DAY 4 – September 21
The fourth day of IFP's filmmaking conference was mainly devoted to documentary filmmaking. When attending this conferences in previous years, I'd always skipped the documentary panels, but this year I decided it behooved me to learn about all aspects of independent filmmaking. I'm glad I did, since some of the advice supposedly specific to docs seemed equally applicable to narratives (and probably vice versa).
A common theme in today's panels was discussion of a successful recent documentary called Buck, about a soft-spoken cowboy with the ability to calm abused horses (he became an advisor on the film The Horse Whisperer), and whose homespun wisdom apparently grew from his own troubled relationship with his authoritarian father. I hadn't really heard of this film – I think it played at the Little Theatre in Rochester, but I knew little about it besides its nondescript title. It was apparently a big hit, though. Unlike a lot of documentaries that are either esoteric or politically divisive, this was a feel-good film about decency and healing, and appealed to a range of audiences.
The first panel was a discussion with indie producer Andrea Meditch, who spoke about several recent documentaries including Buck; Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (which apparently came about when Herzog noticed the raw footage being edited for a Discovery Channel production at the same editing house he was using); and Man on Wire, about a man who walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope back in the 70s. I arrived at Meditch's panel late, but she seemed to talk largely about the role that editing and post-production played in telling the “story” of a documentary. She said that a documentary had three versions – the movie in your head, the movie you have the experience of shooting, and the movie you actually shot – and that it was the role of the editor and producer to “intervene” and make the movie work. She also said that, to tell its story coherently, a documentary may require certain signposts (or “tentpoles”) in the form of narration or graphics, but that if you took these out and the movie still “works”, then the story is working.
During the Q&A, Meditch was asked whether she made decisions from the “head” or the “heart”. She answered, “I'm always looking at heart. If you can't engage audiences at level of heart, you're gonna lose them.” Perhaps paradoxically, she then stressed the importance of structure, and pointed out that Man on Wire had three or four different story threads that interweaved until the moment when he goes on the roof. “Move away from just what happens,” she said, “to what that means in terms of their lives and our lives.”
Meditch said that documentary filmmakers can and should learn a great deal from narrative filmmakers: “Just turning on a camera and saying 'I'll follow this' leads to a lot of footage” which then needs to be sorted. She said that when seeking a documentary subject, she looks for potential for nuance or layers. Man on Wire, she said, is about how this country's changed in the last 25 years, and what it means to be 24 years old now compared to then, rather than just being about the person walking on the wire. “Think about what your film can mean in a larger context,” she said.
Asked about common mistakes in documentary filmmaking, she said that too many documentaries are “one-note” and speak only to a single, limited audience. “Who do you want this to resonate with?” she asked, pointing out that anyone can now pick up a camera and make a documentary, and that your film needs to be of the highest quality possible in order to stand out. Like some of the narrative panelists, she said that when you finish a film, you're not even half done; from the outset of a project, you need to think about what you're trying to achieve with the film and how plan to get it “out there”, and that if you don't think about these things, you'll only make one film.
Asked if she'd ever written a book about producing, Meditch said that she had not, but recommended a book on the subject called Producer to Producer by Maureen Ryan. Asked what advice she would give her younger self, she said, “Do it with joy, do it with other people, try to reach out to other people. I've been able to follow my curiosity about the world and bring these stories to a bigger audience. Find people you like work with. Enjoy it. It's actually fun! Sometimes.”
The next panel was a pitch session similar to the one from the day before, but for documentaries instead of narrative features. The panelists came from various organizations that funded documentary work; they included Ryan Harrington of the Tribeca Film Institute, and Judith Helfand of Chicken and Egg. The panelists said that, when being pitched to, they were looking for unique, untold stories with compelling characters. Harrington said that it was also important to communicate where you are in the production cycle and how much money you were looking for. Helfand added that when pitching you should talk a little about yourself – how you discovered this story and what kind of special access you have.
The first documentary pitch was about a now-defunct Washington, D.C. jazz club whose CBGB-like history had been archived in the form of VHS recordings. The pitch got a mixed response from the panelists, who gave advice on how to shape the story and emphasize the human stories. One panelist, Dori Begley of Magnolia Pictures, warned against making what one film critic called “an illustrated Wikipedia page.”
The second pitch, a film about blind sailors, was well-received for the human-interest subject matter and for the passion with which it was pitched. The third pitch, a film about people on different continents and their relationships with their environment (this one had been filmed but needed finishing funds), was somewhat shyly delivered, and Helfand found this aspect sympathetic; you need confidence, she said, but not everyone has to be a “used car salesman”. Begley suggested emphasizing a theme that seemed implied but glossed over in the pitch – that some of these people had a Herzog-like madness in their fixation on the environment. Helfand and Harrington said not to use the word “environmental”, which they said was a “kiss of death”.
A panel about fundraising stated that documentary funding tended to be incremental, with small amounts from local sources such as historical societies and arts councils, perhaps of $500 or $1000; large lump sums were rare and tended to come late in the process. Sundance, Tribeca, Cinereach, Chicken & Egg, CPB, NEH, NEA, Ford, and ITVS were all named as possible funding sources. Searchable online resources the panelists named included realscreen.com, reelisor.com, telcoreport.com, documentary.org, d-word.com, Beyond the Box, IFP, and edn.dk (EDN, an organization who publish a guidebook, and who the panelists recommended becoming a member of).
The panel slowly shifted focus to distribution and promotion. The panelists recommended attending events such as Independent Film Week, Real Screen Summit, Sunny Side, Sheffield, MIP, and MIPCOM in order to network and make connections. One panelist quoted a Scottish filmmaker as saying that going to pitch events felt like being a pole dancer, but with less dignity. The panelists recommended going to these events as an observer at first, and that such events were part of the early stage of promotion and marketing; no one walks away from these events with a check in their pocket, but if you do a good pitch, you will make a connection and may be able to make a successful deal later even if your current pitch doesn't lead to a deal in the next two months.
The next panel was devoted specifically to Buck; they showed a trailer, which finally helped me understand what the fuss was about. The panelists, who worked on the film, said that the film resulted from 300 hours of footage, a year of post-production (10 months of editing, about 2 months of sound mixing), and a budget of over $1 million that was provided by people who cared about Buck. The film appealed not only to horse lovers but to therapists, and had strong word-of-mouth. The film comes out on DVD and VOD on October 4 (this Tuesday), so maybe I'll finally get to see this thing for myself.
A panel on post-production stressed the importance of knowing what deliverables you need to have, which may include E&O (errors and omissions) insurance, releases, a press kit and publicity images. If you're trying to get into a festival or are selling to a broadcaster, you need to know what they need and when they need it, and work backwards from that so you can deliver in a timely manner.
Keiko Deguchi, a film editor for narratives and documentaries, said that the editing process on a documentary goes more smoothly when the footage is well-shot and has decent coverage; slightly flawed footage could take him four months to finish, but footage with more serious problems could take nine months.
Postproduction supervisor Francis Power told a story about how not to do post-production. He worked on a film that had several different directors of photography, resulting in a hodgepodge of shooting styles; the film used a then-recent camera, Sony EX1, that was not yet fully supported by Final Cut Pro; and the film went through several different editors. The resulting technical difficulties stretched the post-production process over a year and a half, although he felt that under more ideal conditions it could have been accomplished in six months.
Mike Jackman said that his company, the lab Deluxe, relies on studios for their “bread and butter” but that they try to be accommodating towards students and indie filmmakers (“the future”); sometimes studios cancel or delay a slot, which the lower-budget filmmaker can take advantage of. He recommended starting post-production during pre-production – shoot a minute of test footage, bring your camera to the post house, know what editing system you want to use, and know what your final format will be. He also pointed out that individual title cards, rather than scrolling credits, are often more practical; fixing a typo in a single title card is more cost-effective than having to redo an entire scrolling credit sequence.
Deguchi said that, as an editor, it helps when the director has a clear idea of what film needs to be. The director may have big ideas for the film, which may not be apparent in the actual footage, but that provides him with a guide; his task is to find that material in the footage. Other parting words of the wisdom from the panel were: know what file sizes you'll be working with (Power recommended 720p proxy), organize your drives well, and name your files in a way that you can understand.
The final panel of the day had the title “In the Documentary Ghetto”. The panelists admitted disliking this title, and shifted the debate to whether documentaries are part of the larger indie film community or are a separate world unto themselves. Like other panels, the subject turned to the continuing importance of film festivals vs. the possibilities of self-distribution and self-promotion through venues such as iTunes, Amazon streaming, Hulu, Netflix, Sundance Now and YouTube. The moderator, Christine Gaines of Withoutabox, asked whether self-distribution is just for filmmakers who can't get into the major film festivals or find traditional distribution, or whether it really is a viable option. The response was that it depends on the film.
David Courier, programmer at Sundance, said that having a festival strategy is important. Know what festivals you could plausibly get into and that would serve your film well. Have your A list, your B list, your C list, like applying to college. Know your calendar; if you premiere at Full Frame, for example, you won't be able to play at Sundance, which wants premieres of its own. (Each festival has its own mission: Sundance is about discovering new talent, Cannes is about known auteurs with their new films, with some discoveries as well, and Toronto is in between.)
Courier also offered some more basic wisdom: Make sure your DVD plays all the way through. When communicating with a festival by email, put the film's title in the subject line and don't include any fake friendliness – just get to the point! He stressed the importance of such issues by pointing out that Sundance receives 4000 feature submissions a year, more than half of which are documentaries.
Another panelist, Thom Powers of the Toronto International Film Festival, said to make sure you have a great image to represent the film in the program book, so that (say) The Wall Street Journal will pick an image of your film when covering the festival. He also said that, when submitting an in-progress film to festivals, send your best possible version; if you can't get the film finished in time then maybe you should have waited, since you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Much of this advice seemed to apply to filmmakers of any stripe, not just documentarians, so I'm glad I chose to attend the entire week this year.
NEXT TIME: I attend the best panel of the week, then manage to attend more than one panel at the same time (sort of).