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10 Filmmaker Tips From DOC NYC: From Pitching your Project to Working with a Cinematographer

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire November 22, 2013 at 5:14PM

Here's the best advice for documentary filmmakers from this week's DOC NYC.
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Sarah Polley on the set of her documentary, 'Stories We Tell.'

The fourth annual DOC NYC, New York's documentary festival, just wrapped. The festival winners were announced and the festival reported a 25% increase in ticket sales, with more than 36 sold out screenings and close to 20,000 attendees. 

In addition to the 73 feature-length documentaries screened, there were 39 short films and 20 panels and masterclasses. In case you weren't able to attend, we've got you covered here with 10 tips for filmmakers from this year's DOC NYC panels:

1. There's a precise dance -- or is it a kind of yoga? -- that all documentary cinematographers should develop.

Speaking at DOC NYC's Cinematography panel, Kirsten Johnson (who shot Laura Poitras's "The Oath" as well as Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War") discussed the ways that cinematographers need to be simultaneously invisible or unobtrusive as well as flexible, mobile, and vigilant.  It's hard to convey Johnson's movement exercises in words, but one thing was clear:  if you want to learn how to move better as a camera person, watch how the pros do it.

2. Don't get hung up about shooting a documentary outside of your own turf.

Filmmakers behind "Death Metal Angola," "deepsouth," and "Detropia" talked about filming their documentaries in a place they previously had no ties to.  While the stories behind the films were interesting, a lot of the trouble with shooting in a new place can be summed up in two categories: 

1.) Convincing locals that you're going to represent them well, which certainly takes the right kind of personality.  As "Detropia"'s Rachel Grady noted, different situations require you to take a man with you to operate the camera or take sound, sometimes a woman, sometimes an intimidating person, sometimes a friendly one.

2.) Convincing audiences that you have the right to make this film.  Grady ended the panel by saying that she thinks that anyone who wants to make a film about Detroit -- a place many say is over-represented with documentaries -- should be able to.  

3. Have an idea for what the Ford Foundation should be funding?  The new director of the foundation's JustFilms grant, Cara Mertes, is all ears.

In her first public discussion since leaving the Sundance Institute for the Ford Foundation's JustFilms, Mertes made it clear that she's open to hearing advice from filmmakers about what's needed.  She was open to hearing arguments for filmmakers receiving legal support from the Foundation and for certain ways of collaborating with the foundation.  But some things are set in stone:  The fund is set up to help documentaries that have a social or environmental message, and Mertes made it clear that she's looking for projects that overlap with one of the Ford Foundation's specific projects - which range from journalism, to LGBT rights to government transparency and accountability. 

4. Come up with innovative ways to advertise.

Just posting on Facebook isn't enough to spread the word. Adnaan Wasey, director, POV Digital, recommends doing a social screening -- not only with the filmmaker, but also with the subject of the film.

5. Do your homework about the distributor you're pitching and make it clear why your project is right for them.

During the "Tap into TV" panel, representatives from television networks said they often received pitches or sample reels for projects that were totally wrong for their brand.

"Keep in mind that we're pay cable. it's a competitive market. For the most part, there is a stamp to an HBO documentary. Be familiar with the films that we've done in the past and the films we have coming up," said Sara Bernstein from HBO Documentaries.

The panelists emphasized that unless you're an established filmmaker or they've worked with you before, you'll have to wow them with your subject matter or unique access to the story.

"What is your access to the story? What is unique about it? What will the press pay attention to?" asked Bernstein.

6. If you've got a compelling subject, experience doesn't matter.

A scene from "Street Fight."

Filmmaker Marshall Curry ("If A Tree Falls") recalled how he had been doing internet work for about a decade when he met "this guy who was about to run for mayor of Newark" (Cory Booker). Curry knew he had a strong subject, but had no filmmaking experience. "I bought a camera, read the manual and just went out and started shooting…I thought I could go to film school or I could just make a movie." The resulting film, "Street Fight," which explored urban politics during Booker's run for mayor of Newark, won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival and was nominated for a WGA Award, an Academy Award and an Emmy.

7. Don't show your footage until you think it's ready.

Although Curry said that he likes to get feedback on rough cuts from friends, Liz Garbus said that filmmakers should wait until they think what the have is "pretty great" and they need advice about what their next move should be. "It's damaging for an emerging filmmaker to show stuff that's not ready. You may not get another chance," said Garbus.

8. Secure permissions for archival footage early in the process.

Don't assume you can get the rights to footage -- and don't underestimate what it might cost. "Look at the licenses early in the process and understand what you can and cannot get," said archival researcher Judith Aley.

Also don't make the mistake of thinking that anything on the internet is fair game. "There's a way to work with things from the internet, but it's the wrong approach to take everything as placeholders and then at the very end, under a time crunch, try to figure out how it's all going to be licensed," said  Scott Norman, content manager, NBC News Archives. Read more tips for finding and securing archival footage here.

9. Production values matter -- even when it comes to the titles.

"You can do a lot with a little. Build it into your budget and know that you're going to need to do something. Your film deserves better than just having cheap titles and effects from Final Cut" said director Alexander Meiller ("Alias Ruby Blades")

10. Take all advice with a grain of salt.

Of course, this bit of advice negates the advice above, but the message is: take the advice that works for you and dismiss the rest. "Most advice that you get, the opposite may well be true," said filmmaker Doug Block ("51 Birch Street.")

Block explained: 

"Look before you leap" makes a lot of sense when it comes to documentaries. Go out and do your homework. See what place there is in the marketplace for the subject you're doing and learn about budgets. On the other hand, if you know too much about all those into making a documentary – if you know how many years of your life, how much money you'd spend, you would never do it. So the opposite advice, "leap before you look" is just as good."

(Paula Bernstein, Ramzi De Coster and Bryce Renninger contributed to this story.)

This article is related to: DOC NYC, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Documentary, Documentary Film, Documentaries