Golden Age of Documentaries

This has been called the "Golden Age" of documentaries. More documentaries are being made and they are being seen by more people. But as Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports, even with a great story and an award winning track record, it is still difficult to get a project completed.

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The reason is funding, having enough money to get the job done.

"That's always the biggest bugaboo of documentary production."

Jeffery Mills of Documentary Alliance and IO Communications in Bellaire.

"It's very rare that you can get all of your funding up front, unlike a feature where you might have investors."

Mills says projects move forward in fits and starts. One of his projects is the compelling story of Pan American World Airways called "On the Wings of Giants." He began his research in the mid-90's and uncovered a story that has been lost to most of us.

"It was like examining the beginnings of the space program. It was that big and that exciting, and the pioneers of the business were bigger than life characters, it was like Indiana Jones on steroids. It was really amazing."

In the early 20th century there was an attitude among entrepreneurs that anything was possible. "Just Do It" was not a slogan; it was a way of life. Juan Trippe founded Pan Am in 1927 with a flight between Key West and Cuba and then began expanding through the Caribbean and South America.

"I mean it was true pioneering stuff. They were getting landing rights in countries that the United States had no diplomatic relations with in many cases. So Pan Am had this amazing aura outside the United States of almost being the United States. They were the flag carrier."

That image of Pan Am as the U.S. was so indelible that eventually it become a target of hijackings and finally to the tragedy over Lockerbie, Scotland that lead to its undoing.

Jeffery Mills began gathering interviews with the remaining survivors of the early Pan Am years and most recently was in Foynes, Ireland where in 1939 the Pan Am's "Yankee Clipper" made the first commercial direct flight from the U.S. to Europe. Today there's a museum and an exact replica of a luxury flying boat at Foynes.

That brings us to where the documentary is now.

"It is stalled, using an aviation term, waiting for additional funding."

Not an unusual situation for a documentary says Mills, and not one that can stop a compelling story from being told.

"We're determined to do it; we're usually inspired as we go back into the history of the company to see how they persevered against worse problems than this. It does push us along all the time."

Links to this project, the museum in Foynes and to Documentary Alliance at

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