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Here’s How to Make a Career in Documentary Filmmaking

Here's How to Make a Career in Documentary Filmmaking

Over a three-day stretch, some of the biggest names in the industry convened to discuss the hurdles, rewards and strategies of working in the documentary field.

The conference kicked off with a keynote presentation from Morgan Spurlock followed by a panel on “Getting Real About the Doc Career.” We’ve pulled some of the best tips aimed at helping veteran documentary filmmakers, those looking to break into the field, and everyone in between. Here are the highlights below:

READ MORE: 6 Must-Read Documentary Tips from Academy Award-Nominated Filmmaker Marshall Curry

On how the documentary field looks today:

“I think there was a lot more naiveté in the general population about what it meant to make a film back in 1993 when we started shooting (Paradise Lost). Today when you go for a story people are much more media-savvy. There are 20 other filmmakers who have already made that phone call. And it’s just a much more competitive environment.” — Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost”)

“There’s something very exciting happening right now in television. As the bar for scripted television has just continued to rise, so has the desire for networks to provide deeper, smarter, and better nonfiction programming. Countless network execs have told me in meetings that they want to create more shows that challenge audiences. They want to emulate what HBO and the BBC have done so well for us for years. It’s great for us, it’s huge. One of the things that happened with reality TV is it opened up the door years ago for audiences to see there are interesting and engaging stories in the lives of regular people, something we’ve all known for years. What they also know now is that it can be better. And in the next year you’re going to see the bar be raised by multiple networks. Multiple networks who are now wanting to challenge audiences in a very different and exciting way.” — Morgan Spurlock

On balancing film and academia:

“I frequently get calls from filmmakers who have this sustainability problem who say, ‘Well now I want to be professors because I have all this experience. ‘Well the fact is academia has its own career path…and universities, for better or for worse, have a way of exploiting adjuncts…

There has been a professionalization because of film schools in a lot of ways. There are so many people in film schools who do get that terminal degree that now getting these academic jobs are tough…What happens in academia is that they will support your filmmaking. And academic institutions will provide your office space, they provide your billing, they provide your legal counsel, they provide all kinds of assets that otherwise we as filmmakers would have to pay for. So now when people say to me, should I go to film school? I say to them, if you want to go into narrative film you’ll probably definitely want to go into film school. If you want to go into teaching you have to go into film school because you have to have the MFA at this point.” — Nina Gilden Seavey (“The War at Home”)

READ MORE: Making a Living at Documentary Filmmaking is Harder Than Ever

On building an audience:

“For me it was about continuing it beyond film and the outreach and engagement. I started raising a separate pot of money for outreach and engagement and going to organizations that actually cared about the issue. So we were able to raise close to the budget of the film in outreach money which kept me going; my whole festival run was funded by outreach money. I was able to subsidize a lot of screenings at universities, and what that led to was universities ended up paying me to come and speak about the issue. I found myself on CNN and everywhere talking about the issue…I think that was key to me being able to make a living.” — Roger Ross Williams (“God Loves Uganda”)

“You need to be putting yourself in the process of getting the word out about your nonfiction projects in a way that will create the largest audience possible. That’s through traditional media and social media. Become a social media mogul! I tweet about everything, from getting my face beat-up by my kid, to the projects that I’m working on, whether they’re nine minutes or ninety minutes. You want to start to share your projects with the world in every way possible. I develop my own media plan even before I take it out into the ether. And I think to myself, who else can I reach out to? Who can retweet an article? Who can help support and help reach out to the people that I’m trying to hit? So should you. You should come in with a plan of what you’re trying to do.” — Morgan Spurlock

On juggling fiction and documentary filmmaking:

“I think it makes you a more nimble filmmaker to be able to work on different things but it does not help your career because you don’t necessarily have that thing that you do that makes people say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll get her to do that doc.’ It helps a lot if you have a through-line to your work and people can pinpoint you as making that type of film… It’s hard to keep going if you don’t have that through-line. It’s harder for people to hire you, so you have to be ahead of the curve in that way and forge your own path.”Laura Nix (“The Yes Men are Revolting”)

On maintaining a work/life balance:

“There are six kids who call me ‘Mom’… I’m probably the most prolific filmmaker you’ve never heard of, because when you talk about going to film festivals that just wasn’t an option for me. You have to figure out what you’re willing to sacrifice. There are only so many hours in the day and days in the year and you have to figure out how you want to spend them. A long time ago I decided I couldn’t go to film festivals. So the community that is so important to documentaries, that was a door I ended up having to close a little bit.” — Nina Gilden Seavey

On collaborations:

“These partnerships are like marriages, and I’ve done a lot of dating. And for while we’re dating and it’s good but then we finish out a project and then we’re not talking to each other anymore. And I think part of it is that films take so long. And with the people you partner with you have to be careful to make sure that they are committed to the project and see it through to the end and don’t just see it as a job.” Shola Lynch (“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners”)

“No formula I think is the secret. Jeffrey Friedman and I have been working together since 1987 and it was an incremental development…There’s no real division of labor. I think that’s why it works because we can sort of toss the ball back and forth to one another. It certainly helps to get through the hellish time because at least we know we’re both going through hell.” —Rob Epstein (“The Times of Harvey Milk”)

“What I tell everybody who works in this business is as you start working more and more and more, don’t surround yourself with ‘yes’ men; surround yourself with ‘no’ men. You need people around you who will be brutally honest, who will be so ugly with you, that will tell you the truth about what they think about what you’re doing, that have you’re back, who are there to support your project in a way you never thought possible. ‘No’ men are the greatest thing you can have in a business where everyone will always tell you ‘yes’ to your face then ‘no’ to your back.” — Morgan Spurlock

READ MORE: From Concept to Cut: 10 Tips on Making a Documentary

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