City history: Bid process questioned in unfunded film
As part of Charlottesville's year-long 250th anniversary celebration, organizers and city officials came up with the idea of a documentary about the city's rich history. Eight film production companies bid on the detailed proposal for a 50- to 90-minute project. The only problem? The city didn't have the money to pay for the film. And then, bidders say the city left them hanging for more than seven months before saying it was a no-go.
"Not in Bolivia, not in Tanzania have I ever been treated as badly as by the government of Charlottesville," says veteran filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley, who lives in Ivy. "I sold my car to pay people and spent two months working on this."
Montes-Bradley estimates that it cost his production company, Heritage Film Project, around $8,000 in cash and time to prepare a response to the 21-page request for proposal that went out October 15, 2011.
The documentary would have been a thorough look at Charlottesville's history from colonial times through the current day, covering the Civil War and 17 other topics listed on the RFP. And had it been made, it would have screened at this year's Virginia Film Festival.
"That was such a gem of a project," says another bidder, Emmy-winning filmmaker Marta Houske of Matrix Communications in Torrance, California. "Any filmmaker with any oomph would want to do it."
So what happened?
According to emails from city employees obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the bids averaged around $150,000.
"The RFP went out with a budget of $20,000," says city spokesperson Miriam Dickler. "They thought that was going to be enough."
Charlottesville Albemarle Historical Society president Steven Meeks is on the Celebrate 250 committee. "We wanted to do it," he says. "We realized it wasn't in our budget. It was something City Hall wanted to do."
It's not the first time a City Hall bid went awry. Former city spokesperson Ric Barrick, who is in charge of the city's Celebrate 250 events, resigned from his full-time position earlier this year after a special prosecutor investigated Barrick for telling his favored graphics vendor what the low bid was in a case of possible bid-rigging. It was determined, however, that Barrick was without criminal intent. Barrick did not return phone calls from the Hook.
"We fully intended to do it," says City Manager Maurice Jones."It took so long because we attempted to bridge the gap in funding with private donations. We had high hopes, and it just didn't work out."
Jones says he takes "full responsibility" for letting more than seven months lapse before vendors were notified the project was dead.
"That's highly unusual," Jones concedes. "We really wanted to work something out."
"Usually, we don't ask people to bid unless we know we can do it," says Mayor Satyendra Huja, who also concedes that letting such time elapse before telling bidders they didn't get the job isn't standard practice.
"We probably should have communicated more efficiently," says the mayor.
"I was terribly excited," says another bidder, North Garden-based filmmaker Betsy Cox. "It's the type of thing I do– historical documentaries."
She also notes, "Responding to an RFP is an enormous amount of work." And it would have been a year-long project, she says.
"It cost us a lot of money," says yet another bidder, Linda Maslow, the CEO of the DC-based Maslow Media Group. "It takes a lot of time. This was a major proposal. They asked for a lot of detail."
And some contractors had to be hired, such as a screenwriter to help prepare the treatment the city requested, she says.
Maslow's bid was in the $150,000 range, she says. When told the city's budget for the 50- to 90-minute documentary was $20,000, she responds, "Are they crazy?"
Such unfunded bid requests are not uncommon, particularly from the federal government, says Maslow. "It doesn't make the city look good," she adds.
The California-based Houske has experience with government RFPs that don't get funded, and for that reason, she says, some companies simply won't bid on government jobs.
"It's very irritating for production companies," she says. "You could easily spend $3,000 in human time preparing a bid. If Charlottesville knew it only was going to spend 20 grand, they should have said so up front. It's really unfair to jerk around production companies, who are trying to respond to an unknown budget."
A $20K documentary is doable, says Houske, if a local producer was willing to do it pro bono, or if the library or city archives had a lot of digitized images, or if students and the historical society pitched for a team effort on a very simplistic film.
"A 250th anniversary is extraordinary," she says. "That's such a major event."
Harrisonburg-based WVPT also bid on the project, and general manager David Mullins sounds a philosophical note about the RFP process.
"Sometimes you get them; sometimes you don't," he says. "I'm sorry the project didn't happen."
Montes-Bradley had planned to partner with another PBS station, Richmond-based WHTJ, which has aired two of his documentaries.
"Not getting a response for eight months jeopardized my relationship with PBS," complains Montes-Bradley, who had lined up experts at UVA to help illuminate the 250 years of history.
"This proposal– I took it very seriously because it was from the government," he says. "I came here to get away from banana republics. It's a very bad reflection on government."
Despite Charlottesville's failure to get a documentary made on the city that was home to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, the idea is still out there for any filmmaker who wants to tackle the project on a shoestring.
"We'd be willing," says Jones, "to work with someone who wanted to do it."