Ken Burns Talks About Scaring Off 'Traditional Funders' With PBS' 'Central Park Five'

Central Park Five - H 2012
Courtesy of Sundance Selects

Almost a year after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Burns' The Central Park Five sees its PBS debut April 16.

And even though its festival run and limited theatrical release set its distribution model apart from most of his documentary efforts, the filmmaker told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour Monday that it proved quite hard finding the money to make it.

FILM REVIEW: Ken Burns' Central Park Five

"This is a difficult story," he said of the five New York youths -- four black and one Hispanic -- who were wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a Central Park jogger in 1989. "It scared away a lot of our traditional funders."

A collaboration with daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, Central Park Five has been a passion project for the trio since the five men had their conviction overturned in 2002. The media's general apathy about covering their vindication brought on the interest in a feature-length project -- and the participation of its subjects.

"I don't think it's the most controversial," Burns added, trying to explain donor hesitance. "There are aspects in almost all of [my] films in which we have been unable to present a nostalgic version of American history … but something that tried to balance the realities of it. These are tough times for underwriting. And I think particularly for some, not knowing what the final product would be like … prudence made it something they stayed away from."

VIDEO: Q&A with the Directors and Subjects of 'The Central Park Five'

The issues of lingering racism in America, exemplified in the treatment of the five, is something Burns noted may have made it a tougher sell. He also insisted that the project, distributed and co-produced by Sundance Selects, always was destined for PBS.

"It's always been the plan," he said. "This is my home. Because of the length and the interest in the film, theatrical distribution seemed to be a way to give early life to the film in an exponentially more modest way than PBS broadcast. Festivals, we might be talking about a few thousand people, and in theater maybe hundreds of thousands, but we have the chance of reaching tens of millions. That permits their story be more widely shared."

Indeed, Burns often is a ratings boon to PBS. His documentary The Dust Bowl pulled 11.7 million viewers over two nights in November.