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Attention, Filmmakers: 6 Tips on Making Your First Documentary Feature

Attention, Filmmakers: 6 Tips on Making Your First Documentary Feature

When you’re a first-time documentary filmmaker (or even an established one), there’s always one key hurdle to surmount: funding. As Maya Newell, the Australian director of “Gayby Baby,” told a crowd of budding documentarians at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this week, “No one knows who you are, so they don’t want to give you money.”

But that didn’t stop Newell, or the other first-timer directors who spoke on the Bell Media Kickstart panel “My First Doc,” Canadians Suzanne Crocker (“All the Time in the World”) and Amber Fares (“Speed Sisters”), all of whom shared advice on how to get funding and make your film in the right way.

READ MORE: Making a Living at Documentary Filmmaking is Harder Than Ever. Here’s Why

Here are six tips from these trailblazing nonfiction filmmakers:

1. Crowdfund.

For both Newell and Fares, crowdfunding campaigns provided an initial boost to get their projects moving forward. Newell and her team spent three months planning out their campaign, contacting partners and organizations to help with outreach to target their audience. (The film provides a kids’ eye view of what it’s like to be a child of gay parents.) One of their most successful stunts came with the help of traditional media: Newell placed herself inside the audience of a current affairs TV program, which was addressing the film’s central issue. When she got called on to ask a question, she flashed her T-shirt with the URL for the film’s fundraising website. “We made $25,000 in an hour,” she said. At the end of their campaign, the project raised $100,000 from over 1,500 people. “Eventually, the Australian film funding bodies came in,” said Newell, “as they saw we must be doing something right.” But after it all, Newell admits she felt a little dirty. “I lost all my pride,” she said. “It’s not dignified to ask for money.”

2. Build constituencies and get media coverage.

As part of her early campaign, Fares targeted what she calls “all the different verticals” that could be interested in her film “Speed Sisters,” about a team of Palestinian female racecar drivers. With the help of different car racing groups, women’s rights communities and female-centered media, such as the website Jezebel, which gave the project some early press, Fares was able to tap into both a fundraising community and find early champions of the project. 

3. Let the story be your guide.

Is it a feature or a short? A web project, a photo essay, or a written news article? Since the three filmmakers had never made a feature before, how did they know this was the one? “You’re never ready to make a feature film,” admitted Newell. “It’s more about the story in front of you.” Fares was filming on her own for two years before she got any official backers. “It took us a long time to even be able to say: ‘This is a story,’ she said. “You have to have a proof of concept.”

READ MORE: How Hot Docs Helps Underappreciated Documentaries Find Life

4. Be open to change along the way.

Despite the need to have a clear vision for your project, the filmmakers also spoke about the importance of following the characters without too much rigidity. Crocker had no treatment or plan going into the making of her film. As Fares explained, “You have to have some idea of what you’re shooting, but you have to be open to change and what’s unfolding in front of you.” 

5. Bring in the experts.

Suzanne Crocker, who documents her own family’s adventure living off the grid in the Canadian Yukon in “All the Time in the World,” was a doctor. She never planned to make a documentary feature out of her excursion. But when she finally decided to take the plunge, it took three years to edit over 500 hours of footage. Having made a few animated short films, however, Crocker had been to events and festivals and began meeting people in the film industry. “This allowed me to meet people who knew people who connected me to people,” she said. “I sent them the footage, and they said ‘yes.'” With the help of editor Michael Parfit, she was able to finish the documentary. “It was definitely important to bring in someone with a higher skill set,” she admitted.

6. But trust your instincts.

When you’re a newcomer, it’s easy to be swayed by the advice of outsiders, executives or funders. “You can be pulled in a lot of different directions,” said Crocker, who said it was important to her, for instance, to minimize the use of a more traditional expositional voiceover. While it’s easy to give your project over to a producing team, Crocker said it’s not just good practice creatively, but also when you pitch your project to potential buyers. Because, as Crocker explained, “Who is more passionate about your project than you? And passion is what people are looking for.” 

READ MORE: The Best Documentary Filmmaking Advice from Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

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