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Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Start Production

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Here's What You Need to Know Before You Start Production

The 5th annual Doc NYC, the largest documentary film festival in the country, kicked off Thursday with a four-part series of panels aimed at first-time filmmakers. The panels ran the gamut of neophyte filmmaker concerns, from funding and proposals to editing and distribution; establishing and sustaining an aesthetic style to more practical issues of time management and delegation. Though they are geared to the documentary filmmaker, many of these tips are just as applicable to narrative filmmakers.

READ MORE: 5 Must-See Documentaries at DOC NYC

Be Social.

“You need to establish a community,” said Kirsten Konvitz of Indiegogo.”People whose productions fail usually didn’t put in the preparation on social media. Press, networks, blogs–they can all help you. Laying the groundwork is most important. People think, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But they won’t.” You want to convince funders to join a team and support your project, you don’t just want to ask them for their money. “Reach beyond your immediate circles and find people who are invested in your subject.”

Ruby Lerner of Creative Depth added: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a talented filmmaker. We don’t live in an ‘either-or’ world. We live in an ‘everything-and’ world. Filmmakers like to think that business is someone else’s job; they just want to make a film. But being a filmmaker is a business. I like to say DIYWO: do it yourself, with others. Recruit people to help you. Six supporters can become 12 the next day.”

Emmy award-winning producer Marilyn Ness (“E-Team”) noted that social media is important, but we shouldn’t rely on it exclusively. “It’s hard to truly monetize social media figures,” she said. “There are other ways to move forward. You can see how many Likes or Shares something has, but that doesn’t translate to money.”

Every dollar you take from a funder is a marriage.

Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment (“Winter’s Bone,” “Man on Wire,” “The Cove,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) said that “every dollar you accept from a potential funder is akin a marriage,” and thus an entire project, once funded, is “like a polygamous Mormon Marriage.” You have a responsibility to deliver a film, and having experienced producers backing you can ease unsure backers’ minds. They’re more likely to fund you if they know they’ll get a movie. 

Braun added: “It’s better to get some funding from a backer who supports you than getting every single penny from someone who is going to inhibit you and stall your project.”

He mentioned how pre-sales can clutter matters, and filmmakers should consult producers and distributers before agreeing to sell TV rights to get backing. Losing the rights to a TV broadcast is a common problem he has to evaluate when perusing projects, as is the proliferation of filmmakers arbitrarily choosing $1 or $2 million as a nice flat budget. Make a calculated budget. He also said that “CitizenFour,” the acclaimed new documentary on Edward Snowden, is the only film he’s ever signed without having seen a single frame. (It was an unprecedented move.)

Do your homework and make a video pitch.

Konvitz showed an Indiegogo campaign video made by filmmaker Amy Scott, with the aid of John C. Reilly (though she stressed that a celebrity isn’t necessary to making a good video pitch), to sell her idea for “Once I Was,” a documentary on iconic cult filmmaker Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude,” “Being There”). The video is vital. It should be professional and charming without being pretentious. It should be creative and quick to the point; more of a call to arms than a plead for money. You want to recruit people who will be passionate about your project.

The video she showed used clips from Ashby’s films, which engendered questions regarding rights and legalities. Braun had a simple solution:

Have lots of lawyers.

Braun mentioned “Blackfish,” a film he worked on, and Sea World’s predictably ireful response. Sea World argued that the footage wasn’t obtained legally, but lawyers were able to provide valid legal answers regarding rights and footage.

“You want to create an entity to keep you safe,” said the moderator Marc Simon, an attorney and filmmaker.

With regards to using archival footage or clips from media, Simon said you won’t catch heat if you’re not exploiting them in your pitch video. However, it’s very important to consult an attorney if you have concerns, and the rules for a video pitch are not at all like the rules for a legitimate trailer or a finished commercial film.

Remember: You’re filming life.

Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert, co-directors who have collaborated on two films (“Remote Area Medical,” “This Time Next Year”), spoke in depth about the importance of chemistry and flexibility while shooting. They both worked in distribution before being filmmakers and are both critics as well (Zaman said it took her “a few years to get up the balls to be a filmmaker”), which informs their collective eyes on style and aesthetics. Zaman, a “diplo-brat” who lived in several different places around the world growing up, said she feels “American, and not entirely American,” which greatly affects her tastes. “I’m attracted to the idea of people firmly rooted in a place. I love people, and you have to be empathetic–you have to really care. You’re witnessing people at their most vulnerable, with a camera, so they have to trust you.”

Reichert said that individuals are more interesting than just big ideas. The pair set out to make a film about health care in the Appalachians; they didn’t want “to do a Frederick Wiseman thing,” and didn’t want people directly talking to the camera. Thus, they started to talk to people to get background information. But as they shot B-roll of the environment and spoke to people, they developed a new focus — the film became “Remote Area Medical.”

“We wanted to make an observational film,” Zaman said, “but we got to know these people and it felt irresponsible to leave them out. The verite style was lacking heart. You need a firm plan that you can let crumble.”

Zaman and Reichert concluded that the main question is: “What do I want my relationship with my subjects to be? Do I want to have a journalistic approach, a verite approach, issue-driven, intimate, narrow?”

Iyabo Boyd, Program Manager of Chicken and Egg Pictures, a company that aids female filmmakers, said that a lot of filmmakers feel like their first effort is a fluke. They don’t know how to approach a second film.

READ MORE: Chicken & Egg Pictures is the Force Behind Women-Led Documentaries at Sundance and Beyond

“We watch the films and give feedback and advice. Often they don’t know what their story is. We’ll say, ‘This isn’t your story. That’s your story.’ It’s like rearranging a puzzle. You have to be in the moment while filming but it’s important to be able to reassess your situation all the time. You’re not the only person making a film about abortion. How can you stand out from the pack in a genuine way? You need instincts, but most importantly you need to be a fast learner and have back-up plans if something doesn’t work out,” said Boyd.

Make decisions but collaborate.

“Be flexible, but have practical concerns,” Zaman said. “We didn’t always use a traditional system. We had six camera people running around, our DP was doing his thing, and we had to be logistical. There are factors you can’t predict. Shoot the environment, and keep shooting. You don’t know what you’ll get. Slot time for B-roll. If you’re working with a more experienced crew, listen to them and work with them. But you don’t have to do what they think is best. You’re the director.”

Reichert added: “We work well together because I’m a big-picture guy and Farihah is a master of details. Develop a complimentary relationship but make sure you have shared tastes. You can argue about everything but tastes. There’s no time during filming to argue about that.” 

Be trustworthy.

Edwin Martinez told a story about a subject in his film “To Be Heard,” which took five years to complete. She didn’t like her depiction in the film — she’d aged five years and didn’t view herself that way anymore. But Martinez told her neither did he, and neither will the audience. He asked her to trust him, and she did. when she saw the finished film, she loved it.

“You have to be trustworthy,” he said. “These people became my friends. Two of them were part of my wedding.”

“Style can be thought of as a blanket,” added Martinez. “Films come from who we are as people, where we come from. I tell my students, ‘Trust me, it’s going to make sense,’ when they’re used to narratives and don’t understand the seemingly counterintuitive things, like transcribing every single interview. There’s something inherent to a style, you can’t purchase it. It’s yours.”

READ MORE: 9 Tips on Making Your First Documentary

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