Increased interest in “The Overnighters” documentary – part 2 of 3

Flaring of natural gas. A common site in 2012 and 2013, but is rare today. Photo by James Ulvog.

There has been a lot more interest in my posts on “The Overnighters” documentary recently. This is part 2 of my followup on the documentary. Previous discussion, including my disclosures, is here.

Might want to get a fresh cup of coffee. This will be a long read.

Reading a story when I know more than the reporter

It is fascinating to read coverage of a story when I have in-depth knowledge of the issue.

Whether the topic is accounting & auditing where I have deep knowledge, finance where I have a moderate amount of broad knowledge, or some specific topic in history I have studied, it is educational to compare what is reported to what I know.

Routinely I can identify reportorial shortfalls or lack of knowledge or distortions in reporting on topics where I have deep knowledge. That serves as a sobering warning for the reliability of coverage on issues where I don’t have in-depth knowledge.

The concept is to wonder about articles where I don’t know much when I can identify specific flaws in articles where I do know a lot. Makes me wonder what errors, distortions, or spins may be present that I cannot see.

Articles describing the documentary fall into this educational opportunity. It is intriguing to consider the articles, compare them to what I know, and then identify the biases and agendas that are in play.


4/11/17 – The Bottom Line News from the University of California, Santa Barbara – “The Overnighters” is a Microcosm of Post-2016 America – Clever headline, but I’m not sure how a documentary of what happened in Williston during 2012 and 2013 is representative of 2017.

Mr. Moss made an (obviously compensated) appearance at the Pollock Theater for a discussion after a screening of the documentary.

A two paragraph summary does a good job of framing up the documentary.

From there, the author filters the documentary through the lens of his worldview.

The author asserts the movie addresses “income equality, environment, and privacy” issues. Methinks infrastructure lagging behind job growth is a far more significant factor in the documentary and in Williston at the time than “income inequality.”

Ironically, the most obvious privacy issue to be considered is the director including the most intimate conversation in the final cut.

Author concludes that the attitudes shown in the movie (circa 2013) are representative of people’s attitudes today (4/11/17) and are also the driving force behind the 2016 election. How the author can draw from the movie what attitude people in Williston may have today is not readily apparent to me. I don’t see any connection between the viewpoints visible in the documentary and the 2016 election; if there is a connection, it is not visible to me.

The article mentions the “subtle yet unavoidable environmental aspect” of the documentary. Mr. Moss acknowledged that underlying message flowed out of what he saw and wasn’t his initial agenda. I’m not sure what environmental message was present in the documentary. On the other hand, I heard Mr. Moss say in public that his initial goal was a documentary somewhat along the lines of “Gasland.”

Mr. Moss is quoted as saying what he observed in Williston was a good representation of “the wildest form of capitalism.” It seems rather obvious to me this is not a compliment.

The audience understood the documentary is very critical of the residents of Williston with one questioner asking if it had bothered Mr. Moss that he might be “alienating a group people.” Article says Mr. Moss didn’t care whether he did that or not. Silly me, I thought it was a modern value not to alienate an entire people group. He is quoted as labeling the residents of the town as “narrow-minded.”

Film-making can be lucrative

Final paragraph is intriguing and I wish it went into far more detail. The article says Mr. Moss is working on another film with a group of people who work in a somewhat similar situation.

Article also said, and I quote, “… although he said these projects were financially lucrative…” the verite style of movie making (meaning the subjects of the story are filmed as the story develops and the documentary consists only of on-camera comments) is risky but is the best approach.

As I follow the story I am slowly learning how it can be so lucrative. The costs involved were limited:  the equipment, a year of time for filming, more time for Mr. Moss and his wife to edit the film, and travel costs to and from North Dakota. Mr. Moss lived in the church for a significant portion of the filming (six months I think) so he had minimal hotel costs. He did not hire any staff to assist him. Thus it is a very low-budget effort.

The lucrative part comes from things like the large number of PBS stations picking up the show, with each of them paying a fee (if I understand their system). I will guess Netflix picking up the documentary for a month would produce a nice return just by itself. I’ll make a wild guess that just the Netflix check alone will make the whole project profitable. Add in the speaking fees to the top line revenue.

As my editorial observation, following an intriguing story, having the good luck to capture on film the most critical plot-turning conversation, having between you and your spouse all the phenomenal technical skills necessary to develop, film, & edit an entire feature-length film, producing an entire movie on a very low budget, and finding the way to turn that into a very lucrative income stream is a fantastic illustration of the delight, power, and wonder of capitalism at its very best.  That would be the capitalism that the audience at UCSB, the audience I sat with to see the movie in Santa Monica, and even Mr. Moss seem to be so critical of.

Add in Mr. Moss’ ability for self-promotion that generated high interest in the documentary as a key factor for his success. Please understand I’m not being critical in any way. Wish I had that much marketing savvy and wish I had a fraction of that drive for self-promotion.

Let me phrase this differently. Mr. Moss had a once-in-a-lifetime break of being present for a highly dramatic confrontational conversation that he captured on film. He combined that lucky break with phenomenal technical skill, high level of personal skills to gain trust of interview subjects, professional drive, personal perseverance, marketing skill, and a high level of director ability. Put all that together in a capitalist system and there is quite a favorable financial result.

Just to be clear, I am thrilled for Mr. Moss that this has been a lucrative project for him, as the article suggests. I sincerely hope his next project gathers just as many awards and is every bit as lucrative.

I’ll say it again: I sincerely hope Mr. Moss makes enough money from this one documentary that he can cover his living expenses for several years and have enough left over to self-fund his next 2 or 3 documentaries.

More agendas

A review of the movie filtered through a worldview lens that is more obvious can be seen at Movie City News on 2/18/15. I think the title is Author Archive.  I glanced through the full article and stopped about one-third of the way through after counting 60 titles in the review up to that point.

The two long paragraphs describing The Overnighters infuse the author’s worldview into the review. The review appears to be based on a one time viewing. Article characterizes the housing crunch as workers not been able to afford expensive apartments unless they get a really good paying job when actually the housing was simply not available. There was not enough housing, at any price, for the surge of people arriving in town.

Review indicates the author believes it is an employer’s responsibility to provide housing and meals to employees. Or rather it is only the drilling companies who have that responsibility, not all the other employers in town. I am not aware of any other situations, apart from military assignments, where we would consider it the employers responsibility to provide room and board for all employees. Even more agenda-laden is the assumption that an employer is obligated to provide room and board for people not even employed by the company.

The irony is that the drilling companies actually did provide housing and hot meals to their staff.  That’s why everyone wanted to work for one of the big servicing companies or a driller. It is all the other companies in the region that did not provide housing.

Even more ironic is that the majors (Exxon/Mobil, BP, Total, etc) were not present in Williston at the time. Okay, Statoil from Norway owned some wells. The few comments I’ve seen imply that it is the majors who should have been providing room and board for every person stepping off the train or driving into town.

Entertainingly the reviewer labels a key newspaper staffer as a “rabble-rousing reporter.” The reviewer does catch on to the idea that this reporter wanted to drive a story, rather than report the news.

As an aside, I am still curious what the typically standard expectation may be in the newspaper industry for how far a reporter may literally chase an interview subject who does not wish to talk. What is the upper limit on how many blocks you may run after someone while shouting your questions? It was another lucky break for Mr. Moss to be able to catch that on film.

The article labels the leadership in the church and citizens who don’t like the influx of workers as having a “NIMBY mentality” even as they are enjoying the lucrative financial results of the boom times. I guess I need to watch the documentary again because I don’t recall comments about people who were distressed about the changes in the town having been financial beneficiaries of the growth.

In regard to leadership of the church (who I’ll guess mostly live in town) and people living near the church who were upset with the program most likely did not own farmland that was generating royalty checks. For someone living in town, there was no financial upside to the boom. Unless a person owned farmland with leases, there was only the inflation and social disruption and crime and traffic-congestion downsides.

It is also intriguing to read of things this reviewer saw that I did not. Two examples: Article indicates that hot meals were served in the morning for all of the overnighters. Based on my knowledge there was minimal cooking on-site and there was no regular meal service. The reviewer was able to infer the actual reason the city council voted to close the Overnighters program and ban RV parking on the streets. The real motivation was pandering to voters.

Disclosure: I am not neutral

I wish to acknowledge and declare I have biases and agendas when discussing the energy we need to maintain our high standard of living. Because my son moved to Williston for the job opportunities and was a participant in the Overnighters program, I have a dog in the race.

If my biases and perspectives are not quite obvious, please let me know and I will spell them out in more detail.

Feel free to filter my comments accordingly after you assess my biases.

Next post: Other articles and lessons learned.

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