March 6, the San Francisco Chronicle published “Last Men Standing,” a feature on long-term AIDS survivors that told the stories of eight people who aren’t supposed to be here—men who were diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s, when that diagnosis was a death sentence.

The project was the result of a year of work by reporter Erin Allday and a team of photographers, editors, and designers, and the investment of time shows. The moving, bittersweet main story—“They had the remarkable luck to survive AIDS, and the brutal misfortune to live on,” reads its tagline—and its sidebars ran to 12,000 words. Online, video vignettes and photo slideshows highlight each of the primary subjects. In print, “Last Men Standing” ran as a 20-page section with a single back-page ad from the project’s only sponsor, the University of California, San Francisco hospital.

Those are a newspaper’s usual signifiers of quality and ambition. But “Last Men Standing” also has something else, something that we could see more of in the future: It has a feature-length documentary film.

Last Men Standing, the movie, will debut April 8 at the Castro Theatre, a landmark in the Castro District, perhaps America’s most famous gay neighborhood. The Chronicle rented out the theater and is selling $20 tickets to the premiere.


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Last Men Standing Trailer from San Francisco Chronicle on Vimeo.


From there, the movie will make the festival rounds. The Chronicle has submitted it to numerous film festivals, with a focus on gay and lesbian festivals, documentary festivals, and those in the Bay Area. So far, it has been accepted by two of them, said Audrey Cooper, the paper’s editor-in-chief. (She wouldn’t say which ones, as film festivals want their lineups kept secret until they’re officially announced.)

“We realized we had a feature film and we wanted to treat it like a feature film and give it a good festival run, and then we’ll figure out the other elements,” said Erin Brethauer, the Chronicle’s video and picture editor. She shot and edited the 65-minute film with photographer Tim Hussin.

Those “other elements” include ways to bring the film to home viewers, aside from the Chronicle’s own website. A public television station would be one potential outlet, Cooper said; streaming services are another.

“If it was on Netflix and Apple TV, I would be over the moon,” Cooper said. “We are figuring all of this out as we go. We have to do a lot of research, because who knows how to do this?”

As it turns out, not many people in newspapers do, though some are starting to figure it out. In 2014, the Detroit Free Press produced a 72-minute documentary on the abandoned Packard plant called Packard: The Last Shift–a movie whose subject, as with Last Men Standing, was closely tied to the home city of the paper that produced it.

That film’s director and videographer, Brian Kaufman, has since made two shorter documentaries for the Free Press. Hired as a photographer and news videographer in 2007, his only job now is to produce long-form video.

The Free Press has a natural place to show its movies. The same year the Packard film was released, the paper held its first Freep Film Festival, a documentary- and Detroit-centric event with its third iteration coming March 31. The Packard movie premiered in front of 1,300 people at the festival—the sort of big community event the Chronicle is anticipating for its own film next month.

But after the premiere, The Last Shift didn’t have anywhere to go. The Freep didn’t hire a distributor for the film; in hindsight, Kaufman said, perhaps the paper should have. “Newspapers have to figure out distribution. … Ideally, we’d like to find broadcast partners or some other distribution outlet, Netflix or something like that,” he said.

The Freep sent the Packard movie to film festivals, but it aimed high, and Kaufman said the results might have been better had the paper targeted smaller festivals, as the Chronicle is doing with Last Men Standing. The acceptance rates at the biggest festivals are miniscule—the Sundance Film Festival rejects more than 99 percent of applicants—so filmmakers need to cast a broad net.

“It’s six times harder to get into Sundance than it is to get into Harvard,” said Brian Storm, a video journalist who in 2005 founded the multimedia production studio MediaStorm.

Still, Storm sees promise for documentaries produced by news organizations, and believes questions about distribution can be resolved. The world is awash in streaming services, after all, and each one of them has a huge appetite for content. He thinks long-form documentaries—whether they are hour-long features or 20-minute mini-documentaries—are the future of online news video, and expects they will frequently be sold on iTunes or streamed on Netflix.

“It all starts with the story, with creating a great film, and from there distribution is emerging,” Storm said. “I wouldn’t say anyone has cracked the code on getting work out there, but I think that stuff is going to get easier.”

The actual production of a documentary, meanwhile, has already gotten much simpler, so that it’s now within the technical reach of any news organization with a basic video operation. Both the Chronicle and the Free Press made their films with the same hardware and software their photographers and videographers use for quick-hit web videos. Each film was edited by the same newspaper staffers who shot it, with some freelance help for either editing or post-production work. At the Chronicle, the Last Men Standing movie took much of two staffers’ time for about eight months, but their salaries were nearly its entire budget. (Hussin and Brethauer also managed other responsibilities while working on the film, including the launch of a weekly video column.)

“I’m not sure what the budget was, but it’s safe to say it’s very low for a feature documentary,” Brethauer said.

Of course, a good chunk of two salaries for the better part of a year is not something every news outlet is willing or able to spend. And that doesn’t account for the other staffers who worked on the project, including Allday, who put in nearly a year reporting and writing the story after the idea came to her gradually as she covered the city’s health beat.

Allday and Cooper both saw from the beginning that the project needed to be big, but it wasn’t clear from the start that it would lead to a feature-length film. At one point, the target was about a 40-minute movie—nearly twice as long as the Chronicle’s longest video to date, a 22-minute documentary on the gentrifying Mission neighborhood published in late 2014—but the material seemed to demand more, Brethauer said. “Once you start talking to these guys, their stories are so compelling.”*

The project seems to have struck a chord. A few days after it went online, Cooper said, average reader time spent on the page was more than six minutes—not enough to read the whole thing, but impressive nonetheless. KQED, the local public radio station, devoted an hour segment to the project last Friday, interviewing Allday and two of the men featured in the story.

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose district includes the Castro, has been working for years to prepare the city for the aging of its HIV-positive population and for the specific challenges that come with caring for people who have had the disease for decades.

There are a variety of health problems associated with long-term infection, as well as side effects of long-term use of AIDS drugs that no one worried about much when the goal was just to keep people alive. These men also face financial hardship, since many of them rely on private disability that ends when they turn 65.

“The Chronicle article was a big step, in that it highlighted this issue for a broad audience,” Wiener said. “Not only did they do a separate section of the newspaper, but to make a movie as well I think is terrific. … I think the premiere will be a big deal.”

Even if the movie doesn’t get wide distribution, Storm said, he’d consider it a success just based on its local reception.

“On April 8, the San Francisco Chronicle is going to bring the community together to watch their work and talk about it,” he said. “That in itself is a success. Newspapers don’t do enough of that.… To institutionalize that and make that an occurrence that is expected and normal would be a beautiful thing for newspapers.”

*This story has been updated to clarify several details about the film’s production.

Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.