Sunday, November 7, 2010

The New Golden Age of Documentaries

Camera, laptop, action: the new golden age of documentary

From Kevin MacDonald's examination of the YouTube phenomenon to a cab ride with Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard, cheap technology is allowing film-makers to stretch the form as never before

British documentary maker Lucy Walker

British documentary maker Lucy Walker: 'People are looking for bigger truths about the way we live'. Photograph: Lucy Walker

Right now, documentary film-making is like malaria," says Hussain Currimbhoy, curator of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Britain's premier showcase for new documentaries from around the world. "It's a virus that's spreading fast and far and wide."

In the past week, the festival has screened 120 new documentaries – including shorts as well as feature-length films – from 26 countries. As well as fly-on-the wall documentaries about well-known figures, such as the American comedian Joan Rivers and the English playwright Alan Bennett, there were music documentaries about subjects as diverse as Elgar and Heaven 17, and biographical documentaries about the beat poet William Burroughs, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and a taxi driver who once worked as Osama Bin Laden's bodyguard.

This year, the festival also focused on low-budget films about everyday life and politics in the Middle East, made as Currimbhoy puts it "by people who really needed to tell their stories and can suddenly afford to do it on film". He seems genuinely excited, even by the films that have arrived on his desk unsolicited and not made it on to the festival programme.

"There is definitely a new energy out there. We are living in a moment when film-makers, and young film-makers in particular, are increasingly turning towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in. They are more alert about, and suspicious of, the mainstream media and eager for a form that talks to them about real events in a real way, even if that form is often rough or even low-key. It's a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the documentary."

This view is echoed by the young British director Lucy Walker, whose latest film, Waste Land, opened to rave reviews across America two weeks ago (the film is out here in March). It tracks the artist Vik Muniz as he travels from Brooklyn to his native Brazil to undertake an unlikely creative collaboration with the "catadores" – garbage pickers – who scavenge a living on the world's biggest garbage dump in Rio. It is a film, says Walker, about "the transformative power of art" and one that utilises the grammar of fictional film-making to tell a real-life story that is as uplifting and redemptive as any fictional feelgood movie.

"I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary film-making," says Walker, over the phone from Los Angeles, where she is currently on a frantic promotional schedule. "There is a frustration with traditional media and a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. The week it opened, my film was number one at the box office in terms of what they call 'per-screen average attendance'. Of all the movies playing in America, a Portuguese-language documentary about the lives of people living on a garbage dump in South America had the highest per-screen average across America. That tells me that people are looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting from Hollywood or the traditional media."

To a degree, this has always been the case, but today, with the coming of affordable high-end digital camera and laptop technology, it is possible to prep, shoot and edit your own film in a fraction of the time – and the budget – it would take to make a traditional film. In many ways, cheap technology has energised film-making for a fast-forward generation who have little time for the slowness of traditional script-based film-making. "I've been in development hell for four years for a fiction film that never got made," says Walker, bullishly. "I don't have that kind of time to waste. I want to get on and make films that I think need to be made."

The availability of cheap digital cameras and software has also meant that, for every campaigning film like Walker's more hard-hitting nuclear weapons documentary, Countdown to Zero (released in March next year), or Charles Ferguson's Inside Job, a riveting, clear-headed exposé of the ruthless financial tsars behind the 2008 global financial meltdown (due next February), there are a host of smaller, stranger documentaries being made, many of which seem to push the boundaries of the form almost to breaking point.

In Exit Though the Gift Shop, released earlier this year, Banksy, the world's most famous street artist and arch art-prankster of our time, plays havoc with notions of authorial "reliability" and takes the audience on an entertainingly self-referential rollercoaster ride that says more about the baroque pointlessness of contemporary youth culture than it perhaps intended.

One of the most ground-breaking documentaries of the year, though, is also one of the most complex, formally and emotionally. The Arbor (released last month) is a film about the short and brutal life of dramatist Andrea Dunbar (writer of the 1986 film, Rita, Sue and Bob Too), who died from alcoholism at the age of 29. Director Clio Barnard restages short extracts from Dunbar's work using actors on the estate in Bradford where Dunbar grew up. The director also uses actors to lip-synch to recorded testimony from Dunbar's friends, family and grownup children. This has proved problematic as well as distracting to some reviewers although, as the Guardian's film critic, Peter Bradshaw, noted, the end result is a kind of "hyper-real intensification of the pain in Dunbar's work and in her life". All human life, it seems, can now be reassembled, and sometimes even creatively reinvented, by contemporary documentary directors.

Many recent documentary films also denote a generational shift in both style and subject matter away from the political and outward-looking, towards the emotional and solipsistic. One could argue that Catfish (out here next month), currently the most talked about documentary of the year in the US, is one such film. It is a documentary for – and about – the Facebook generation and it was made possible, says co-director Henry Joost, "by technology that is available to anyone. You can now buy a consumer-level digital camera for $400 [£246] or less that shoots in HD [high definition] and that still looks pretty good when blown up on a cinema screen. This really is an anyone-can-do-it moment for film-making."

Catfish chronicles the odd relationship between a young, hip and handsome New York photographer, Nev Schulman, and Abby, an eight-year-old who initially sends him an unsolicited painting of one of his published photographs. She lives, she says, in rural Michigan with her mother and her sister, a horse-riding, guitar-playing beauty who flirts with Nev shamelessly via phone texts and email. It all seems too good to be true and it is, though in ways that are surprising and, at times, affecting.

Made in a seamless vérité style by Nev's brother, Ariel Schulman, and his friend, Joost, two young men who seem to chronicle every waking hour of their lives on camera, Catfish is essentially a film about narcissism and self-delusion in the social networking age. There is a sting in this particular tale – and one that would be giving too much away to talk about here. Depending on where you are coming from, however, this unlikely twist is either redemptive or exploitative. You may come away, as I did, feeling both charmed and manipulated, wondering if real life could ever be as unreal as this. Are we seeing a film that unfolded alongside the events it portrays, or a retouched version of the same. And, more pertinently, how retouched?

"It really was an unbelievable perfect storm of circumstances and events that led to this film being made," insists Joost. "We're a little compulsive, systematic. We are all making home movies all the time. It's kind of like fishing. Then, suddenly, we found a story right under our noses. Our friend, who's sitting right in our office, was the story. We just followed it to see where it led. I really do feel that my life as a film-maker – all the dumb jobs, the commercial work, the videos – all led up to this moment."

Catfish may indeed herald an age when the quotidian can become prime subject matter for documentarists – this has already happened with photography. With one or two exceptions, everyone in the film seems to live lives that are so mediated by the grammar of reality television and docudrama that they behave as if they are somehow both utterly knowing and wilfully naive. Like Banksy's film, Catfish may ultimately say more about the emotional shallowness of the culture it betrays than its makers intended.

"There is a sense that the grand narratives are gone and that people are now living in an age of uncertainty, and documentary increasingly reflects that," says the film-maker, Adam Curtis, who has made two ground-breaking documentary series for the BBC: The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, each of which illustrated in their different ways how ideologies of power work on the collective imagination. "Traditionally, documentaries were part of a progressive tradition, a progressive machine. They provoked us or inspired us to do something. I would contend that, when politicians turned into managers, that system did not work any more and even big budget, well-meaning, measured documentaries, like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, leave us perplexed and helpless rather than angry and politically energised. At the other extreme, you have films like Catfish that noodle about with the intimacy of feelings. Here, people know the grammar of feelings, they know how to act on camera and how to emote formally, while real feelings, which are of course messy and complicated, are hidden."

Back in 1935, the pioneering British documentary film-maker, Paul Rotha, declared: "Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present." Rotha was a socially conscious director who believed, like many of his contemporaries, that the role of the documentary film-maker was to help change the world for the better. One wonders what he would have made of The Arbor, Catfish, or Exit Through the Gift Shop, all of which undoubtedly "reflect the problems and realities of the present", but in ways that Rotha could not have envisaged. In doing so, they don't set out to change the world but rather to question the nature or reality, truth and, indeed, documentary itself.

"The form is certainly being stretched more than ever," says the director Kevin MacDonald, who has made feature films (The Last King of Scotland), documentaries (One Day in September) and merged the two (Touching the Void). "But documentary is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things. If you think about it, journalism, letter-writing, memoir, satire – they all qualify as non-fiction, so why can't the same loose rules apply to documentary?"

To this end, MacDonald is currently working on the first feature-length documentary made entirely of user-generated content shot in a single day and then uploaded on to YouTube. Called Life In A Day, the impressionistic film is currently being edited down by MacDonald from 5,000 hours of footage from 190 countries. It will premiere as a three-hour documentary at next year's Sundance festival. "It's amateur film-making on a grand scale," says MacDonald. "But, because the participants are often showing such incredibly intimate things that you could not get in a traditional documentary unless you spent months filming, it is also ground-breaking in ways that we did not expect."

In the end, says MacDonald, it all comes down to great storytelling. "The irony is that, when I make a documentary, I always feel like I am taking all this real material and trying to tell a story almost as if it was a fictional narrative. When I make a fictional film, I do the opposite."

Documentary, as MacDonald reminds us, is essentially structured reality. "The only real breaking point," he adds, "is when documentary actually becomes fiction, but more often than not, as many great documentaries testify, real life does often turn out to be a hell of a lot stranger than anything you could make up."

That is perhaps the reason why its boundaries are currently being stretched – to keep up with the increasing unreality of the real world.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Correspondence With An Actor

This last week I received a string of e-mails from a New York based actor. While nothing surprises me anymore, the level of disconnect between "reality" and "the business" was so striking I am reprinting the e-mails, only changing details out of respect to the privacy of the actor.

(Photo: courtesy Columbia Pictures)

In a message dated 08/26/10 10:47:43 Pacific Daylight Time, the actor writes:

I am a young NY actor starting out and I am looking for any way I can into indy films? Right now I am literally being evicted and eating canned beans it sucks!, so I have to make any attempt I can to make my passion work, please understand. You never know if you don't try.

I love the look, story, and feeling of alot of the indy films and I would do anything to play a part of one of them. Can you possibly offer me any advice in how to get into one of these films? Or any help whatsoever(maybe even forwarding this to a friend, life is a chain reaction), it would mean the world to me because my future is at steak right now. Have a great day!


The Actor



Acting in film (or theater) is not a profession.

It's a hobby.

My advice, get an education and training and work at something you love and do acting as a hobby until it can become a career.

Until your name can raise money or sell tickets it can only be a hobby.
There is no reason to hire you.

I say this as a producer.
It's not personal, it's just reality.

Actors until they can sell tickets are interchangeable.

Even if you're "great" it still is a haul to be a "star."

It also requires a bit of luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Being part of a television show that works (season after season), etc.

Even actors who have been in multiple seasons of a show can't get work regularly.

I don't mean to be discouraging but this approach (your letter)
suggests a fundamental disconnect from a sense of reality in terms of how the business works.

I can't even open your head shot?
Why wasn't it sent as a PDF? or a JPEG?

Independent films are struggling because there is no "there" there.
How do you get paying parts?

Get breakdowns and go to hundreds of auditions for parts that call for your physical type. (I have no idea what that is.)

Hope this is helpful.


The Actor's Response


My passion is to deep in my bones to ever consider it a hobby, even if that is what it is by definition.

I studied for two years full time at (an acting program) and I finished this June.

I don't take your comments personally, I know exactly who I am. (don't take that the wrong way, I mean no offense)

No reason to hire me though? Are you NUTS! I am a talented actor, writer, and producer, and I use to kill in all the comedy clubs in NYC(and more, but I wont bore you.)- but i want to do drama and film now. I am in the process of filming my second short film- I can shake and move with the best of them. I just have no money, I am doing my damnedest to make connections (I'm a fighter), you should admire that! But who am I to tell a producer what think, I'm just an actor right LOL.

I never said anything about being a "Star", I don't care about stardom, I just want to work with like minded individuals to make art that inspires the people who see it. (thats me)

You say it takes luck, I say everyone who is persistent gets lucky.

Look I realize I had no resume, perhaps I should have, but I am just starting out, as I just mentioned above, and my resume is weak (I was afraid people might see it and just automatically dismiss me)

My heroes like (Dennis Hopper) started out with very very small parts on TV, hell James Dean did a Pepsi add for 30 dollars.

The fact is that someone helped them at some point, they were not stars!

They didn't care about that I believe, they were storytellers.

I've been out of school for 2 months and I have been on as many auditions as I could, and I continue, its tough as hell, so thought I need to make more of an effort. Even if that means emailing people like yourself. Cause someone will make the connection and help me. I believe.

I'm not limiting myself to Indy film, but I thought that would be a good place to start.

Personally I think you should be the one to help me, don't you remember how hard it was starting out?

If you don't, I'm probably talking to the wrong guy.

The Actor

p.s. just calling it like a see it, just like you did, and what you said was very fair and appreciated.

p.p.s. I'm an actor, not an English major.

Block's Response (Bold and Italics)

My passion is to deep in my bones to ever consider it a hobby, even if that is what it is by definition.

I am not suggesting that your desire to succeed is wrong, your drive or ambition.
ALL of that is fine.

What you're missing is that the business of being an actor is being between work, between jobs.

In order to support yourself you should see acting as a serious hobby and not a business.
Get a well paying job that will allow you to go to auditions.

This will allow you to pursue your craft and dream.

When you are cast, they should allow you to take a day off or more to do the part.

Then while you're building a career you can make a nice living.

I studied for two years full time at (an acting program) and I finished this June.

I don't take your comments personally, I know exactly who I am. (don't take that the wrong way, I mean no offense)

No reason to hire me though? Are you NUTS! I am a talented actor, writer, and producer, and I use to kill in all the comedy clubs in NYC(and more, but I wont bore you.)- but i want to do drama and film now. I am in the process of filming my second short film- I can shake and move with the best of them. I just have no money, I am doing my damnedest to make connections (I'm a fighter), you should admire that! But who am I to tell a producer what think, I'm just an actor right LOL.

Again, there is a fundamental misunderstand about the business. I am a producer. I don't hire actors, I don't pick actors.

I work with a director, a studio, a network, a casting director. I do select the "star" if the "star" working on my picture will get it made. I don't ever get involved with casting the roles. It's inappropriate. That's the director's job.

I never said anything about being a "Star", I don't care about stardom, I just want to work with like minded individuals to make art that inspires the people who see it. (thats me)

I am only using the term "star" to refer to an actor that by agreeing to "star" in my project will enable me to make a sale to a studio or network.

You say it takes luck, I say everyone who is persistent gets lucky.

The luck, is that you not only need a great role, you need to be part of a work that will be a solid work. Most films are terrible.

Being is a terrible film but being a great actor does not provide a lot of help for moving a career.

Look I realize I had no resume, perhaps I should have, but I am just starting out, as I just mentioned above, and my resume is weak (I was afraid people might see it and just automatically dismiss me)

Your resume is fine. You are starting out. That's the point I am trying to make.

Since I can't raise funds with your being attached to my project--I can't cast you.

I can only cast actors that will enable me to make a deal.

Neither good not bad. Not connected to you at all.

That's just the way it is.

My heroes like (Dennis hopper) started out with very very small parts on TV, hell James Dean did a Pepsi add for 30 dollars.

The fact is that someone helped them at some point, they were not stars!

Hopper was in over 200 parts (
This started in 1954.

Two Oscar nominations (writing and acting)

Perhaps 8 projects won awards (for writing, directing and even some acting)

Despite these wonderful parts, filmmaking, etc. he was not all that financially successful as an actor.

Judging from the parts, the credits etc. he struggled a lot for parts and opportunities.

They didn't care about that I believe, they were storytellers.

I've been out of school for 2 months and I have been on as many auditions as I could, and I continue, its tough as hell, so thought I need to make more of an effort. Even if that means emailing people like yourself. Cause someone will make the connection and help me. I believe.

I'm not limiting myself to Indy film, but I thought that would be a good place to start.

Personally I think you should be the one to help me, don't you remember how hard it was starting out?

If you don't, I'm probably talking to the wrong guy.

Again, I don't hire actors--I am a producer. Mostly focus on doc series.

SO while I can't hire you I am trying to encourage you and provide some useful info.

Good luck to you.

I feel confident that if you're given an opportunity you'll be fine.

My next few projects are docs.

The Actor

p.s. just calling it like a see it, just like you did, and what you said was very fair and appreciated.

p.p.s. I'm an actor, not an English major

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Filmmakers' Guide to Capitol Hill by Will Jenkins

Will Jenkins Guide was originally published in International Documentary which is the publication of the International Documentary Association. Follows is a link:

Mr. Jenkins is allowing this story to be reprinted in Docunomics. I think it's a really helpful story.

A Filmmakers' Guide to Capitol Hill by Will Jenkins

Many documentary filmmakers are driven by a desire not only to tell compelling stories but also to have an impact on public policies and laws. When such filmmakers see an injustice or abuse, they may make great sacrifices to bring the truth to light in hopes that change will come. The journey often brings them to the doors of Congress, where so many policies are made and amended.

This can lead to an awkward interaction with policymakers, who at times are part of the problem, yet whose leadership is needed to be part of the solution.

Having worked in communications for over a decade with social change organizations and on Capitol Hill, I have heard frustrations vented from both sides--certain politicians may seem too risk-averse, too beholden to powerful interest groups, while certain activists may appear too idealistic, too dogmatic to accept any compromise. And if you see a kid coming at you with a videocamera...

However, filmmakers and policymakers have much to gain by trying to understand each other better and by finding ways to work together more productively, when appropriate. After all, many policymakers, like many filmmakers, are doing this because they want to make a difference, to save the world--or at least some piece of it.

To put it another way, filmmakers create compelling stories that need action, while lawmakers take actions that need compelling stories, in order for the public to understand and support these actions. For example, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter is an outspoken advocate for food safety. Last year she introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act to make sure antibiotics used in farm animals do not harm humans. However, as she told Reuters news service, "We're up against a pretty strong lobby. It will really come down to whether members of Congress want to protect their constituents or agribusiness."

Fortuitously, the documentary film Food, Inc. was released around the same time. According to Sonny Sinha, one of her staffers, Rep. Slaughter established a relationship with filmmakers Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein and then hosted a special screening for policymakers in Washington, DC. This high-profile screening increased the film's national exposure, which brought food-safety issues to the forefront of public discussion. Rep. Slaughter followed the screening with a Congressional hearing on the same topic. By the end of the year, her bill had 100 co-sponsors and a related food safety bill was passed in the House of Representatives.

This is one example of how filmmaking can have a positive, synergistic relationship with policymaking.

The Policymaking Process

If you want your film to impact policy, it is important to have a clear strategy of where in the policymaking process it can have maximum impact.

Here are some potential entry points in that process:

1) Raising Awareness--Determine your target audience (the public, lawmakers, agency officials, staff, etc.) and find a message or story that will motivate them to action.

2) Building/Promoting a Coalition--Your film may raise the profile of a coalition already doing good work on the issue or inspire a new coalition to form when people realize they share a common cause.

3) Introducing a Bill--A powerful film can inspire lawmakers or their staff to work on new legislation to remedy the problem. The introduction of a bill helps raise the profile of an issue.

4) Holding a Hearing/Investigation--As noted in the example above, films can raise the profile of otherwise routine hearings and help build momentum.

5) Passing a Bill (House, Senate, Conference, President)--A bill's passage usually requires grassroots support. A film can help mobilize the public engagement needed to achieve the passage of a bill.

6) Enforcing Current Law--Sometimes the right laws are already in place but are not properly enforced. A film can raise awareness and pressure officials to do their jobs correctly.

Even if you don't see results right away, films can play an important role in keeping an issue alive until there is sufficient momentum to achieve a solution. It may take years to achieve success. Even if you succeed in making changes, vigilance is required to make sure that the new policies are correctly carried out.

There is also the campaign side of politics--supporting or opposing votes for candidates, ballot measures, etc.--which I won't focus on here, but on which films can have a significant effect.

Building Relationships

Politics is all about relationships and trust. If you want your film to have an impact in Washington, it's important to partner early with like-minded advocacy groups as well as policymakers and their staff. Including interviews with policymakers themselves can raise the profile of your film, as well as encourage investment in the issue from the policymaker down the road. Lining up the right interviews can be a frustrating process, so what follows are a few pointers.

1) Finding the Right Policymaker--You may want to look beyond the famous or high-profile personalities, whose agendas are already crowded, to find someone more knowledgeable on, or with a personal connection to, your topic. Building a relationship with a policymaker who is actually invested will make a big difference. Newly-elected members may be more open to taking a lead on a breaking issue and to investing time and energy to advocate for change.

2) Develop Relationships with Nonprofit and Advocacy Groups who support the issues in your film. Such groups often have established relationships with members of Congress and can help steer you in the right direction.

3) Be Aware of the Constituents That an Elected Official Represents--It can be counterproductive to ask a politician to publicly advocate for an issue that may go against the best interests of his or her constituents. It is better to identify allies who can freely associate with your message. For this reason, it is important to be honest about your agenda from the start.

4) Work Closely with the Policymaker's Staff to prepare for the interview. Staffers on Capitol Hill can help in many ways beyond basic logistics, such as giving you valuable advice and even potential anecdotes to bring up during your interview.

5) Be Persistent in Your Efforts to Schedule an Interview--Even if a policymaker supports your agenda, there are thousands of other responsibilities to manage. Don't take it personally if the schedule changes at the last minute. Capitol Hill is an unpredictable place where crises are a normal occurrence and schedules are in constant flux.

6) Prepare Some Selling points Beforehand to Make Your Case--Lawmakers always look for good stories to tell that support their policy agendas. Many times, filmmakers can discover and develop powerful stories that traditional news media and policymakers don't have time to find. Lawmakers also want their story to be told, particularly when they are fighting for a cause they believe in. So it is helpful to research their values and priorities and how your film may be able to give voice to these.

7) Establish Truth with Your Interview Subject--While guerilla-style documentaries have their place, in most cases you do not want to blindside or otherwise make your subject feel attacked during the interview. Again, trust is important and you probably don't want to develop a reputation for misleading policymakers. Even if you disagree with a policymaker, it will benefit your film and your chances for future interviews on Capitol Hill if you let them fully explain their position rather than taking their words out of context. Presenting these deep disagreements honestly will increase public understanding and hopefully encourage progress.

Promoting Solutions

When portraying politics in films and documentaries, as well as in the news media, it's easy to take shortcuts, oversimplify or fall back on old stereotypes. For the sake of your audiences and the democratic process, please take time to understand and to educate. Documentaries actually have a greater chance of doing this well than cable news, with its short segments and real-time analysis. Congress is complicated, but citizens need to grasp how and why policies are the way they are, so they can engage effectively.

While there are many easy targets to attack (i.e., bills are long, the federal government is big, corporations are greedy, etc.), identifying practical answers can be much harder. Try to show workable solutions. If audiences later demand solutions based on faulty evidence or unrealistic proposals, it only makes the process more difficult.

Nothing is ever final in Washington: Bills may pass but not be signed; laws may not be enforced or may be changed. So there is always an opportunity to make a difference if you are prepared.

Will Jenkins has worked in media production, social action and political communications for the last decade. He currently works in the United States Congress. This essay is drawn from a panel presentation at the 2010 AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival. For questions or further information, he can be contacted at 202-228-5258.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Microbudget FIlmmaking Sucks

Crafty on a makeshift table--a trash bin.
(Photo: Anton Delfino's Craft Disservice)
Posted Thursday, May 13, 2010 by Mynette Louie

Note: I am repeatedly asked about Microbudget filmmaking. I respond and say that feature filmmaking is for professionals, Microbudget filmmaking is really what I consider home movie making.

I think it's critical that filmmakers and their casts (if working with actors) are paid for time and work. If one wants to make an independent feature, one should do it professionally and not expect people to work for free in violation of state and federal labor laws. Filmmaking is a busines, making a product for mass distribution. Home movie making is a hobby that is best done as such. Have a good time, make a film.

Ask people to "work" on your film, treat them as professionals and pay them. Provide safe working conditions, insurance to cover injuries, work days that reflect overtime compensation, etc.

I found Mynette Louie's blog by accident. It's wonderful and relates to her experience making a fiction film that screened at Sundance in 2009 called "Children of Invention." I like both her positive and negative points of making a microbudget film. It's a good point of view even if I don't agree with it...

By Mynette Louie

Microbudget filmmaking is all the rage right now--it's the new paradigm b/c it MUST be. The old system is bloated and fiscally irresponsible.

This is what everyone's saying these days. But many of those doing the talking have never even made a microbudget feature. While it's true that we all need to squeeze down our budgets now, I rarely hear the pundits and panelists talk about why microbudget sucks.

As someone who's made 3 microbudget features and a bunch of microbudget shorts, and will (must) continue to do so in the foreseeable future, I'd like to tell you why microbudget sucks:

1. The wages can't pay your rent. This relegates filmmaking to a "hobby"--but one that necessitates your 24/7 engagement. Paradox!

2. Tough to get experienced crew, so you have to hire and train newbies. Training takes time. A lot of it. As if my job weren't hard enough.

3. Hard to do more elaborate stuff like period pieces, night exteriors, car scenes, fantastical elements, guns, blood, dolly, steadicam, aerial, underwater, etc.

4. Hard to get A-list talent, which in turn, makes microbudget films harder to sell.

5. Craft service is often lacking (see above). Thankfully, this isn't true on my shoots (though I did have to nix the Red Bulls on Day 3 of CHILDREN OF INVENTION to preserve some dough for music).

6. You have to wear a lot of hats. This can be a "good" thing if you get bored easily, but it can also be exhausting. Also, there can be confusion as to who's responsible for which task.

7. The economically disadvantaged rarely apply to work on microbudgets. They can't afford to! This limits crew diversity and keeps the film industry insular and homogeneous.

And to counterbalance the above, here's why microbudget is good (from a producer's perspective):

1. It's financially sound and investors recoup faster. This is the reason cited by all the pundits, and they're right.

2. Creativity stems from poverty, or: necessity is the mother of invention!

3. You really learn how to cut the fat. Every single shot must have a purpose and be worth our time and money.

4. The fact that it's hard to do effects means that you make pure cinema. You focus on the writing and acting because you can't hide behind effects.

5. The "circus" is contained--there's often not a ton of crew and equipment to distract the actors and director, and the leaner and meaner company can move more efficiently.

6. You get to wear lots of hats. Yes, per above, this could be a "bad" thing, but not if you like variety.

7. Most of the cast/crew are doing it for the love of art, learning, and community...because they sure ain't doin' it for the dough!

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Brendon Bouzard writes an interesting blog called, "My Five Year Plan..Stumbling toward bmovies since 2006..." His July 14 post looked at my film, NO LIES. The following is reprinted with his permission..He really nailed it. I've embedded the video from Vimeo.

By Brendon Bouzard

I'm going to take two steps in advance of talking about ...No Lies, which I think is an important film. One is that every single thing that follows is a spoiler. Including my second warning: that this film is potentially triggering. lies - a film by Mitchell W. Block from Direct Cinema Limited on Vimeo.

...No Lies was directed by Mitchell Block while he was a student at NYU in the 1970s, and though it's just sixteen minutes long, it covers a lot of ground. It is a mockumentary (although that word seems inappropriate given the film's gravity) in which a student filmmaker pesters a female friend about where she's going that night as she gets ready. Slowly he coaxes from her - at first unwittingly and then exploitatively - that she was recently raped and that when she tried to file a police report she was harassed by the officers. She becomes upset at her friend's increasingly aggressive and accusatory line of questioning as he follows her around her small apartment with his camera, leading to her breaking down emotionally.

It's a difficult film to watch, but as I said above, I think it's an important one. Its subject is power relationships between men and women - rapist and victim, police officer and victim, filmmaker and... victim. It offers a withering rebuke to the then in-vogue trend of American documentary, the direct cinema style that informed the works of The Maysles, Frederick Wiseman and Alan and Susan Raymond, whose An American Family had premiered on PBS the year prior and whose filming of the divorce of Patricia and Bill Loud was fodder for ethical debates within the filmmaking community in the ensuing months. Surely Block had the Raymonds in mind when he conceived this film.

The film is very smart, asking questions about the relationship between subject and filmmaker early ("You're really intimidating with that camera, you know?" the woman jokes, offhand, unaware that her friend's camera will later become a weapon of humiliation), and recognizing that rape is one part of a continuum of power dynamics in American culture in which men exploit and degrade women. Though it predates the publication of Laura Mulvey's seminal "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (written in 1973, published in 1975) and Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape (1974), it was produced right in the thick of the development of feminist film theory at NYU in its most theory-intensive days and is likely informed by the ideas of Mulvey, Haskell, and the generation of film theorists who began exploring the problematic way cinema treats women. ...No Lies posits the relationship between the documentarian and subject as one of exploitation. It details the way, for example, pushing in for a close-up during an interview gives the documentarian power against his subject by isolating her face (roughly akin to the argument Mulvey would advance about filmmakers using close-ups as a means of fetishizing the female form).

On the level of aesthetics, the film is a remarkable success, so much so that many viewers believe it to have been actual documentary footage until they see the disclaimer at the film's end and the acting credits. The title of the film, of course, is a lie. ...No Lies is a fiction. And while it contains emotional truth, it nonetheless dupes the audience in the same manner, Block would argue, as direct cinema. By keeping the film to the putatively 'real' footage, Block implicates the viewer in the filmmaker's increasingly misogynistic interrogation and shows the callousness and idiocy of his victim-blaming and that of the police.

The film had a long life after Block made it -- it was used throughout the '70s and early '80s by state and local governments across America as a means of sensitizing police officers to the unique challenges of working with victims of sexual trauma. And though it is itself a problematic work -- the central question that I don't know the answer to: Does this film use cinematic exploitation as a metaphor for rape or rape as a metaphor for cinematic exploitation? I tend to think it's the former, but the latter would be unquestionably ghastly -- I take heart in knowing that this is the rare fiction film that actually made an appreciable difference in public life, marking an epochal shift in the way many police precincts addressed victims of sexual assault.

NO LIES and the NO LIES rehearsal tapes can be seen at this location:,600,75,76,511,233,461,183,77,491,235&alpha=N

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dollars for Docs: Foundations, Fiscal Sponsors and Government Agencies

by Michael Rose

Note: This was original published by the International Documentary Association in the Summer Issue of "International Documentary."

Used by permission of the author.

Money's been called the lifeblood of politics, and it's clearly a vital ingredient that also brings documentaries to life. No matter how brilliant your idea is, without funding, it's just an idea.

"Film is the most expensive art form under the sun--except maybe for opera," says Morrie Warshawski, author of the book Shaking the Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects. "The most important thing they never tell you in [film] school is, if you're going to make a film, you'll need thousands of dollars, and 80 percent of your time will be spent raising funds."

As you search for funds, you'll have to share your ideas with others, and that makes some documentary filmmakers nervous. "No one will steal your idea," assured Warshawski. "Why would they? It's too hard for you to do."

Funding your dream may not take millions, and you might be able to exhaust your credit cards, hit up your friends, borrow from parents, hold bingos, pawn your comic book collection or set up a PayPal account to accept donations on your website to make it happen. But you shouldn't quit your day job while trying to tap the funding mother lode. "It's not practical to make a living as an independent filmmaker, full time," says Warshawski, who has counseled hundreds of filmmakers over the past 25 years as a fundraising consultant and in his former role as the executive director of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). "You'll usually need a paying gig on the side, a spouse who supports your 'jones,' or an inheritance."

Burst bubbles aside, that doesn't mean you shouldn't suck it up and start looking. In addition to appealing to friends, family and neighbors, you'll want to investigate foundations and government agencies that are in the business of handing out money.

Corporations and wealthy individuals and families set up foundations for tax benefits, as well as to perpetuate--and sometimes burnish--their legacies, and to support projects and programs that best reflect the core values and mission of the given foundation. These charitable organizations are obligated by law to give away five percent of their holdings every year; the one hitch: typically, the IRS requires the money to go to nonprofits organized under 501(c)(3) guidelines. You can start your own nonprofit or become part of a fiscal sponsorship program at a nonprofit, such as the IDA, that allows grant-seekers to use the organization's tax-exempt status for a fee-usually between three and 10 percent of the funding you obtain.

Choosing the right fiscal sponsor is one of your first challenges, and it depends on the interests of the funders you are approaching. "Some want you to work with a fiscal sponsor that deals with films, and some want you to work with a fiscal sponsor that is knowledgeable about the subject [of your films]," explains Warshawski.

Some people have more than one fiscal sponsor, but you have to vet them. "You want one that is credible, one you can trust and one where your money isn't bigger than the organization's budget," says Warshawski.

Some supporters, like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), don't fund projects submitted under the umbrella of a fiscal sponsor. It has "to do with the interpretation of the [governing] statute by the [agency's] general counsel," explains Ted Libbey, director of the Media Arts Division at the Endowment. It "had been allowing fiscal sponsorship but had to phase that out."

What this means for grant-seekers is that they need to find a 501(c)(3) organization that will act as the fiscal sponsor of the project while allowing the filmmaker to maintain ownership of it. In real-world terms, it's pretty much the same relationship you'd have with any other funder, but it's something you'll need to know before applying. You'll also have to think about whether this will work for you as you apply to other potential funders.

Finding a nonprofit to take you under its wing as a fiscal sponsor is important, but like any funder, you too need to define your mission and core values and dig deep to answer a very pragmatic question--Why are you doing this?--before you start. The most important thing to remember, according to Warshawski: "When you ask for money, the reason someone will give you money is because you exemplify values they value."

Once you've sorted out your mission, it's time to start shaking the money tree. In his day-long seminar held as part of IDA's Doc U series, Warshawski outlined some of the steps needed to navigate the foundation and government grant path.

One of your first stops should be the Foundation Center. It collects data on all US foundations, corporate and private, and makes this resource available through its computer database. The Center offers free classes and live webinars (recorded and maintained on its website) that help you get started, or you can go to one of the Center's Cooperating Collections--usually a university library--and ask one of the trained staff to help you start mining the database.

While the Foundation Center only has five offices around the country, it maintains a network of over 450 Cooperating Collections that have to meet the center's standards and provide someone to help you use their extensive online resources, according to Leeanne G-Bowley, manager of national training at the center.

This vast trove began to be assembled in response to the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy sought to uncover evidence of Communist sympathizers working in US corporations. Corporations and private foundations looking for a way to demonstrate their transparency started the center. "There's nothing to hide if you have ‘glass pockets,'" notes G-Bowley.

Today, the Foundation Center is a tremendous tool for anyone who wants to uncover who gets funding. There are a number of different ways to research who might be a funding source for your dream project. "You can search ‘film' or ‘arts' to see who supports documentaries," explains G-Bowley. "Or, you can go to look up related topics--the issues you're focusing on and who funds those subjects."

Once you've compiled a printout of possible supporters, you can do deeper research. Foundations must submit 990 Forms to the IRS, which track their record of giving; these are available at the center.

One longtime supporter of the media arts is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which helps fund such programs PBS' POV, Thirteen/WNET's Wide Angle and the International Media Development Fund of the Independent Television Service (ITVS). The foundation also supports the Sundance Documentary Fund as well as news producers like National Public Radio (NPR), PBS News Hour, FRONTLINE, the Center for Investigative Reporting and LinkTV. In addition, the foundation supports nonprofit media organizations like Kartemquin Films, the production company behind Hoop Dreams.

"To reach the broadest possible audience, the foundation supports programs intended for national public television and radio broadcast," says Kathy Im, director of general programs at the foundation. "The funding range is generally between $50,000 and $350,000 for documentary films, and higher for series and programs."

What might not be readily apparent is at what stage the foundation likes to come into a project. "We primarily provide support when a documentary film project is in production, preferring not to invest in the research and development phase so that we may base our review on a full and detailed treatment of the film," says Im. "Sometimes we provide support for post-production, when a film is in the editing stage and we are able to see some representative clips from the film."

Government agencies are also a major source of support for documentary films. In fact, these grants are among the most generous--and this is one important area the Foundation Center doesn't track. The top three US government funders for documentaries-the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)--award millions of dollars to filmmakers every year. A large portion of the PBS schedule is underwritten by this troika. And the agencies increasingly fund programs that appear on other outlets such as the Smithsonian and National Geographic Channels.

Not only do these agencies fund individual programs but they also support tent-pole series like American Masters, POV and Great Performances. The agencies also fund numerous film festivals. "We support the ecology," explains Ted Libbey of the NEA, when describing why it support programmers and well as program producers.

The three government funders have supported documentaries that tackle subject matter ranging from Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley to the Buddha, from dinosaurs to Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. For more information about grantees, areas of interest and the process and deadlines for submitting a grant proposal, check the agencies' respective websites.

While each agency requires an applicant to submit a rather substantial proposal, assemble a knowledgeable group of advisers and work out a distribution and evaluation plan, "the upside is that they'll give you six figures and they're easy to research," says Warshawski. The downside is that the process will seem slow to any filmmaker full of burning passion to get underway on an idea. There are set funding cycles and the decision-making can take months--and you shouldn't be surprised if the answer is "No."

"It's very competitive and not for the faint of heart," admits Valentine Kass, program officer at the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings of the National Science Foundation. "Competitiveness for our dollars is even greater than it was before. We're getting more proposals, and budgets are increasing, so we can't fund as many projects."

Being rejected doesn't mean you won't eventually get funded, or that you had a bad idea. When she was just starting out as a program officer at NSF, Kass once reviewed a proposal that she thought was "excellent"--but it was rejected by the decision-making panel. She read the panel's notes and agreed that the proposal needed work. When the disheartened producer called, Kass told him, "Here are ten things I think you should do." After the producer thought about it, he reworked his proposal and called her back and said, "I've done nine; is that enough?" She responded, "My advice is to do ten." He resubmitted the proposal, and it received the highest approval rating from the panel-and the project was awarded a grant. "He'd done 9.5," adds Kass.

"Some come back two or three times," she continues. But if you can't do it in three times, she encourages applicants to find another project.

The NEA gives out smaller grants than the NEH or NSF, but a filmmaker can come back again to get funding for successive stages of a project, explains Libbey. It's possible to be funded for research and development, come back for production, again for post-production and again for distribution--which is one reason the NEA gives out "a larger number of grants, but in smaller amounts than the NEH," says Libbey.

It's also possible to apply to both the NEH and NEA. "If you use the NEH and NEA, it has to be for different aspects, for different parts of a project," Libbey advises. To make your application to the NEH stand out, be clear about "what the story is, what the message is and what is the viewing public going to learn," says Thomas Phelps, director of the Division of Public Programs at the NEH.

Common mistakes Phelps sees are that the media team (producer, writer, director) is not ready, the proposal is not well written, or the story in the narrative treatment and proposed shooting script "don't match." Libbey sees proposals with missing elements such as rights clearances for music and film clips, as well as unrealistic schedules and budgets that don't hold up to scrutiny. Having a complete application is critical, he maintains.

While pursuing and securing a grant from one of these government agencies is an arduous and lengthy process, it can open doors to other foundations. The program officers talk to their counterparts in the private foundation world, many of whom see this as a vetting.

Several of these foundations have turned to the Sundance Institute to manage the funding process for them. The Soros-funded Open Society Institute "came to Sundance [in 2002] because they didn't want to reproduce a film organization," says Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. The success of this collaboration led to partnering with the Skoll Foundation for its social entrepreneur efforts and to a short-film initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

These alliances have helped Sundance nurture stories others might overlook. Mertes looks for "the most important, relevant, creative, most under-heard stories." Her program attracts approximately 2,000 proposals annually, of which 40 to 50 eventually receive funding. She thinks three times that number merit funding, but her budget won't allow that yet. "We're seeing a lot more really great projects," she notes. "We're living in an incredibly visual culture and the production quality of the projects is always improving." The increase in production values is combined with a growing interest in documentaries. "There is a great willingness to share these stories--a hunger to understand, to find commonalities," Mertes maintains.

Other media arts organizations like Sundance have been supporting documentaries. On the East Coast, the Tribeca Film Institute has partnered with Gucci to form the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, which, according to its website, "provides finishing funds to feature-length documentaries which highlight and humanize issues of social importance from around the world." Cinereach is a New York City-based nonprofit film production company and foundation. Its grant program supports both documentary and fiction features that "possess an independent spirit, depict underrepresented perspectives, and resonate across international boundaries."

On the West Coast, the San Francisco Film Society, through its SFFS/Film Arts Foundation Documentary Grant program, provides post-production support for projects by San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers.

In the end, "Filmmaking is hard, finding money is hard, and you have to keep the momentum up," says Warshawski. "That's how you separate the people who are serious."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Funder Road

Navigating the Correct Path to Packaging and Funding Documentaries

Published by “International Documentary” Summer 2010

by Mitchell W. Block

I am frequently asked by students and emerging filmmakers about how to fund their first documentary work, and it is evident that there is a disconnect between most of the film training programs and the field. Students and emerging filmmakers generally do not ask this question until they are well into production. This is a mistake. The process of selling a documentary (or fiction) work has remained unchanged since Edison and company first started cranking them out at the turn of the 20th century.

My first rule of production is, get funding before you start. It’s fine to start pre-production and casting without funding—put together your sizzle reel, see how your subjects present themselves on camera and capture material needed for your film. It’s not such a good idea to complete the production unfunded (or unsold) if one looks at the success rate of the 1,644 documentaries submitted to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Only a few of those films have found or will find, distribution, and fewer still will ever make back their cost.

1) Begin with the Idea
The idea is everything with a film.

a) Determine if Your Idea Has Already Been Done

This can be as simple as looking on to see if a video or DVD is being offered that is similar to your proposed project. Use search engines, looking by both topic and concept, to see what is out there. Talk with broadcasters, festival programmers, distributors and others to see what has been made. They are all gatekeepers and have seen thousands of works and have a good idea of what is in production as well as what has been produced. For example, when I started researching CARRIER (a 10-part PBS series about life aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz), I kept finding references to numerous one-hour programs about aircraft carriers and a handful of books. I viewed every work that had been made about the subject, and read all of the books that were available. None of the existing nonfiction media works were character-driven, multi-part series, or even one-offs. They were focused on jets and technology, not people. I needed to be able to know what other works were out there and how my work would be different.

A project that has been done repeatedly is hard to sell. Always try to avoid news-type projects, if you have to raise funds. Ideas that can be produced by shows like 60 Minutes or Frontline or on network news channels (CNN, BBC, Fox) are best avoided because these broadcasters will get their work out well before yours, and the market will be even more difficult to crack when your film is finished. It is terrible to go to a meeting and have a buyer say he already aired a similar show or is making a program similar to yours. Be sure your take on the content is unique. Talk to as many people about your idea as possible. The more enthusiastic the funders or buyers are, the more you know you are on to something.

Do not underestimate foundations, television programmers and distributors as sources of information and as evaluators of your ideas. They pay a great deal of attention to what is in the market, what is coming in and how projects have been received in terms of reviews, ratings and box office.

b) Get the Rights

You cannot pitch a show when you do not have the exclusive rights to shoot, or some aspect of the shoot that makes your approach exclusive. With historical projects that cannot be filmed as they take place, be sure that you have footage to sell the story. What will be on the screen? While Fair Use can work in some cases to allow the use of footage, do not put together a pitch based on Fair Use footage without first talking to a knowledgeable copyright expert. While some networks allow the use of Fair Use footage, others that are owned by a company that includes a studio may insist on works being cleared. Can your work be based on a book (or books) or a newspaper or magazine story? Can some aspect of your work be exclusive? A film dealing with recycling, for example, needs a way to differentiate itself from the dozens of works made about recycling.

Do your homework and be sure that you will have “characters” that are interesting on screen; that you will have access to the process (the race, the show, the rehearsals, the results, etc.); and that you can shoot censor-free, or almost censor-free. Try to not give your subjects the right to approve what is shot and edited.

Be careful if your funding makes it look like you’re making a sponsored film. For example, PBS closely examines the funding to be certain that the funder does not benefit from the project or even “appears to benefit” from a project. The same PBS standards apply to many nonprofit and for-profit sponsors of works aired on PBS. For example, a film funded by the Ford Foundation about a program they are doing in Africa will not likely be aired in PBS’ core schedule because the film could appear to be “commercial” for the foundation.

c) Build a Production Team

If you are doing a first film, you will need footage to show how great the material is and that a film can be made based on your idea, your selection of the character, etc. Nothing, however, can replace an experienced production team with strong skills in producing, directing, camera, sound and editing. While it is great to give emerging filmmakers a start, it is difficult to get a serious financial commitment from any funder for an inexperienced director. Production teams should have at least one senior person who has made a successful film or series.

d) Make the Sizzle Reel Simple

Do not over-produce a trailer. Show characters, story idea and perhaps even some of the story arc. Recently, we pitched a show using a commercial the subject had developed. This 30-second spot summed up the idea of the show. It was dramatic and inventive and it had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of our consultants had found it on YouTube.

Another show was sold to a network based on a 20-minute edit of footage shot with the central character. Another was sold without any footage at all, but with a great original concept. An Inconvenient Truth was sold on the basis of Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation, although it also helped to have a former Vice President of the United States as the central character.

e) What is the Right Length for a Project?

The best length is the one the funder wants. A short documentary film for Academy Award consideration cannot be longer than 40 minutes. Television prefers works that will fit into 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-minute slots. Theatrical features generally need to be over 70 minutes. If you finish your film before you sell it to a broadcaster or distributor, it is likely that you will have to fix the length to fit the time slot it will air in. An “hour” is sometimes 44 minutes and sometimes 57. Some hours have no breaks for commercials and others have has many as six. The pacing of a commercial hour on A&E is different from one on HBO or PBS. Logic suggests that it is better not to “finish” a work until you have sold it. With computer-based software, you can make the best film for your portfolio and festivals and then make the version that airs on television and meets all of the network technical specifications. Series are even better, if the material can support a series.

2) The Proposal

Once you have the rights to the idea locked, write up the project. All that is usually needed is few pages about the show. What will the look and feel of the work be? What is special about it? What will the story be? How will you tell it? A proposal needs only a few things:

A short treatment, focusing on one or more of the following: characters, the event, the narrative arc of the story

A statement about the nature of your exclusive rights and access to the story

Description of the team making the show

Information about archives or footage that will be licensed for the show (if it’s a clip show)

A summary budget and a detailed budget

Some letters of support

Articles, news stories and other printed materials about your show’s content to provide a funder with a sense of how current or important your idea is

Sample works by team members and perhaps some footage that you’ve already shot

This proposal is the starting point. Get the idea on a single page for setting up meetings and pitching. Try to liven up the type with pictures; still images are a great way to sell your show. Try to have pictures of people who might look like your characters if you don’t yet know who your characters will be.

3) Paying the Bills: Selling the Film

Sorting out how to fund your film begins with locking the idea. The idea’s content, approach and form will further define the markets for the work. Once the length is estimated, then the filmmaker has started on the path to funding, since length helps determine markets.

There are only four ways to fund any work; one or more of these sources funds every film:

Funding It Yourself. This is the classic independent film model—for example, Andrew Jarecki's first feature, Capturing the Friedmans. While this approach can speed the funding process, it does expose the filmmaker to all of the risks of production if the work can’t be sold to recoup the costs. Funding films with credit cards, second mortgages or your retirement fund is not a good idea.

From Buyers. Networks, theatrical distributors and others who use works to draw viewers to their sites, sell copies, products or theatrical experiences are the best funders. There are also a dozen international broadcasters that fund documentaries of American as well as non-US-based companies. Ultimately these gatekeepers complete the process of making films, since they provide access to the audience or viewers and are in the business of promoting, marketing and selling films. As stated earlier, they should be the first stop for the filmmaker, not the last. Examples include those funded by studios like Disney/Miramax (Earth), The Weinstein Company (Fahrenheit 9/11) or Lionsgate (The US v John Lennon); specialized entertainment entities like Participant Media (Food, Inc.; An Inconvenient Truth); and networks like HBO (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts). Of the ten highest-grossing documentaries of all time (according to, only one work, An Inconvenient Truth, was not funded by a studio-distributor. None of the 656 remaining theatrically released films on the BoxOfficeMojo list grossed more than $12 million, and most of these works were acquired, rather than funded.

Sponsors are a different kind of buyer. They fund films in large part to enhance their company profile and image. For example, General Motors supported Ken Burns’ films for over a decade. These sponsors are critical for public television documentaries.

Other examples of corporate-supported work include long- and short-form music videos (paid for by the acts or record label); and giant-screen films for museum and tourist sites, of which IMAX is a leading longtime underwriter. IMAX films are also funded by the museums and sites.

From Investors. There are individuals and investors who feel that funding a film and then selling it makes sense. Private placements, finding investors and selling shares are all methods that can be used to raise funds. Be sure to check with a security or business lawyer to make sure your funding strategy does not violate state or federal security laws and that your deal is properly papered. While this method is both risky for the investors and difficult for the filmmaker––since only a small percentage of documentaries actually make a profit––it nonetheless seems to account for well over half of the over 1,000 documentaries that are submitted annually to Sundance.

This method of making films generates hundreds of workshops and seminars. The deliverable is a business plan, or something similar, and this method sidesteps the problem of getting “No’s” from buyers. Business plans don’t reflect possible failure, only possible success. But be sure to consider the specific strategies of your plan; simply planning to market the film via the festival circuit or your website doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases.

From the Public Sector. Foundations, sponsors and individuals that want to support a project or filmmaker can do so with grants and donations. Government agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts fund films, as do many state-level agencies. Thousands of foundations and religious organizations also fund works. Unlike buyers or investors, who generally focus on the bottom line when it comes to documentaries, public sector funding supports the production of works that further intellectual, cultural, political or other objectives of the funders.

PBS, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and PBS strands such as POV, ITVS, American Masters, American Experience and Frontline provide funding for documentaries. PBS itself (and PBS member stations) generally requires distribution rights or equity positions as a condition of broadcasting the works.

The “PBS-gets-to-show-the-film” model allows filmmakers to raise grants and other support that includes funding from for-profit entities, and then allows films to be aired. PBS is particular cautious about the nature of the funding and how it appears to relate to the content of the work (for example, an environmental work funded by a coal company would be difficult to clear), but the PBS schedule is heavily supported with films funded from outside of the network. This model works well with PBS when advertising budgets of for-profit corporations can underwrite programs, but filmmakers need to clear the funding sources with PBS prior to accepting funding.

PBS and other broadcasters often show films without paying for them or paying the fair market value of their production costs. Filmmakers should try to get PBS to pay and/or help raise funds for outreach (marketing) and consider retaining video rights as part of this kind of deal. While the CPB-PBS Challenge Fund, ITVS, POV and Independent Lens actually do require an outreach and marketing component as part of their respective support, this component is difficult for independent filmmakers to raise money for, given that they’re already struggling to find funds to cover production costs.

It is fine to mix for-profit support with nonprofit funding. For example, a film funded by a grant or a foundation can be shown and sold to commercial television (or cable) and distributed commercially in DVD. While some filmmakers choose to make their films within nonprofit structures, this complicates the ownership of the project. I do not recommend that the filmmaker own and operate the nonprofit producing the film, either, since this really complicates the filmmaker’s ability to end up owning his/her own film. I generally recommend that filmmakers use a nonprofit conduit to receive funding and pass the funds on to their own business for the actual filmmaking. This allows the filmmaker to keep ownership of the work and directly derive revenue from it.

4) You’ll Sell Your Show on the First Pitch if…

The whole package makes sense to the funder

Your idea fits the needs of the network, funder or distribution company

You’re talking to the right buyer—ie, the decision-maker at the company

Your project can be produced within budget limits

Your team has a solid record of achievements

If your show is not selling, it is probably because one or more of these areas needs to be fixed. In my workshop, Documentary Tune-Up, I focus on why a show is not attracting funding. Much of time, the work can’t be sold. It is better to know sooner rather than later. Most documentaries that are not pre-sold never sell, much the same way most screenplays for fictional features are never produced.

Finally, a work-in-progress is worth more than a finished work. Once the work is done, you lose any leverage you ever had when it comes time to price it, unless you have that one-in-a-thousand work that is going to make several million dollars theatrically or win an Oscar. Not a smart bet.


It has never been easy funding films or selling a finished film. While the financial entry barriers for character- or process- or event-driven documentary production now are really negligible, the difficulty of making compelling selections, getting access and having the skill sets necessary to produce a work is complicated. It takes a lot of talent to make a good film. Just as the advent of the word processor has not created more great books, the prevalence of the low-priced camera and desktop editing has not produced a flood of great films, just a flood of films. Unless a filmmaker wants to approach filmmaking as a hobby rather than as a business, it is imperative to consider the pre-sale of work as a prerequisite for a work being financially successful. Filmmakers need to understand that while the demand for documentaries is increasing, the funding for individual works is not. More channels means more buyers but fewer viewers and smaller acquisition and production budgets to acquire, since the audiences are smaller. It also is relevant that the buyers know they can buy completed works for less because the Sundance statistic shows there is an over-supply. The good news is that there is a shortage of great ideas. These ideas, if properly packaged and presented, will be funded.

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