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Read This Short Play to Understand the Documentary Filmmaking Process

Read This Short Play to Understand the Documentary Filmmaking Process

Have you ever wondered how a documentary project makes its
way through the juggernaut of the independent film business? Have you ever wondered what steps to take, and in what order, during the long passage from
idea to finished film? Short of figuring everything out as you go, or reading
book-length accounts of how it all goes down (or doesn’t), you could learn a
lot at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Market Place Live, in which a group of seasoned
pros pretended to produce and release a movie. Like a mock trial or fantasy
sports draft, the whole thing was fake, but the instincts, impulses, personalities
and negotiating tactics among participants often rang true. 

READ MORE: ‘The Look of Silence’ Wins Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 Feature Audience Award

In the spirit of the drama that unfolded before an audience at the recent Sheffield Doc/Fest, we present our account of Market Place Live as a theatrical play.

The Players

The Moderator – Olivier Kaempfer (UK-based producer and

The Producer – Simon Chinn (Oscar-winning producer of “Man
on Wire” and “Searching for Sugarman”)

The Financier – Barbara Truyen (Head of Documentaries/Commissioning
Editor for Dutch Public Broadcaster VPRO)

The International Sales Agent – Philippa Kowarsky (Managing
Director, Cinephil)

The Distributor – Beatrice Neumann (Founder/Director of VoDdities)

The Scenario

Three projects are presented: a polemical 3D documentary
based on a popular online course called “Sapiens”; a music documentary about
Gil Scott-Heron called “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”; and an exposé of
the corruption of world soccer and its impact on developing countries called “The Ugly Game.” From among these, the audience votes for “The Ugly Game,” which subsequently becomes Simon Chinn’s next project. The project is the brainchild
of Yanni (producer) and Mary (director), two newcomers attempting to expand
their acclaimed short film into a feature.

READ MORE: ‘A Syrian Love Story’ Wins Grand Jury Prize at Sheffield Doc/Fest

The Drama:

Simon: Obviously, I loved their short. It’s their passion as filmmakers that I bought into. But
I’m struggling with how I’m going to develop this project to make it
commercially viable.

The moderator asks whom
he’ll consult first.

Simon: I need
cash. So it’s got to be Barbara.

Simon calls Barbara.

Barbara: We get
[approached by] about a thousand projects a year. And most of the time they’re
by people you don’t know. And so although I know Simon I don’t have a clue who
Yanni and Mary are. So I need to vet them a bit. Simon’s a great producer, but I
really want to know about them as well. I’m not as energetic about it as you

They discuss the
developing countries angle, and Barbara gets interested in shooting a portion
of the film in the Congo. She knows a filmmaker making a film in the
Congo—maybe he can supervise what they’re doing there. Having engaged Barbara,
he calls sales agent Philippa for input.

Philippa: I’m okay with the short. But I like the fact that the [filmmakers’] access is exclusive.
And I want to understand if the film is more for television or cinema. What
type of funding will you be looking for? Sport films can be very dangerous, and
fall between the cracks. Either they’re too sporty or not sporty enough. So
I’ll need to know where you’re going.

Simon: Yes, it’s a
football pitch, and while it’s not exactly a niche sport, the filmmakers clearly
have a vision for the film that transcends a sports doc. It’s about corruption,
and the world, and touches on the economy. It feels like it has theatrical
potential. The big unknown is the filmmakers, but I feel like I can fulfill
their potential by surrounding them with an amazing team.

Simon engages Beatrice,
a distributor, to test the waters on the film’s viability.

Beatrice: Because
it’s such a topical film, is it truly a theatrical film? In the time it takes
to finance and produce and release the film it won’t be topical. So don’t you
think it’s more for TV?

READ MORE: 6 Tips on Making Your First Documentary Feature

Simon: It’s
important for the film to transcend its narrow confines. There’s a big canvas
that the filmmakers want to work on. The visual ideas, the narrative approach,
could work in the cinema if we get enough money.

Philippa: If
you’re going to [try for the] cinema and have a wide canvas, with a great
backdrop, and provide insight into football and its role in these countries,
maybe you can get support from some foundations that deal with the third world.
Not just from TV. And once you have that support, go out there. 

Simon: I don’t
know the world of foundations as much as you do. Maybe you can come aboard in
some capacity. Not just as a sales agent but in a producing capacity. I know you
did that on “The Gatekeepers.” You know, to help bring in some of that
philanthropic money. And then I can get the finance going, and it can appeal to
a slightly harder-nosed investor like Barbara.

Barbara: I need
more elements for me to think, “yes, I’m going to invest money in this.”

Beatrice: I’m
still wondering about theatrical potential. Who is going to be involved? What
about a trailer?

Simon floats the idea
of bringing in football stars to be the face and ambassador for the project. He
settles on footballer Didier Drogba, who hails from the Ivory Coast and is a
major star in English soccer. He dispatches an associate, Jules, to develop a
relationship with Drogba. Then he turns to Barbara, the financier, to make a
formal request.

Simon: I need
some seed money. I think I can make a decent piece of tape for about $10,000.
More than I might ordinarily ask for, but because of the Congo, getting out
there, getting a feel for the landscape, building some relationships, getting
looks and feels that are cinematic. I need a top DP to shoot this material.

Barbara: What is
it you can do for me?

Simon: I can give
you first option to come on the project as an investor.

Barbara: I think
I’m investing already.

(overhearing, assisting) What else could he offer you?

Barbara: What is
your budget?

Simon: (thinking
it over) I’m thinking a budget of $1 million to a million and a half.

Barbara: If you
want $1.5 million and you’re asking me for $10 thousand that’s a little weird. It depends on what role of a financier I’m going to have.

Simon: I should
go out there and find some more financing interest. Are we doing well on the
foundation front?

Football is not so hot in America. But the Germans are very interested. We
could get the German broadcasters involved. Maybe you could do it with a German
co-producer and tap into those foundations. I wouldn’t come in as a producer, I
would come in as an executive producer. I’ll help you package, I’ll bring in

Simon: You would
be taking a fee for the selling.

Philippa: Of course, I would be
taking a fee. How could I afford not to? But I would bring you the access to
the best German producer and then go to the German film fund and get something
in the vicinity of 500,000 Euros out of Germany. And if we do a collaboration
with ARTE it could be another 100,000 Euros.

Simon: (to
Barbara) You get first option—I have to come to you first.

Half the back end?

Philippa: No!
Don’t give her so much. Her ten thousand is generous and she deserves
something. She’s [representing] about a third of the budget so normally she’d
get a sixth of the back end: Half of the money is broadcast rights, she’s
putting in 500—250 is just to show the movie in the Netherlands—the rest is
investment. Normally she would get a sixth of the back end.

Barbara: I’m fine
with 25%.

Philippa: You
just gained 25 percent. You see I’m worth my fee.

Simon starts thinking
about creative and what it means for the budget.

Simon: We’ll have
to see how it goes with the budget. We’ll have to bring in a great composer. A
great editor, that’s a given. Enough to have a decent schedule, 20-25 weeks to
spend some time crafting the film and figuring out what the story is. Time is
the main thing that this kind of budget can find us.

Barbara: It’s all
about the creative.

Simon: (to
Barbara) I liked your idea of a supervising director. I’ve got a great
relationship with [director] James Marsh. He’s come aboard in a capacity on other films.
I’m going to give him a call. (He calls James Marsh.) He’s interested. I’ve
just got to square that with the Yanni and Mary.

Philippa: That’s
very good news, I think we can get you the other 500,000.

Simon: I’ve got
to talk to the director, Mary. She’s very much the priority. But I think she’ll be okay with it.

Beatrice (the
distributor): If you’ve got James Marsh involved I might start to get
interested. I like his films, and he’s quite a big deal in the UK. I probably
want to start talking to you now. Obviously, we’ll want to be able to use his

Philippa: Poor
Mary. I see her career going down the drain.

Beatrice: Do you
think you can convince them to have it even as “James Marsh Presents”?

Simon: How about “From the Academy Award Winning Filmmakers Of…”?

But really I’m a little sensitive to this.

Beatrice: At this
point I would (like to become involved). One of the questions is how involved
James is going to be. What is he bringing to the table? I’m interested in using
his name, but does that mean the story is going in a different direction?

Simon: The thing
that got James interested is that he discovered an interesting little
conspiracy among national teams in Africa. They’re getting together to blow the
whistle on the new FIFA, as a clean footballing body. Jules has discovered this
unfolding story—this loose unofficial federation of teams. It’s a massive

We’re going to be able to follow it in the present.

Philippa: With
your name and James together, I’ll get you the extra 500,000 pretty easily. I can
do it through pre-sales, but I wouldn’t kill the U.S. I’d wait for the U.S. but
go to other territories like Australia—countries that are interested in
football and believe in James and you. And we could be ready to go. My only
fear is Mary (the director). Because the access is Mary. Is it a film by Mary
and James? She’ll keep the “Directed by” but no one will see it. But James is a
brilliant idea—you saw once you mentioned his name, it’s happening.

Olivier, the moderator, gives an update
on how things are progressing. Barbara’s $10,000 went towards development, and
Mary and James have learned to trust each other and work well as a team. Simon
has put together a great team and everything is going well, and the money is
coming together as well.  

Philippa: So
Barbara, you’ve now put in $500 thousand and the Germans have put in $500 thousand. I’ll
cut and paste the rest. Speaking of which, how much are you putting in,

Beatrice: I want
to help you get over the line. What are you asking for?

Simon: If I
recall, you bid on “Man on Wire,” and you were prepared to kick in something
like $150 thousand. Here you’ve got James Marsh and a great subject and I
wouldn’t expect less than that.

Beatrice: I’m a
bit worried about how we present James Marsh. I think I would be more
comfortable with $100 thousand.

Simon: I mentioned $150 thousand as a
baseline. Obviously, I’m in touch with Studio Canal as well.

Beatrice: Of
course you are. Would you consider giving rights to Australia?

Simon: One hundred plus
Australia? I could get a hundred out of Australia on its own.

Football is not massive in Australia.

Philippa: No, but
James Marsh is.

Beatrice: I think
100 thousand would be a lot.

Philippa: Even if
Australia only gives us 75,000, then it’s still…

Simon: We can
agree to very preferential terms in Australia. 

Beatrice: Ok,
we’re talking about 150 thousand? I’ll say “yes.” 

The film goes into
production, but there’s a setback. It turns out there’s a rival production, and
there’s a race to completion to be the first with the story. The quicker
timetable puts a strain on the budget. Simon reached out to his (fictional)
friend Eric, a hedge fund manager who’s provided funds on previous films.

Simon: I put a
call into Eric, ostensibly to talk about holiday plans on his yacht. But really
what I’m after is cash for this film. I know that Barbara is maxed out, the
Germans as well.

Olivier: How are
you going to fit in a new investor? In order to finish you’re going to have to
raise the budget.

Simon: That’s a
tricky one. I’m going to have to talk to Barbara, to tell her we’ve got to lower
her profit participation to finish the film. (To Barbara) What will persuade
you? We’ve go to finish the film. In the end if we don’t have a great film we
don’t have anything.

Barbara: Why does
it have to come out of my cut?

Philippa: Let’s
take a little out of the Germans, a little out of the Dutch, maybe find a
foundation that will put up some cash.

Beatrice: But that takes too long
(to work with a foundation).

Barbara: (to
Simon) Why shouldn’t it come out of your part?

Simon: I am
taking the risk. I’m also doing all the work. We need to share the burden of
this. Eric wants 5% (for his $100,000). We’ll have to take out 2.5% each to
make it work. 

To make things
trickier, Australian director Jane Campion is involved with the other project.

Beatrice: I
committed money for Australia and now Jane Campion is directing this other
film. And James Marsh is not directing your film.

Simon: Maybe I
need to try to figure out a way to make James more central to the project.

Philippa: I think
exclusivity is a problem. Because Mary promised you exclusivity.

Simon: There’s
always another film. Always. So the priority for us is to be first, to trump
this other film. Jane Campion is great and all that, but between us, we have a
better project. We have a clear vision, a visionary director.

Simon and Philippa
begin to discuss target dates for completing the film, and how that measures up
with festival strategy—while also outflanking the other project.

Philippa: I have
good news for you. You may get into Cannes this year. The reason I said Cannes
is because we have Jane Campion on our back, and if we go to Sundance she’ll
just go to Cannes. But if you go to Cannes, where will she go? Venice maybe?

Simon: But I know
I have a great relationship with Sundance. They’ve taken most of my films. It
is in many ways the grand festival for documentaries.

Beatrice: An
advantage we have is the distributors we already have lined up. But it’s about
timing. How to get out there first?

Simon: Or you can
aim for Toronto and if you miss (the deadline), you’ve got Sundance.

Barbara: Wasn’t
there a Dutch angle? What about IDFA?

Philippa: They’re
not going to be ready for IDFA. And my fear of IDFA is that we’ve made all
these presales to theatrical distributors, and IDFA is not theatrically

Simon: Our
strategy is to take the film to a North American festival. To keep back U.S.
and North American sales. We make a lot of noise (with a North American sale)
and then go to Berlin and capitalize on that.

Philippa: We’ve got
a big budget, and we’ve pre-sold to the world, and all these big companies are
expecting us to go to big festivals.

Beatrice: Then
Jane’s film is going to come out at Cannes?

Philippa: But
then we’ve killed Cannes for her. Because by then we’ve had crazy press all
over the world. We’ve done international social media, and newspapers around
the world and we’ve sold the rest of the territories at Berlin. So we’ve
covered most of the big territories, and if she comes to Cannes, she may be in

Beatrice: I think
we should also make a thing about Mary being a new female director. There’s so
much discussion about the need to support new female talent, so maybe we should
make a story about that.

Simon:. Another
thing is that Didier Drogba is willing to come to Sundance. We can do a bit of
a show. So I’m doing some stuff in the background. I’ve got a couple of trips
to L.A. coming up, I’m going to have dinner with (Sundance Senior Programmer)
David Courier and hopefully I’ll see (Festival Director) John Cooper as well.
Fingers crossed.

Olivier, the
moderator, informs them that Sundance has decided to program the film.

Simon: I’m very keen to know how they’re going to schedule
it. I’m anxious for it to be as prominent in the schedule as it can be. There’s an Alex Gibney film this year, so I’m not counting on opening night. But I
wouldn’t mind the first Saturday—that would be great, and I would love to play
a great venue, the Egyptian or something like that. Not too big, but a classic
Sundance venue. And if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to bring Josh Braun in from
Submarine, who’s more of a producer’s rep, a Sundance specialist. Usually I
bring him in alongside an international sales agent.

Philippa: But
that was my last territory. I killed the UK and Germany. Together you and I
couldn’t do Sony Pictures? Yeah, we could.

Simon: So I’ll
call Josh up and tell him for the first time I won’t be using him at Sundance…

Philippa: Now
great, I’ll never work with Josh again! Maybe I can’t afford to be like that.
Josh is fabulous, I don’t mind.

Simon: You’ll

Olivier: What’s your strategy at Sundance?

Philippa: The
strategy would be to have a huge bidding war for North America. Immediately
after the screening, through an amazing PR person, we start releasing sales
that we’ve actually done throughout the years as if they were happening then.
So it becomes like a really hot title, and anyone who’s not bought in will feel
like a fool. And this will also help with the bidding war. And we will spend
all night, Saturday deep into Sunday—without sleeping, walking in and out of
different rooms to maximize the deal.

Sony Pictures Classics
wins the bidding war. In light of the Sundance buzz, Beatrice, the UK and
Australia distributor, is keen to put the film out internationally. She’s
excited about Mary, the fresh female voice, and to release the film as
counterprogramming the next World Cup.

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

Beatrice: I would
want that June after Sundance (for a UK release). I would want it quite fast.

Simon: Sony would
want to go a little later.

Simon brings up the
possibility of a simultaneous global release, perhaps a day-and-date release.

Philippa: It’s a
huge issue, who goes first. And day-and-date can be a huge problem. If the
Americans are going to go day-and-date, that may spoil Europe’s day-and-date.
It’s an incredible film, and if it’s on the net before you even release it…

Simon: I’m just
talking about coordinating the theatrical. Maybe UK, America, Australia,
Europe, and it becomes a story.

Philippa: It does
make sense to coordinate them, because it’s good for press.

Simon: Sony is
great about releasing documentaries. Building word-of-mouth.

Barbara: How much
did you get from Sony, by the way?

Simon: I’m not
really allowed to say.

Philippa: You
have to, she’s an investor!

Simon: We got
half a million. And we got really good box office marks.

Beatrice starts managing
expectations for the UK release.

Beatrice: We’re
talking about new directors, we’re not talking about James Marsh directing the
film, for which I would expect more box office.

Simon: So what’s
the (target) number you have in mind?

Beatrice: A
realistic number is probably $200,000 (in UK box office). I’m really interested
in doing a splash with the release. And I want to follow it up very quickly
with DVD and online. I’m concerned about losing the traction.

Simon: I’m a tiny
bit disappointed (in that target). I’m thinking maybe not a million, but
perhaps half a million. And to spend that you’d probably need to spend a
quarter of a million.

Beatrice: I
definitely think I’ll hit the $200,000 mark.

Simon: How many
screens is that?

Beatrice: For an
event release, perhaps 150 screens, perhaps more. We had a doc last year that
did $200,000 on one night on 150 screens. And that’s how many screens, the sort
of the release I’d have in mind. The next day a DVD release was announced for
September and it became #1 on the iTunes doc charts. I also would be looking,
because it’s football, for sponsorships. And then have a really nice West End premiere.

Philippa: And for
that you can probably get Sony. We may need to speak to Josh (Braun) to get us

Olivier reports that
in the end, the film did very well both critically and financially, and
everyone is happy and satisfied. As a reminder, this has been a work of


READ MORE: Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 6 Essential Tips From Brett Morgen

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