Grant Farm

An obscure funding source keeps local documentary filmmakers afloat

It's summer in south county, where the heat and the abominable urban sprawl are as palpable as, well, Los Angeles'. In a booth at the Eat-Rite Diner on Lindbergh sits 38-year-old filmmaker Bill Boll, about as close as you can get to a human bridge between Hollywood and the less-glamorous cinematic struggles that occur near the banks of the Big Muddy.

Having spent six years in Los Angeles -- mainly toiling alongside his former St. Louis University High School classmate and local-boy-made-good director buddy George Hickenlooper (Hearts of Darkness, Man From Elysian Fields) -- Boll, whose April Is My Religion in 2001 became the first locally produced feature ever to air at the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), returned to the St. Louis area to care for his quadriplegic father. His assessment of the local filmmaking landscape is unflinching.

"The scene is nowhere near big enough -- or good enough -- to keep anyone with real ambitions," Boll says. "Everyone who gets good leaves. But that could change overnight."

CALOP Boll: Along with filmmaking partner Shellee Graham, Bill Boll secured a grant for a documentary about the Coral Court Motel
Robert Boston
CALOP Boll: Along with filmmaking partner Shellee Graham, Bill Boll secured a grant for a documentary about the Coral Court Motel

Tucked beneath Boll's arm is a three-minute trailer for a documentary he's co-producing about the infamous Coral Court Motel. Burned out after April, Boll was aimlessly looking for a documentary project when photographer Shellee Graham and the motel idea all but fell into his lap.

"I'd been [to the Coral Court] several times as a patron," says the filmmaker, a sinister grin creeping across his face. "It was exactly what I was looking for."

Co-producer Graham's vast collection of paraphernalia, photographs and contacts tied to the Watson Road motel, which was bulldozed in 1995, have made the typically daunting task of acquiring licensing rights to topical footage a gazillion times easier than it otherwise would have been. "All the legwork was done," Boll says. "Shellee would set up interviews and I'd just show up with the camera."

All set, then. Or not. There was still the issue of cold hard cash, and Boll was at a loss for potential funding sources for a film with no self-evident ties to civic organizations that can often be relied upon if the topic is relevant. Then Graham told him about a buddy of hers, Bruce Marren, who'd secured funding in 2001 for a documentary about Gaslight Square through a little-known grant known as CALOP (Committee for Access and Local Origination Programming), administered by the municipality of University City.

Mere weeks later, after an application process that included a presentation to a selection committee, Boll and Graham had a cool $10,000. Boll expects that the money will cover the cost of the Coral Court project, which he hopes to complete by November.

Regional and statewide arts-commission grants are commonplace nationwide, but CALOP, which seeds the St. Louis film community with some $125,000 annually via grants of $5,000 to $10,000 endowed exclusively for documentary productions, is a rare bird.

The grant program came out of a partnership between U. City and cable provider Continental Cablevision. To satisfy Federal Communications Commission requirements, cable companies typically supply municipalities with public-access channels or production facilities, but University City officials had other things in mind in 1980 when they negotiated their deal for two percent of Continental's local gross revenues.

Initially, the city used the money to purchase video equipment for its public schools. In 1989, the grant program was conceived. (The city's current provider, Charter Communications, now itemizes CALOP on its invoices, at a rate of $1 per subscriber per month.) Grant applications are screened by a committee composed of four U. City residents, a school district representative, a city councilmember and liaisons from the city bureaucracy and Charter. The grant has few stipulations, the main one being that U. City's public-access channel premieres all CALOP documentaries.

"That's pretty unique," Sandra Ruch, executive director of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Association, says of the CALOP program. "To fund documentaries is always very difficult. [The filmmakers] usually do it through their credit cards or families. That they're funding local artists when the national arts budget is being cut is rather unusual, and rather encouraging."

"I don't know that anybody does anything like it," echoes Scott Rimmell, Charter's liaison to the grant committee.

There's certainly nothing like CALOP in the city of St. Louis, although city-affiliated nonprofit Double Helix Television (DHTV) has committed to airing some CALOP-funded films. In fact, though it's no guarantee, the CALOP imprimatur enhances a film's odds of being accepted for wider broadcast. "Obviously, if somebody at CALOP liked it, that's good," says Patrick Murphy, an award-winning producer at KETC-TV (Channel 9) and a CALOP grant recipient for a 1998 documentary about the Katy Trail.

As the area's PBS affiliate, KETC occupies a key position in the St. Louis documentary-filmmaking food chain. Bill Boll goes as far as to credit Channel 9 with spreading the grant's gospel to the film community. "[U. City] had been doing it for years and years, but nobody knew about it," Boll says. "Then KETC premiered the Gaslight Square documentary, and everyone and their brother is applying for the grant."

Monica McFee, U. City's staff liaison to the CALOP committee, confirms that KETC's September 2002 broadcast of Marren's Gaslight Square: The Forgotten Landmark was indeed a catalyst for heightened interest in the grant program -- or part of one, anyway. The film, McFee points out, had already enjoyed a lengthy run at the Missouri History Museum, and, of course, a screening on U. City's public-access channel.

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