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5 Tips from Industry Pros on Staying Afloat in the Documentary Field

5 Tips from Industry Pros on Staying Afloat in the Documentary Field

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At one of this week’s IFP Film Week panels, two documentary producers at the top of their game weighed in on what it’s like to work in the increasingly fast-paced industry, and shared some tips on how to handle the role of creative producer. Nancy Goldman, SVP of HBO Documentary Films and Julie Goldman, founder of Motto Pictures, whose credits include “Best of Enemies,” “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” “Buck” and “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” sat down to talk. 

What do you need to be a good creative producer? 

“I think creative producing and executive producing are in a similar place, but the intensive, hands-on version is the creative producer,” explained Goldman.

In short, the creative producer does everything.

“Ideally, you should be across everything. You start out with an idea, come up with a strategy of how you’re going to make it happen: how we’re going to access funds to enable that strategy. It’s really everything from soup to nuts: how you’re going to write grants, how you’re going to get people to talk to you about the story that you want to tell, it’s every single aspect of the production that you can imagine,” said Goldman. “It’s the creative side of storytelling and the actual making of the film, so you need to be able to roll with the punches, to be willing to get extremely depressed when things change, which they always do, and move on. You’re really kind of the liaison between the production and the creative side so that the director can focus on the story.” 

Abraham agreed that “so much of allowing the director to focus on the vision is dependent on all those things being handled by the producer.” She explained, “You’re kind of banking on certain things happening to make the film unfold the way you want it to and there are times when things don’t pan out. We’ve all kind of decided that in that case, it’s better to not make a film, than to make a mediocre version of the film we always envisioned.” 

What qualities does a good creative producer have? 

“I’d say the number one thing is flexibility. I’ve definitely ended up on films that make extreme turns, go backwards, forwards or change completely in terms of what we thought it was going to be,” said Abraham. “So I think flexibility is key. Related to that, I think, is openness. Openness to collaboration.” 

Goldman agreed that the ability to collaborate is key. “That’s so important to me. The biggest thing that makes you want to work with people again are people who really collaborate, the ones who listen when you’re talking to them,” she said. “You don’t want to lose your vision, but you need to work with other people. This is so often a team effort, a team is so crucial, because everyone is critical in terms of what they bring. If you can’t be collaborative, it’s not going to be easy to keep going in this business.”

You’ve got to be open to feedback, said Abraham. “As a producer, you have to be extremely self-confident in order to be open to input and collaboration,” she said. “If you’re defensive, you might not be hearing things that could end up helping the film.” 

“Yes, understanding what is being said is so important,” Goldman interjected. “It’s really your job to act as liaison, to make sure that ideas are being communicated clearly and everyone isn’t just hearing what they want to hear. You start to develop a language when you work with someone for a long time. The collaboration with other producers can be so, so helpful. And there’s ways to collaborate so that you can bring the best out of the film and the director.” 

What tips do you have for producers who may not have a lot of experience yet? 

“When people don’t have experience as a creative producer, you might end up moving forward with something with small existing problems that slowly become bigger. Those could have been addressed at the time. Even things like personal safety,” explained Abraham. “Try and anticipate anything you can.” 

Goldman’s advice is to “stay in touch with everyone, especially if you’re traveling. Get your kidnap and ransom insurance. [laughs] Make sure you’re well-insured in general.”

How can a creative producer manage to stay on top of everything?

“You really have to juggle priorities. Ideally, the director just has to focus on the vision, but the producer has to juggle a lot at one time and then you often have to work on a number of projects at the same time,” Abraham said. 

It’s about juggling.

“Really, we have to have enough going on so that we can continue working and keep moving. We are often the last ones to get paid, because we are usually in charge of getting funding,” Goldman said. “For us, if we can be across a few films at a time, you can kind of stagger. You can juggle five, six, seven films at a time. Having a team makes that possible, and having OCD also makes that possible.”

“You’re really responsible for the budgeting, accounting, clearances and legal stuff on top of everything else,” explained Abraham. 

“That’s where having a team can help so much. If we can get someone that wants to do legal, wants to do accounting because they do that for a living and you can bring them on, that’s going to make everything easier. And then you can do a lot more. That’s been hard for me because I’m a total control freak in a lot of ways, but it can help so much to let go,” Goldman admitted. 

What qualities should a producer look out for? 

“You can’t have too much of an ego, because it’s not about that. It’s about what’s best for the film,” Abraham said. 

“Ideally, you don’t have a giant ego because the director is going to be invited to the festivals, doing press. And if that’s something that you’re going to be resentful of, then don’t do it,” advised Goldman. “For our latest film, ‘Music of Strangers,’ which played at Toronto last month, I wasn’t given a press pass. I wasn’t able to see the movie. We’ve made editors an elevated part of the filmmaking team recently, but if we could elevate producers similarly, maybe we could increase the amount of people doing this. Because there are not many people who are.” 

How do you determine which projects to get involved with? 

“We all watch material that comes in an talk about it as a group. There are certain ones you just feel in your chest, like, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ You don’t always have that,” explained Goldman, “but sometimes it’s obvious and that’s a great feeling. More often, it’s something that you debate and think about. It has to be a combination of things. I try not to just do a film for money, just because it’s funded.” 

“Yeah, because you have to keep in mind opportunity cost,” added Abraham. “There are only so many films you are going to get to do in your life and you want to choose wisely.” 

“It’s a joy to make these films. We’re an important conduit to get new, unique voices heard. So, become an independent producer,” Goldman gushed. “It’s a great, great job. It’s never boring, and you meet amazing people. I feel like, as part of the filmmaking process, we are finally being recognized. We’ve spent years yelling about this, and people are finally yelling back, so it’s very nice to hear.” 

READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire IFP Film Week Bible

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