Saturday, December 06, 2008

In Memory of Brent Hurd

In a season where there is so much good news to report about Docs In Progress and our alumni, we also wanted to share some sad news. Some of you may already know about the untimely death of Brent Hurd, a 38-year-old documentary filmmaker who called Washington DC home for a time, but was really a citizen of the world. Brent was killed the evening of November 22 in Bangalore, India when his bicycle was hit by a city bus. He was in India working as a media trainer.

A Facebook Memorial page has already attracted more than 300 members and many fond memories and dedications. And a memorial service has now been scheduled in Washington DC where Brent was well known by the local documentary film community. It will take place next Saturday, December 13 at 3 pm at All Souls Unitarian Church at 1500 Harvard Street, NW (16th and Harvard). For more information, visit Brent's website.

A sad time not only for the DC documentary community, but for many around the world whose lives Brent touched.

Friday, November 28, 2008

An update from Paul Devlin on ArtistShare

In January we featured an interview with Paul Devlin, the director of BLAST! The article focused on Devlin's experience using ArtistShare as a form of alternative financing for the film.

Well, the film has had a bit of success as it continues to play film festivals and events around the world. And Paul has recently written an update in the European Documentary Network's DOX Magazine about his experience with ArtistShare and some of the lessons he's learned about this approach to grassroots funding.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Docs In Progress returns to Baltimore this Thursday

This Thursday (October 23, 2008), Docs In Progress returns to Baltimore, Maryland for a screening of works in progress by local filmmakers. This will take place at 7:30 pm at The Creative Alliance's Patterson Theatre (3134 Eastern Avenue near Patterson Park). We'll be featuring:

A segment from Charles Cohen's FINDING THE DROVE about master fiddler Dave Bing's quest to teach a new generation of fiddlers the "Old Timey" sound of rural America.

A rough cut of Bernard Threatt's BALTIMORE CITY HAKS, a gritty street documentary which exposes the truths and myths about "hak-ing," a parallel system of transportation for Baltimore's disenfranchised.

More information on the program and tickets here.

Review: Religulous

Another reprint from the Docs In Progress website...

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available in theaters, through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we occasionally offer reviews of documentary films which reflect a wide variety of styles, but offer something to be learned from a storytelling perspective.

RELIGULOUS by Larry Charles
(Reviewed by Erica Ginsberg)

As this goes to print, the film Religulous has spent two consecutive weeks as the #1 documentary in theaters and will likely be one of the highest-grossing theatrically-released documentaries of the year. It is surely one of the most talked-about films of 2008 because it highlights a hot topic (religion), is directed by an acclaimed director (Larry Charles, probably best known for Borat), and stars a successful TV political comedian (Bill Maher). With this resume, the film seems ready-made for success at the box office and in the blogosphere.

But does that mean it is successful as a documentary? While we have spent past reviews discussing films which should be seen as showcasing elements of an effective documentary, I would argue that Religulous should be seen as an example of an ineffective documentary.

I say this without prejudice against the film’s message or its messenger. I watch Maher’s HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, er, religiously because it allows me to see viewpoints expressed that are often not expressed elsewhere…at a least not on television. Going into the film, I knew a bit about Maher’s skepticism about religion which he expresses frequently on his show and in his comedy act. But I was also aware of his ability to re-evaluate his own opinions over time as a thinking person rather than an ideologue. And I expected to see some aspect of this intellectual exploration conveyed in this film, much as it has been explored by Maher’s counterpart religious skeptics in the print world, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. But this was not successfully achieved.

While addressing such a lofty topic as religion can create an enormous structural challenge, I had high hopes that Charles and Maher could pull it off. We would follow them on an intercontinental journey as Maher talks to and challenges different people of faith. As could be expected from a comedian and a comedic director, hi-jinks would ensue. But, between the laughs, we would also discover something new, something which allows us to think more deeply about religious faith and whether it is really necessary in contemporary society.

My concerns about the film have little to do with my own beliefs about religion or concerns with how the film treats such a delicate topic. Some documentary purists believe that a film addressing such a controversial theme should present all sides of a story. But I disagree. Documentary film includes as many sub-genres as fiction films and there is a definite place for point-of-view documentaries and indeed for what could perhaps be categorized as provocateur-documentaries. With an unapologetic POV and an engaging host who takes us on a journey into the absurdities and exasperations of society, provocateur documentaries create an opportunity for an audience to engage, whether or not they agree with the point of view presented. Love or hate Michael Moore, there is no question that he is the master of the genre. But what makes Moore so masterful is that he finds ways through his films to use a surface topic to explore a deeper theme about society. In Bowling for Columbine, for example, a film about America’s love affair with guns ultimately becomes a film about the manipulation of fear and the violence with permeates so many aspects of American society. In Sicko, a film about health care becomes a film about how societies view the individual vs. the group and whether a society should consider human health a basic human right.

, on the other hand, only skims the surface. The film veers between personal film, road movie, and essay. But none of these structural elements is developed enough for it to ever come across as more than a scattershot approach to documentary storytelling. The film starts promisingly with Maher talking to his mother and sister to help explain his own familial religious roots and how religious observance within his own family changed over time. During several different driving sequences (somewhat reminiscent in style of reality television confessionals), Maher offers to the camera additional glimpses into how he has come over time to reject of blind faith. But these moments are few and far between. Most of the car commentary gets us no deeper than a comedy bit.

The road movie takes us from the holy sites to the holy smokes sites, hitting everything from the Vatican to a truckstop chapel, from Salt Lake City to a Florida religious theme park, from Jerusalem to an Amsterdam coffeeshop. We meet a cast of characters who could have come out of central casting for their bizarre religious beliefs. But does so much focus on extremists build Maher's premise that ALL religion is suspect? Much has been written about how Religulous focuses predominantly on adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and pays scant attention to eastern or western indigenous religions. Even within the faith traditions the film does portray, the filmmakers are remarkably selective in the believers they spotlight. Nowhere to be found are Unitarians, Reform Jews, or people whose religious faith has been at the core of their involvement with civil rights, environmentalism, the anti-war movement, or other forms of activism (Maher may be capable of making a valid case against the religious necessity for activism, but it is not reflected in the film).

Even the interviewees who are somewhat sane are digitally enhanced with unfavorable reaction-shot editing, snarky subtitles, and cutaways to contextually humorous stock film clips which underscore Maher’s point that religious faith is the province of the crazy. We touch on religion’s impact on politics, on war, on science, on sexuality, and on history. And yet we do little more than touch, only to be swooped off quickly to the next site where Maher can continue to drive home his point.

And that may be the point. This film is like the point of a pencil which has run out of lead. My Docs In Progress colleague Adele Schmidt refers to documentaries as being a use of visual storytelling to explore a hypothesis; a documentary which enters production with the answer already in mind is not a documentary. It is an advocacy film. And this, in my mind, is what diminishes the potential of Religulous to either bring in new "believers" in disbelief or "preach to the converted" because we already know where the film will take us. There are no surprises.

The irony of Religulous is that, for a film seeking to critique the simplistic aspects of religious belief, it suffers from its own simplistic storytelling. And yet plods on for nearly two hours without really building the story beyond a one-trick pony of showcasing the extremes of religion. By not exploring faith in any thoughtful way but that which supports a pre-conceived notion, the film becomes a lost opportunity. A documentary which may do well short-term at the box-office, but will not have the shelf life of a deeper provocateur-documentary which resonates for years to come.

© October 2008, Docs In Progress, Inc.
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

The Art of the Elevator Pitch

Soon the Docs Interactive blog should be totally integrated into the Docs In Progress website so folks can actually realize we're one and the same and every article can have a way for you to talk-back with comments.

Until then, we've been reposting articles here in the blog. Here's our latest "Voices of Experience" feature on the art of the elevator pitch...

Getting in On the Ground Floor: the Art of the Elevator Pitch
(Interview by Erica Ginsberg, Fall 2008)

You get in the elevator on the 20th floor of a hotel. It stops at the 19th floor and in walks a TV executive who you just know would be thrilled to support your latest documentary idea. You have until the elevator stops at the lobby to pique her interest in your film. What do you do?

While it may not be on an elevator, chances are you will run into someone sometime somewhere who could be a crucial part of moving your film forward. It could be at a party, on an airplane, or at a bar or café. And you need to be prepared. Even at places where you might expect such an encounter, it can sometimes sneak up on you.

At an overseas film festival a few years back, I was sitting in a theater waiting for a film to start when I noticed a man next to me looking at an English-language guidebook to the city where we were. I struck up a conversation with him about sights to see in the city and it didn’t take long to learn he was the chief documentary programmer for a major U.S. cable network. Only problem was I was shy and unable to articulate much about my film. While I got some great tips on sightseeing, it was a lost opportunity for making an important connection professionally. The elevator door had closed on me.

To help others avoid the same experience, I thought we would devote this issue’s Voices of Experience article to the elevator pitch by talking to two filmmakers who have mastered it.

Doug Block
is an award-winning New York-based documentary director, cameraman, and producer whose most recent film 51 Birch Street was named one of the top ten films of 2006 by the New York Times and Ebert & Roeper, and one of the outstanding documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review. Block was nominated for an Emmy for his 1999 film Home Page and has produced, co-produced some of the most acclaimed films of the past two decades, including A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007), Jupiter’s Wife (1995), and Silverlake Life (1993). Block is also the founder and co-host of The D-Word, a worldwide online community of documentary professionals.

Aviva Kempner
is an award-winning Washington DC-based filmmaker who has specialized in investigating non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and the untold stories of Jewish heroes. She wrote, directed, and produced The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, an Emmy-nominated film about the Jewish baseball player who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s. The film won a George Peabody Award and received top honors from the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Kempner also produced and co-wrote Partisans of Vilna and wrote the narration for the Academy Award-nominated documentary Promises to Keep. She is currently at work on Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, a feature-length documentary about television sitcom pioneer Gertrude Berg (segments shown at Docs In Progress in 2005).

Q: What are the elements of an effective elevator pitch?

Doug Block: It's pretty simple - being able to distill what your film is about in a sentence or two in a way that makes it clearly compelling. Being able to tell potential funders or supporters enough about your film in about 30 seconds or less to get them to want to hear more. At any time and place, and at a moment's notice.

Aviva Kempner: Seizing the moment, talking fast and with a concise purpose and having the chutzpah to do it. Then getting contact information to follow up.

Q: What do you need to know about the person to whom you are pitching?

Doug Block: I don't think you need to know a thing about the other person. The elevator pitch is only about you and your ability to summarize your film quickly and effectively.

Aviva Kempner: It's about being in the right place at the right time and encountering someone who you want to be involved in your film. Often times, it happens at a film festival party, but it can happen anywhere. At a restaurant on vacation, I once ran into Harvey Weinstein. Told him about the film I wanted him to distribute and it helped when I later went to him. Even though he did not wind up being the distributor, my project was on his radar screen thanks to Martha’s Vineyard.

Q: What's a big no-no when you make the pitch?

Aviva Kempner: You get their prior work or their name wrong or mention their enemies to them.

Doug Block: Taking too long. Giving too much backstory. Explaining more than needs to be explained. It's about being quick and to the point. And leaving them wanting more.

Q: How important is it to know what it is you want from the pitch?

Doug Block:
It's always important to know what you want. I think mainly what you want from the elevator pitch is to buy the time to give a longer explanation. That may mean giving out a business card, sending a sample reel, asking for a meeting, or just continuing the conversation beyond the "elevator."

Aviva Kempner: Since I always need funding, that is what want from a pitch.

Q: Tell us about an experience you had with a successful elevator pitch. (It doesn't necessarily have to have been in an elevator).

Doug Block: It would have to be when I pitched 51 Birch Street to two HBO executives at a Sundance pitching round-table about five years ago. The film is a personal documentary about what happens when every assumption you've made about your parents 54-year marriage is called into question. I introduced it by saying it was the film I was born to make, and probably the best film I'd ever make. That certainly got their attention. Of course, I said the same thing to them recently about my current doc.

Aviva Kempner: I saw someone recently at a film festival who I almost worked with but did not because he is on the west coast. We have always maintained a good relationship and I pitched him now getting involved in a new project I am working on because of its parallels with another film he was involved in. I guessed correctly as he said to send the script to him.

Q: Let's say you have what you would consider a good elevator pitch. How do you ensure there is follow-up? Is the ball in their court or yours?

Aviva Kempner: Most importantly, get their phone number, address or email address. I pitched a doc project to Brad Pitt at a film party and he seemed interested since I had read he was interested in the topic. I knew going to the party he would be there, and practiced in my mind what I would say. I followed up by sending him a proposal to his office.

Doug Block: It's always in your court. Never go anywhere without a business card, at the least. And if you pitch to someone who could be a potential supporter of your film in any way, try to get their name and contact info. Put them on your email list and keep in touch with them all along the way.

Q: Do elevator pitches get easier once you get more of a track record? Is there anything extra someone who doesn't have a track record should keep in mind?

Aviva Kempner: I always mention up front the movies I have done before and of course a track record helps. Unless of course they did not like your films. On the other hand, it’s the subject of your film that is the real selling point and make sure to talk about it in concise terms and with much enthusiasm.

Doug Block: Elevator pitches are the great equalizer because they have nothing to do with track records. It's all about distilling your film down to its essence, which is extremely hard to do. If you can do it really well, and it takes up less than 30 seconds of their time, then no one will mind. It's only those who drone on and on that get people annoyed. The only way it becomes easier is to keep practicing it. Practice your pitch at every opportunity.

© 2008, Docs In Progress, Inc.
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Docs In Progress Trailer Night in DC September 26

It may be the night of the first Presidential Debate, but Docs In Progress will be sponsoring its own version of the democratic process on Friday, September 26. So program your DVRs and head to the Jack Morton Auditorium for our first-ever Trailer Night.

The DC-area film community and the general public are welcome to join us and the filmmakers as we screen six trailers (from 2-10 minutes each) for documentary works-in-progress. Following each screening, we'll ask for your feedback on the trailers and advice for the filmmakers as they continue to work on the broader films.

Friday, September 26, 2008 from 7:00-10:00 pm

Jack Morton Auditorium
(on the campus of George Washington University)
805 21st Street, NW (21st and H Streets)
Washington DC
Close to Foggy Bottom Metro and garage parking. Limited street parking free after 6:30.

$5 suggested donation to cover overhead expenses (cash only, at the door)

We'll be screening the following trailers (not necessarily in this order):

Murphy's Gambit: A Chess Hustler's Story
by Andre Dahlman

A DC chess savant must decide between living on the fringes as a chess hustler in the parks of the city or taking on the orderly world of tournament chess.

SPONG: Life and Times of a Radical Bishop
by Hugh Drescher

An Episcopal Bishop takes on old beliefs in fighting for the church's inclusion of minorities, women, and homosexuals.

Imani: a Story of Faith
by Taylor Baxter

Passing away before her time, the spirit of a 12-year old girl continues to leave an indelible impression on her family.

Nuclear Bonds
by Beth Humpert

Former enemies in Russia and the United States are living with the legacy of the nuclear arms race.

Go-Go: the Music of a City
by K. Dene Mitchell

What is Go-Go music and why has its popularity been confined largely to the DC area?

My Mother's Journey
by Sam Hampton

In the midst of the civil rights struggle, a woman moves from Alabama to Upstate New York only to experience a different kind of racism and her own awakening as a civic leader.

Audience members will not only have the opportunity to watch and provide feedback to the filmmakers onsite, but will also be able to show their support at the ballot box. We'll be sponsoring an audience ballot to select the film and filmmaker which is most deserving of a one-hour free consultation from the Docs In Progress team (excluding Sam Hampton from the ballot since he is part of our team).

A big shout out to The Documentary Center at the George Washington University for being the location sponsor for this event.

For more information, visit the Docs In Progress website at

Executive Positions at Silverdocs and the International Documentary Association

While Docs Interactive is not and never aspires to be a job posting board, we did want to share two rather high-profile job openings in the documentary world:

The International Documentary Association, based in Los Angeles, is now advertising for a new Executive Director to replace Sandra Ruch who left IDA in July to pursue private consulting work. You can find out more about the position here.

And right here in Silver Spring, Maryland, the SILVERDOCS International Film Festival is looking for a new Festival Director to replace Patricia Finneran who is moving on to become a Senior Consultant with the Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program. You can find out more about the position here.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Distribution Seminar in DC Area

Summer is over and Docs In Progress will be back in action with some brand new programs in the coming months. More on that soon, but first we wanted to share some information on an upcoming distribution film seminar taking place in the Washington DC area for both fiction and documentary filmmakers. While this one's not sponsored by us, Jerome Courshon has graciously extended a discount for Friends of Docs In Progress. Read more below.


THE SECRETS TO DISTRIBUTION: Get Your Movie Distributed Now!

So you’ve made your movie. Congratulations! Or you’re going to make your movie. Excellent! What do you do to ensure the final step of your filmmaking journey, getting distribution? How do you play ‘the game’? Is there even a game??

The answer is YES. There is a game. A strategy. Whether you’re about to start shooting, have finished your final cut, are on the film festival circuit -- or even if you’ve been turned down by distributors already -- you CAN get distribution. It is not impossible, but there is a strategy that MOST producers & directors do not know or understand.

Where can you learn this? At producer Jerome Courshon’s groundbreaking 1-Day seminar,
“The Secrets to Distribution: Get Your Movie Distributed Now!”

Who should attend this seminar:
- Those with a completed movie
- Those in production or post-production
- Those who intend to make a movie -- Get a head start on what you need to know

Bottom line? This seminar is about getting results and getting the deal, with key resources provided. If you are serious about getting your movie into the marketplace, then you should not miss this day. This is NOT about self-distribution and making DVDs to sell them out of the trunk of your car or on the internet. This is about securing a viable distributor, whether you have a low budget / no budget movie OR a movie with names. Don’t spend years spinning your wheels, only to end with your movie collecting dust on your living room shelf.

“Without Jerome’s information and help, I’d never have gotten a studio distribution deal for my ‘no name’ feature. Not in a million years.”
-- Vince Rocca, Producer, “Kisses & Caroms” (Released by Warner Bros.)

“I’ve been a working actor for over 25 years and have relationships with many mainstream Distributors. When it was time to distribute my first feature film, I thought I knew it all. Jerome not only opened my eyes, but opened doors and on February 19th, 2008, my movie “Revamped” got released on DVD nationwide. Is Jerome’s Seminar worth it? You can’t even put a price tag on the knowledge and connections that you’ll get from his Seminar.”
-- Jeff Rector, Writer/Director/Producer, “Revamped”

DATE: Saturday, September 20, 2008
TIME: 10am - 6pm
LOCATION: NRECA, 4301 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22203

DOCS IN PROGRESS Friends -- SPECIAL DISCOUNT TUITION: Register before seminar date for $155, and includes all handout material. (Regular tuition is $175 in advance or $190 at the door.) Use this special link to register and get the discount: http://www.Distribution.LA/dip.html

For more info, visit: http://www.Distribution.LA
Or call: (323) 662-8877

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Grassroots Online Fundraising: the case of THE DELEGATES

We don't normally shill for filmmakers who are raising funds for their films (so please please don't ask us to). But we are very intrigued by the approach of some filmmaker colleagues who are trying to adopt Obama-style small-donor online fundraising techniques to their film (which appropriately enough will be filmed at the Democratic National Convention at the end of the month). Whether you choose to support their project or not, take a look at the e-mail they sent us today. They offer what could be a good model for other filmmakers who don't have the name recognition of Robert Greenwald, but are interested in a grassroots approach to fundraising.

We promise to report back once we hear more on how this approach works for them.

Here's their e-mail:

At the end of August, Lauren and I are flying to Denver to film the Democratic National Convention, an event that will surely be a significant moment in American history. We're going there to make a new documentary about the people chosen to represent the Democratic voters, THE DELEGATES.

Our film will accompany four delegates, with diverse hometowns, backgrounds, and interests, as they take part in the hype and hope of the Convention. Along the way, the delegates will illustrate the personal side of the democratic process, and share what it is like for ordinary Americans to take part in this extraordinary event. The film will follow the delegates from the moment they arrive at the airport, to the hectic scene on the convention floor, around Denver and finally to Barack Obama's historic acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium.

We're working on this film with our friends from DoubleSpeak Media who took me to New Hampshire to cover the primary for The Huffington Post. Now, we're putting together a bigger team so that we can cover as much as we can at this historic event.

Most documentaries are kick-started with money collected through donations from family and friends. So far, we've never wanted to go that route. But our next film is about a subject that matters to all of you, and we need your help.

The Obama campaign has taken traditional fundraising strategies and turned them upside-down: building momentum by bringing their appeal directly to small donors. Following in those footsteps, we're asking for your contribution to help make THE DELEGATES a worthy document of a pivotal moment in American history.

Give as much or as little as you can--every little bit helps and will be appreciated. If you donate $25 or more, your name will appear in the credits. Donate $100 or more and you'll also receive an advance copy of THE DELEGATES on DVD.

To learn more about the film, visit our website at:

To donate right now, click here:

Thanks so much!


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Top Ten Online Resources for Doc Filmmakers

While there are plenty of other websites and blogs out there which have resources for independent documentary filmmakers, there are a few we've come across in the past year which we think are especially useful. They are listed in no particular order.

(1) How to Increase Your Chances of Getting a Grant
From Wildsound’s website. While this advice is fairly generic and you should always look at the specific requirements for any grant, this is probably one of the most succinct descriptions of the elements which belong in most grant proposals.

(2) ITVS: Meet the Execs
The D-Word has been putting together useful online forums on various topics of interest to doc-makers for years. One of the most beneficial in recent months was this Q&A with four leading executives from the Independent Television Service (ITVS) who explain the ins and outs of applying for funding from ITVS. Note: You will have to sign up for the D-Word to read the forum, but it's free and easy.

(3) Ask the Documentary Doctor
You remember Fernanda Rossi’s column from the print version of The Independent. She always seemed to know exactly what challenge you were having with your film at just the right moment. Her sage advice can continue to be found online through Documentary Educational Resources and the new online version of The Independent.

(4) The Ten Rules of Personal Documentary Filmmaking
We’ve screened and worked with so many films which have a personal element and found that these can be some of the most challenging to make - either because the filmmaker is ambivalent about putting himself/herself in front of the camera or goes to the other extreme and dominates the film at the expense of the greater story. There are a handful of filmmakers who have made a successful career out of telling personal stories and Doug Block (51 Birch Street and Home Page) is one of them.

(5) and (6) Fair Use Resources
Rights clearances and costs can often be the biggest nightmare for doc filmmakers, but perhaps nothing is more confusing than the issue of fair use. When and how can it be used? The Center for Social Media at American University is perhaps best known for their Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, but their website has many more resources and examples which help define what can be considered Fair Use. And for filmmakers considering taking the Fair Use route, Stanford University’s Law School has launched a Documentary Film Program, providing filmmakers with information about fair use, access to insurance for liability arising out of copyright litigation, and access to lawyers who will defend copyright claims pro bono or at reduced rates.

A wealth of moving images are available for download, the majority of which are free and have unrestricted access. Includes the Prelinger Archives of more than 60,000 ephemeral films, many of which are in the public domain.

(8) 25 Best Festivals for Documentary Films
AJ Schnack’s All These Wonderful Things is one of about half a dozen must-read documentary blogs out there. We picked this entry from earlier this year because knowing which festivals are consider the A-list for documentaries is essential to helping to map out a festival strategy.

(9) True Fans and True Films
Kevin Kelly's must-read for those who want to go the self-distribution route or even those who plan to combine a more traditional path with grassroots outreach. An excellent primer on finding your audience.

(10) Peter Broderick’s Distribution Bulletins
And in the same vein, Peter Broderick has some of the best advice out there for those who are navigating the wilds of distribution. While others are often pessimistic about the future of documentary as being a viable career for true independents, Broderick’s wealth of knowledge about independent success stories offers a bit of hope.

Know of other online resources you've found useful to making your film? Post them here. We only ask that you post websites or blogs that you've discovered rather than just promoting your own sites.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Erica's Dispatch from Silverdocs: Part III (the Conference)

This is the last installment of my trilogy of dispatches from the SILVERDOCS Film Festival. I already gave my general impressions of the festival and some of the films I saw at the festival. Now I conclude with some tidbits I took away from the International Documentary Conference which is a sidebar to the festival.

As noted previously, I split my time between the festival, the conference, and some private meetings, so this is hardly a comprehensive guide to the conference. I was able to attend only five conference sessions:

DocuClub Screening of work-in-progress STAGES: I'll refrain from commenting on this session too much since I was the moderator, but I will give a shout-out to Felix Endara at DocuClub and the filmmakers of the Meerkat Media Arts Collective. Felix wrote a nice wrap-up of the session on the DocuClub website. Though the audience was relatively small (hey, it was a Tuesday afternoon), the people who made it to the screening gave excellent feedback and I too am curious to see what the Meerkats do with it.

The first few panels I went to were underwhelming. Does Public TV Have a Future? dealt with the issue of public media at a very macro level, but really didn't shed new light on how this will impact independent documentary filmmakers. Similarly The Documentary In Action: Civically Engaged Media: A Look at Next Generation Marketing, Funding, Outreach and Distribution panel sounded more promising than it actually turned out to be -- at least if you were hoping to learn some new tips on how to get their films funded and distributed. I missed the first part of the session because the handy brochure-size schedule of the festival and conference did not have the correct start time (and I didn't think to look in the clunkier conference notebook). But I did get there in time to hear Sandy Herz from the Skoll Foundation talking about how Skoll's emphasis has been on supporting social entrepreneurs to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But, in case you're a filmmaker thinking you are a have-not, you may need to look elsewhere since Skoll's focus is not on funding individual film projects, but on supporting large organizations (like the Sundance Institute and public television and radio entities). Given the audience for this panel, it seems like it might have made more sense to have someone from ITVS or another direct filmmaker-funding entity which wants a heavy outreach component; maybe even someone from Sundance to explain their new initiative funded by Skoll. The panel went on to feature some interesting (if somewhat depressing) statistics from Rick Allen, the Executive Producer of KICKING IT. He cited the statistics that, out of 9000 films submitted to the most recent Sundance Film Festival, only 118 were accepted. Less than 40 of those were documentaries -- of which only seven were bought for distribution. He also noted that, in 2007, only three documentaries grossed more than $1 million. But lest you think he was trying to be a downer to prospective doc-makers, his point really was that the system is broken. His point of view is that forcing the consumer to pay for a film upfront ultimately hurts creativity and experimentation and that he sees Web 3.0 as a way to blend the social networking tools of Web 2.0 with professional content. The next phase of online video will feature more curated programming than the chaos of YouTube. But what he didn't fully explain was how this can be economically viable for the filmmaker himself. Or at least he didn't explain it while I was there. The challenge of the conference schedule was that panels on mutually-themed topics often coincided or overlapped, so I had to skip the last part of this panel to head to another one.

Thankfully the last few panels I went to all proved to be useful -- indeed, even inspirational -- for indies.

There was a great session on pitching with Cynthia Lopez from POV, Josh Green from Emerging Pictures, and Mark Rabinowitz from Cinelan. The information they offered was not news to most doc filmmakers...

* Know who you're pitching, including what kind of content they generally pick up (e.g., POV is for social issue documentaries, Cinelan only takes three minute shorts, etc.), any little tidbits about them personally which may help build a connection (without coming across as creepy), and how they prefer to be pitched (in person? by phone? e-mail? etc.)

* Know what other films have been done on your topic and be ready to answer questions of how yours is unique? Anticipate difficult questions.

* Know how to contain your pitch into a short package so you can "contaminate" others with your film's topic. Be clear on the perspective of the story.

* Know that distributors view films as "one big bundle of risk," so be ready to answer questions which may show you already have a built-in audience or have done some test marketing.

"Be positive throughout a pitch. Never say anything like 'I don't know if there's an audience for...'"

...but they spent the bulk of the time actually taking pitches from audience members, asking good questions, and providing useful feedback. This was a breath of fresh air after years of attending other DC panels where programmers from Discovery and National Geographic basically say they can't take any pitches because of their requirement for filmmakers to sign legal forms basically giving away their right to complain if their pitch is not picked up but the network produces something similar. The only panel I ever went to where an exception was made was one where HBO's Sara Bernstein attended and Victoria Bruce made a passionate pitch for her work in progress THE KIDNAPPING OF INGRID BETANCOURT; the film ultimately screened on HBO. I'll be curious to see if any of the films pitched at SILVERDOCS find equal success.

Though, of course, "success" is in the eyes of the beholder and is often very much in the control of the filmmakers themselves, albeit with a lot of time and effort. Nowhere was this more clear than at a case study session on MADE IN L.A. with filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar (who we featured in our Docs In Progress Spring 2008 feature on houseparties). Finally some down-to-earth advice on how independent filmmakers can effectively bring civic engagement into their plans for fundraising, marketing and distribution. Some of their tips:

* Don't be dissuaded by grant rejections. They were initially rejected by some of the larger foundations. While it was frustrating, it also helped them look at other, more grassroots means of fundraising. By focusing on grassroots fundraising in the early years, they ultimately built their core audience and paved the way for the outreach once the film was complete.

* Clarify who your core audiences are and don't presume there may just be one. In the case of MADE IN L.A., their core audiences included labor activists, Latino organizations, and women's organizations. By establishing connections with these organizations, they were able to hook in to smaller grants from foundations focused on shared issues. They were especially interested in looking at organizations which had good networks and were well organized.

* Keep a good database. At every event, they had sign-up sheets not only to add people to their mailing list, but also to keep track of different levels of donors, who was interested in eventually purchasing the film, etc.

* Don't put all your eggs in one basket. They went to the IFP Market and left with great spirits but empty pockets. Similarly, it took them three tries before they got money from ITVS.

* Don't think of production as being separate from distribution. It is all towards the same goal. Too many filmmakers lose energy after the film is done, but outreach is where the real work begins (though of course it began long before the film was completed). In the year since MADE IN L.A. premiered at SILVERDOCS 2007, the filmmakers have been on a strenuous grassroots outreach campaign which has taken them around the country and around the world. They expect this campaign to continue for another year.

* Once the film is done, if possible, always have DVDs with you to sell -- whether at festivals or outreach screenings. People are more likely to buy the film onsite rather than going to order from the website.

Distribution expert Peter Broderick moderated this panel and later made his own presentation on the Cutting Edge of Distribution, based on the experiences he has had working with more than 100 filmmakers on hybrid models of distribution. His presentation was a great addition to the information because he cited many examples of films which would not easily fit into the social-issue category that MADE IN L.A. does. Among them:

FASTER, about Motocross racing. Though the film had a limited theatrical release, it saved money on an expensive advertising campaign by only using online outreach. It managed to sell $13,000 in tickets for the first few days by reaching out to the core audience of Motocross fanatics who spread the word virally. Online DVD sales were even more amazing with the filmmaker doing his own fulfillment for a preview DVD which sold 13,000 DVDs within two months of release. New Video eventually sold 52,000 more DVDs of a 2 disc set collector's edition of the DVD.

HELVETICA. Who could imagine that a film about typeface would be a sleeper success story? But there are a lot of typeface fanatics in this world and they helped the film make $60,000 in poster and T-shirt sales before the film was even released. The film premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, played a number of other fests, and had a semi-theatrical run internationally. Like FASTER, it made money from two DVD editions.

THE SECRET. Gosh, I never even knew that there was a movie before there was a book to make Oprah wide-eyed about the power of positive thinking. But, according to Broderick, I must be in the minority because the documentary pre-dated the book, involved some very slick online trailers which made their way around the Internet virally and drove people to the website where they could watch the film for $4.95 online or buy the DVD for $24.95. Interestingly, 90% of those who watched the film online also bought the DVD. It has sold more than 250,000 copies.

Though some of us may cringe at using THE SECRET as a model of marketing, Broderick went on to cite and detail many other examples, including 1:6 RIGHT, THE FUTURE OF FOOD, IRAQ FOR SALE, NOTE BY NOTE, and KING CORN. His key points:

* Most successful films start off with an idea of their audience and then build and add audiences as they go.

* Retain as much control over your film as possible. This does not necessarily mean that you need to self-distribute, but many filmmakers have found success with a hybrid model of distribution which allows them to split up the rights and retain as much of a revenue stream as possible.

* Even for films which have traditional distributors, smart distributors should want filmmakers to sell films from their own website because more online activity can benefit sales all around. Broderick believes no filmmaker should have to pay more than $5 wholesale to their distributor to sell on their own website.

* Be creative with ancillary materials. Signed posters. Soundtracks. T-Shirts. All these can boost sales on their own to build buzz ahead of a DVD release or as added bonuses for special edition DVDs at a higher price.

* If you have a partnership with a community organization interested in the topic of your film, you can make a deal to sell them copies of the film at a lower cost which they can then in turn sell to their audience at a higher cost to make money for their cause.

* Sometimes you have to unlearn the rules of distribution and work backwards. Think of Four-Eyed Monsters which got its start on the Internet through video podcasts of six-minute episodes; created a theatrical market by promising to "four-wall" a screening in any city where more than 150 people said they would attend; eventually put the whole movie online for free on YouTube in exchange for some advertising revenue; eventually expanded to MySpace; and ended with a retail video and TV distribution deal.

* Partnerships come in multiple forms. They can include everything from simple link exchanges to affiliate marketing to sponsoring houseparties to on-site screenings at conventions or meetings.

* Websites need to be more than just a press kit. They need to have an idea bigger than just the film. There needs to be a clear persona. The content should be dynamic to keep people coming back. Blogs should focus on the issues and incorporate experts, characters, and/or user contributions. And, most of all, the online presence needs to be fun for the filmmaker.

This last point was also covered in a panel about online presence, called MARKETING BRAND YOU, which I referenced in an earlier blog entry since the panelists and audience members actually gave some very cogent feedback on the Docs In Progress website. Some of the more general points the panelists made:

* Your website is your brand. It is your promise and your premise.

* It should be a positive user-experience so it is key to think of who your users are and make the site as easy to navigate as possible for them.

* Aim for social media optimization by linking to all your online presence spots and increasing your linkability. Make tagging and bookmarking easy, as exemplified by clicking the "share" button on

* Be transparent, honest, and helpful. Thank people who link to you with a message or a counter-link. Don't be afraid to link off your site for fear of losing readers. Search engines like Google actually reward sites with lots of links with higher ratings on the search engine list.

* Make content travel with videos, PDFs, etc.

* Why have your blog in a separate place from your website? Keep them together. (Yup, that's something which will definitely be changed in the revamp of Docs In Progress/Docs Interactive)

All in all, the SILVERDOCS Conference offered plenty of food for thought and a welcome reality check to accompany the films in the festival. There are always critiques which could be made. For example, I do wish the education sidebar to the conference could have preceded or followed the conference itself, so I could have made time to go to some of those sessions on a topic about which I would like to know more. Time simply didn't permit it for me. And I do realize that it is difficult to put together sessions which are aimed at multiple audiences (my critique is coming from the perspective of an independent documentary filmmaker, but there are also programmers, funders, distributors, educators, academics, and others to please). But I would have to say that, while I would not say this year held the most energized festival program of the six SILVERDOCS I have attended, the conference continues to get stronger and stronger every year.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Erica's Dispatch from Silverdocs: Part II (The Films)

Well, now that I've given you my general impressions of the festival, here's a little bit more on what I thought of the film program.

While SILVERDOCS never fails to impress with a combination of local and world premieres of buzz-worthy films, I actually try to make a point of seeing films which just look interesting and less likely to make it into theaters or television. So you won't find me writing about festival faves MAN ON A WIRE, UP THE YANGTZE, or GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON. Nor will I write about ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD or TROUBLE THE WATER (though you can read my thoughts on them from my Full Frame coverage)

Instead let me start with three smaller films which are still resonating with me nearly a week later:

LOST HOLIDAY was definitely my favorite of the festival. I was intrigued by the premise: a Czech tourist finds a suitcase in Sweden with 22 rolls of undeveloped film. He goes home, develops the film, and discovers snapshots of a group of Asian men posing in front of various idyllic scenes of Europe. He then works with filmmaker Lucie Kralova to track down the men to return the photos to them. Part detective story, part roadtrip, and part a reflection on how far global media has brought us together and yet left us disconnected, LOST HOLIDAY is probably one of the few films I saw which justified being more than 70 minutes long. It also reminds us that a documentary can be a mystery, a comedy, and a social commentary all in one.

Another film which fit in with this theme of post-modern (dis)connection was Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo's MECHANICAL LOVE. I had not intended to see this film when I first went through the program, but was persuaded by a friend I hadn't seen in a while to join him for it. Expecting either a dull film about the latest scientific advances in robotics or a sleazy film about new Japanese sex toys, I was pleasantly surprised when the film focused instead on two very different personal stories which make us question whether technology is bringing us closer together or tearing us further apart. On the one hand, we have a scientist in Japan, building a "geminoid," a robot version of himself, complete with the same build, clothing, and facial expressions and movements. On the other, we have a woman in a nursing home in Germany who finds comfort in "Paro," a therapeutic robot which looks and sounds like a white, furry baby seal. She treats him like a pet, talking to him, stroking him, and even bringing him with her to group activities where his constant squealing annoys the other residents. While the filmmaker unfortunately was not able to attend the screening to discuss the important issues the film raises, the Japan Information Center did send Paro. While I am still dubious about the uses of such a technology beyond therapeutic use with those who are no longer lucid, I did find it strangely intriguing that "he" reacted to an ear scratching touch I use with my dog with the same type of pleasure. At $3,000 a pop, I am not sure Paro will be on the must-have list for Christmas this year, but I suspect some kind of cheap knockoff soon will be.

The third film which really drew me in was SEAVIEW, a meditation on the changing face of Europe, as told through the story of a former holiday resort in Ireland which has become an asylum camp where Nigerians, Congolese, Kurds, and many others are required to stay as they wait to find out if they can stay in Ireland. Having lived in Ireland at a time when it was still a predominantly homogeneous (and innocently racist) society, I was naturally interested in the theme of the film. But it was the style which made the film memorable. Filmmakers Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowley come from a background of doing films for museum installations and SEAVIEW definitely reflects that in its lyrical style. While the film's pace could be off-putting to some, I found the beautiful images of the place all the more powerful set against the voiceover of asylum-seekers, some of whom did not want to be shown on camera.

What puzzled me about this year's SILVERDOCS program is that the programmers opted to celebrate an important anniversary (40 years after 1968) rather than an important moment in time (2008, a year which promises to have one of the most talked-about election seasons since 1968). From the Opening Night film ALL TOGETHER NOW about the creative collaboration between the Beatles and Cirque du Soleil to the all-over-the place REVOLUTION '68 to Charles Guggenheim and the Maysles' brothers respective classics ROBERT KENNEDY REMEMBERED and GIMME SHELTER, and an outdoor screening of another Maysles' film about the Beatles, it was Sixties Redux all week long. Yet, with the exception of Spike Lee's short about the 2000 election, WE WUZ ROBBED, there seemed to be a marked absence of films which directly addressed the U.S. political scene today. A very odd omission in an election year in the most political of cities.

Come to think of it, I probably should mention something more about Spike Lee who was honored by the festival at their Guggenheim Symposium. Usually I love his fiction and non-fiction films, even when they aim beyond what is capable of being contained in a single film. Usually I love him, even when his schtick has him bordering on a caricature of himself. But he was a man of few words that night -- frustratingly so, and not effectively moderated -- so I don't see the point in wasting too many words of my own on a summary of his disengagement from the audience. Besides, A.J. Schnack has already done so so much more eloquently than I ever could.

Other films I saw came back to that same theme again and again: who are we and can we connect to others? CORRIDOR 8 took us on a roadtrip down the Balkan version of Route 66, a failed promise to connect Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania (Good luck with that). HEADWIND was about the spread of satellite dishes across Iran, holding the promise of news, culture, and maybe just a little titillation from the West. I saw an amazing shorts program which addressed everything from the shared joy of two Irish smokers to aging Hungarian sisters whose bond could not be broken by time or men to the close relationship between two outsiders, albeit one a man, the other a sheep. I wish I had more time to go to the other Shorts Programs since SILVERDOCS has traditionally excelled at the genre (and I am also losing my patience for features which have extended themselves to be that ideal {"festival," "theatrical" or "TV" length when they are not necessarily best served by being so long).

THE ENGLISH SURGEON was the film everybody was buzzing about the whole week. Though the film also addresses issues of globalization and human connection as it follows a British brain surgeon on a mission to perform surgery in Ukraine, I simply never warmed up to the main character or understood why he does what he does. That said, the film does offer a unique window into the doctor-patient relationship and how that transcends borders. While the scene in the film everyone will likely remember involved a brain surgery done with the patient awake, the one which I will most remember is when the surgeon's Ukrainian counterpart struggles to tell one young and vibrant patient that she has an inoperable condition which she is unlikely to survive more than five years. Though it was not my personal favorite, I cannot fault the jury for giving the film the festival's Sterling World Feature Award.

And finally, I should say something about AMERICAN TEEN. Although I selected most of my films as ones which I thought might be unlikely to be seen again anywhere near me, I simply had to see AMERICAN TEEN with an audience and filmmaker Q&A so that I could better understand all the fuss over it. It has gotten kudos from many as a "modern-day BREAKFAST CLUB," an inside look at 21st century teen angst, and the likely breakout non-fiction hit of the summer. From others, especially some documentary filmmakers, the film raises ethical questions into how certain scenes were edited and directed and how much the presence of the cameras impacted the characters' actions. It has been decried in some circles as being no better than the SoCal docu-soap-reality shows of MTV. But you know what? I don't understand the fuss. The film was neither here nor there for me. The post-screening discussion with the film's producer and one of its "stars" (Hannah, who is probably the character in the film who is the least stereotyped) was probably more interesting than the film itself, if only to dispel the myth about scenes being recreated. But the film is ultimately forgettable. Then again, maybe that's what my generation's parents said about THE BREAKFAST CLUB. It remains to be seen if the film will resonate with teens when it gets its theatrical release in the coming weeks. Actually my friend Ethan Lincoln (who is neither a filmmaker nor someone who spent his teen years in the U.S.) probably summed up the film best in his blog.


Audience Award: HERB AND DOROTHY (Feature), THE TAILOR (Short)
Sterling US Feature Award: THE GARDEN (Special Jury Mention: TROUBLE THE WATER)
Sterling World Feature Award: THE ENGLISH SURGEON (Special Jury Mention: THE RED RACE )
Music Documentary Award: THROW DOWN YOUR HEART
Cinematic Vision Award: THE ORDER OF MYTHS
Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award: FORBIDDEN LIE$

Coming next: the final installment of my Silverdocs trilogy: a Conference Wrap-Up.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Erica's Dispatch from Silverdocs: Part I (Overall Impressions)

Another year, another Silverdocs. For me, a non-prolific blogger and an even less prolific film fest traveler, it was one of two major doc festivals I'll get to this year (the other one being Full Frame, which I wrote about a few months ago).

Now in its sixth year, Silverdocs has been the DC-area festival which has refused to be relegated to a status of regional or local festival. In fact, it has aspired from the start to have a broader impact as one of the A-List festivals (or at least A-List for documentaries). In this, it has succeeded, drawing thousands of submissions from around the world and putting together a sidebar conference which draws industry from both the local suspects (Discovery Networks, National Geographic, PBS, and CPB) and the key players in New York, Los Angeles, and worldwide (though this year, the conference had far less representation from overseas than in past years, choosing instead to focus on a new strand for educators).

The film festival continues to draw audiences in droves through a combination of film premieres, films which have gotten buzz from earlier plays at key festivals like Sundance, IDFA, and Tribeca, creative programs (like outdoor screenings), and doing an amazing job of having most of the filmmakers (and indeed, many of the main characters in the films) available for Q&A. It is this last point which is so key, especially for those of us who lead busy lives and need as much incentive as possible to head to a theater for a screening. The opportunity to interact with the creative minds and subjects of the films is what makes festivals stand out from regular theatrical screenings. Some in the film community are mourning the loss of theatrical release as a viable distribution method for many documentary films and the fact that film festivals are often serving as a substitute for theatrical release. While I understand the concerns over lost revenue to filmmakers, it is the interactivity which is only possible at a film festival which will drive more viewers to the theater. Indeed, there are some films which are best appreciated on a large screen. But when they are relegated to the smallest theater of the corporate art houses (like Landmark) or must be seen in a dilapidated repertory theater with maybe 10 people in the audience, I wonder sometimes if I'd have a better experience at home. Thankfully seeing a film in AFI's Silver Theatre with a full house abuzzing with excitement and the promise of a good Q&A is what makes Silverdocs worth taking a week's vacation in my hometown to attend every year.

I found a lot of things were much improved this year. The decision by the programmers to hold passholder-only screenings (to ensure passholders do not get shut out of films) was a great idea. Not requiring passholders to get tickets for screenings was, on the one hand, a great thing to reduce inconvenience, but made it impossible for the passholder to decide how to split up the screenings (for example, inviting a spouse or friend to attend a screening now meant they had to buy a separate ticket rather than take one of the 10 passholders had been given in past years). But, all in all, a great system where I didn't get shut out of a single film.

And yippeee, the Cinema Lounge was back in its rightful place just around the corner from the theaters, allowing for ease of access and a much more hub-bubby atmosphere. With the exception of a downpour on Opening Night, the weather cooperated too -- though out-of-towners could have done with warnings about DC summer dress necessities of layers -- since theaters often felt a 30-50 degrees cooler than the air on the street.

And I always find Silverdocs an opportunity to see the ever-changing face of Silver Spring. Those who have read my comments from past years know that I am a big booster for the place since I grew up there, lived most of my 20s there, and have my own mixed feelings about its development now that I could never even hope to afford living there. Hearing visiting film folks referring to the streets in the immediate vicinity of the theater as reminding them of the Grove in Los Angeles (the open-air shopping center which has dwarfed the historic Farmer's Market) would surely make my late father -- a long-time Silver Spring anti-development advocate and former Los Angeleno, roll in his grave. But I was proud of a few filmmakers -- led by the Energy King Sandi Dubowski -- who ventured further afield in search of downtown Silver Spring's amazingly diverse dining options. And, even in the Grove-like fake mainstreet of former real street Ellsworth Avenue, it was a joy to see the life of what is still one of the most diverse communities in the DC area: kids playing in the fountain, teenagers hanging out at night, and humans of all colors, classes, and backgrounds sharing a space in real life, real time, not just on the screen.

Gosh, I haven't even begun to collect my thoughts on the films and conference. But I have a lot to say. Next up, my thoughts on the films...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Shoe On the Other Foot

From Docs In Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg who has been attending the SILVERDOCS Film Festival and Conference all week (and promises a full dispatch will be posted soon)...

I attended an early morning panel session today focused on building an online presence. The panelists were John Bell, the Managing Director/Executive Creative Director of the Creative Studio at the Ogilvy Public Relations firm and two professors from American University (Amy Eisman who is the School of Communication's Director of Writing Programs, and David Johnson who is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication.

After sharing some excellent ideas (which I will detail more in my full dispatch later this week), the panelists asked the audience to shout out any film-related websites that they visit regularly. Much to my surprise, someone shouted out Docs In Progress (and though it was someone known to me, she definitely wasn't a ringer). Well, lo and behold, the panelists brought up the website on the screen and proceeded to offer some constructive criticism, buoyed by additional comments from the audience. So useful!

This got me to thinking: Here we are, a film organization whose most visible program is putting on work in progress film screenings, encouraging documentary filmmakers to look outside themselves and their inner circle for a reality check on their almost-completed films. And yet we are about to revamp our website and we have been brainstorming new ideas without any input from the outside. So maybe it is time for the shoe to go on the other foot and us to look to you -- our audience, in all its incarnations -- to let us know what you would like to see on our website.

What do you like about it?

What do you think could be improved?

What comments do you have in terms of content? Design? Navigatability (if that's a word)?

How did you find out about the site in the first place?

What do you go to it for?

What would drive you to return to it or recommend it to your friends?

I suppose I should start this discussion with the two questions we always ask of our filmmakers, slightly altered for our website:

Why do we have this website? To raise awareness of our public programs, be a calling card for all our services (the public workshops, private consultations, etc.), and to be an information resource. Since the website houses our newsletter and a link to this blog, we see it as a program in and of itself and something which we would like folks to visit on a regular basis.

Who do we see as our core audience?
We have several audiences who use the Docs In Progress website. They include emerging documentary filmmakers, film students, more experienced documentary filmmakers, and documentary film aficionados. We also know that our site is perused by distributors, film festivals, academics, and NGOs in search of relevant content because we will get e-mails from them, asking to be put in touch with our alumni filmmakers.

We have lots of thoughts in mind for the "new and improved" Docs In Progress website, but I'll stop right here because I want to know if we are on the right track or if there may be some other ideas out there that we hadn't even considered.

Please check out our website at and feel free to post your thoughts publicly in the comments section here or send an e-mail directly to with any constructive thoughts you have on the website. It will be much appreciated.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More on grassroots fundraising at Silverdocs

If you enjoyed our recent article about houseparty fundraising, you may have an opportunity to meet two of the filmmakers featured in the article. Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar will be presenting a case study on the fundraising strategy for MADE IN L.A. at the SILVERDOCS International Film Conference this Friday, June 20 at 3:45 pm. Open to conference passholders.

More on the session at

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Docs In Progress Alums Rock!

While this blog has been set up primarily to provide commentary on the world of documentary, we can't help but take a moment to provide some shameless promotion for a number of alums of the Docs In Progress programs. As many of you already know, we screen documentary works in progress in Washington DC six times a year and in Baltimore, MD once a year and also provide one-on-one customized story consultations to indie doc-makers. Ever wonder what's become of some of those films? Well's here's a sample...

BALLOU (an alum of our one-on-one story advising services) is making its theatrical debut in Washington DC in June 2008 with an exclusive run at Landmark's E Street Theatre. Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday has called the film "lively and affecting." The film looks at a year in the life of Washington DC's Ballou High School's famed marching band and how students and teachers use the power of music to deal with the challenges of coming of age in an at-risk neighborhood. Docs In Progress will be sponsoring one of the screenings for BALLOU's premiere week with team-members Adele Schmidt and Sam Hampton introducing the film and leading a Q&A with filmmakers Michael Patrei and Casey Callister. More on the film here.

THE MATADOR (rough cut screened in June 2007) by Stephen Higgins and Nina Seavey continues to dazzle critics through its festival screenings. The film, about legendary Spanish bullfighter "El Fandi," premiered in competition at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin in March 2008 and screened at FilmFest DC a month later. National film critic Jeffrey Lyons called the film "a thrilling look at Spain's most passionate art." called it "fabulous." And noted film blogger AJ Schnack pegged it as one of the best films of the year so far, calling it "gorgeously photographed, tightly edited and featuring an impressive score." More on the film here.

BLACK DIAMONDS (rough cut screened in July 2006) by Catherine Pancake was featured in the 2008 Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film, about the impact of mountaintop removal on people and the environment in Appalachian West Virginia, has played dozens of festivals across the country, won awards from the Paul Robeson Fund and the Spadaro Documentary Award, and is available for purchase from Bullfrog Films. More on the film here.

(rough cut screened in October 2007) by Aaron Rockett premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and has gone on to play the Newport International Film Festival in Rhode Island. This short film looks at the life of a journalist fixer in post-9/11 Afghanistan. More on the filmmaker here.

UNRAVELING MICHELLE (rough cut screened in October 2007) by Dan Shaffer and Michelle Farrell won Best Local Film in Shaffer's hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the Artsfest Film Festival where Farrell had a chance to receive praise from fellow Baltimore-native John Waters. The film, a personal story about Farrell's journey from man to woman and how this impacts her friends, family, and place in the indie film world, premiered at the DC Independent Film Festival and has also screened at the Rosebud Film Festival, one of the best established independent film festivals in the Mid-Atlantic. More on the film here.

REDEMPTION STONE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TOM LEWIS (rough cut screened in January 2007) by Tom Dziedzic won Best Documentary at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina. The film about the life and legacy of an African-American policeman, has also screened at the Atlanta Film Festival and was one of the few short documentaries chosen for the 2007 IFP Market in New York. More on the film here.

BEAUTY: IN THE EYES OF THE BEHELD (rough cut screened in January 2008) by Liza Figueroa was screened at the Indie Spirit Film Festival in Colorado Springs. The film looks at society's vision of female beauty by talking to ordinary women who have been called beautiful. A trailer for the film can be seen here.

Congratulations to these and our many other Docs In Progress alumni. May all your films continue to thrive!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Documentary Filmmaker As Project Manager

Docs In Progress' newest partner Sam Hampton has many years of experience as a consultant to organizations looking to manage their projects better. He sees definite parallels between the work of these organizations and that of independent documentary filmmakers, especially when it comes to managing the documentary project. Sam tells us more.

For many first-time filmmakers in the world of documentary storytelling, the excitement of being out in the field, conducting interviews and the like sometimes overshadows the importance of developing a comprehensive plan to help facilitate the documentary process. While some might shiver at the thought of treating the documentary process as project management, the making of a documentary can be enhanced as a project that is properly managed from conception to completion.

Managing your documentary project should not be difficult; it also gives a sense of comfort and calm when the going gets tough. Think about it: how can you feel at ease with your documentary if you have only a vague idea of whether anyone is interested in your story, you are not sure of the amount of time it takes to make your story, or if you question whether you have the proper resources to finish and distribute your story?

Perhaps the single most important factor in managing the documentary is to develop a plan and put that plan on paper. The plan you create should be treated as your guiding light, your best friend, your trusty road map. The quality of your plan will determine the effectiveness that you, the filmmaker, will have in navigating through the documentary process. It will also form the basis for other elements which need to be conveyed through text – grant applications, press outreach, websites, and so on.

A good plan enables filmmakers to work better, and for that reason, I use the term “work plan” to describe the details of the participants, resources, actions and goals of the documentary project. There are established rules for developing a good work plan, and most plans include the same basic elements:

Project Mission
The first element of the work plan is a mission statement that includes the background, purpose, benefits and objectives of the documentary project. A mission statement is more than a summary of your project. The mission statement should declare the purpose of your efforts, and clearly define the project in order to keep everyone in the project team in necessary agreement. To use examples from well-known documentaries, the mission statement for HOOP DREAMS might have been something like “The film will follow the lives of two Chicago teenagers as they reach for their professional and personal dreams through basketball. By following the teenagers and their families over the course of several years, our hope is to tell the story of families seeking to overcome obstacles and rising above media stereotypes people may have about life in the inner city.” Or the mission statement for SICKO might have read “This film will look at the failures of the U.S. health care system through interviews with ordinary citizens faced with extraordinary and bizarre challenges in their quest for basic health coverage and through comparing the U.S. health care system with that of other countries. The goal of the film is to draw public attention to the health care crisis and be a catalyst to bring political change to the health care system by calling for a replacement of private, for-profit health insurance with a universal health care program.”

Scope of the Project
This part of the work plan demonstrates your understanding of the scope of the documentary project in terms of the resources needed to achieve your objectives. For example, who are the personnel involved in the project, what are the facilities, equipment, and budget? In addition, there should be a clear purpose to the project: advocacy, case study, historic preservation or other such intent. Also, who is the desired audience for your project? Most importantly, this part of the work plan should predict the benefits to the targeted viewer in watching your documentary. These benefits may involve changes in knowledge, attitude, values, behavior, condition or status.

Project Approach
As an independent filmmaker, it is important to establish a method of doing things for your project. While many different approaches may be considered for implementing a project, you will have to decide the best approach given the scope of the project and commit to it. Decide how you are going to communicate with others, how you will solve problems, and how you will effectively use your resources.

Project Time Frame
To the best of your abilities, the work plan should have a comprehensive and realistic timeline with milestones included to help stay on target as you move through the project. In this section of the work plan, it is important to list the events and locations, from beginning to end that are necessary to complete your project. For example, knowing when production ends and post-production begins has a direct impact on the scope of the project and how you utilize your valuable resources. In the real world of independent documentary filmmaker, your project time frame may change depending on many factors beyond your control – needed funding takes longer than expected, the life of a character you are following takes a dramatic turn, your dream editor can’t fit you in for another month, etc. But having a plan written down – even in pencil – will help you reach your goals faster.

Understanding risk is critical and should be reflected in the work plan. Risk is the cumulative effect of the chances of uncertain occurrences, which may adversely affect your project objectives. In other words, it is the possibility of exposure to negative events and their probable consequences. To realistically measure the risk in your documentary project, think about what events could prevent the established outcome of your project. Also think about the likelihood of a negative event occurring. What is out there that could jeopardize the success of your project? Remember, risk is the opposite of opportunity. Build in your work plan a mitigation strategy to lessen risk by lowering its chances of occurring or by reducing its effect if it does occur. Have an alternative for action if things don't go as planned or if an expected result fails to materialize.

The documentary project can be viewed as a system, with elements such as mission, approach, scope, time and risk that operate together for the common goal of producing and distributing a quality work. As an independent documentary director, or project manager, you have the sole responsibility for ensuring that all the elements work together as best as possible for your project, and we all know that no one will care about your project as much as you will. So, well before turning on the camera, have a complete work plan in place to ensure the success of your documentary.

© April 2008, Docs In Progress
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Erica's Report from Full Frame

In an occasional series of reports from documentary-laden film festivals, Docs In Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg recently attended the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina from April 3-6, 2008.

This was my third time at Full Frame and I must say this year it felt a bit subdued. It may have been the grey and gloomy weather (which, though it was a mild annoyance, was a welcome sight in drought-stricken North Carolina). Or it may be that the festival itself is in a bit of a transition with Nancy Buirski stepping down as festival director to take on a more advisory role. Or maybe it was just me getting older and more critical about the films I see.

What I have always loved about this festival is that it is an all-documentary festival which is both close enough to the major east coast documentary film cities to make it easily accessible and yet is far enough away that folks from those places can actually converse and connect in a relaxed environment. Part of this is due to the nature of Durham itself. With due respect to the locals, downtown Durham is dead on weekends and evenings, so there really is nothing to distract you from the festival itself. And yet, while the fest draws a mix of filmmakers and industry, the locals also come out in droves for the films, indicating a clear starvation for good documentaries outside of the coastal culture capitals. Amazingly enough, Saturday night screenings were packed in spite of the competition with basketball (UNC had made it to the Final Four). According to the Festival itself, ticket sales were up from last year and I can attest to the fact that most theaters were packed. Despite this, I faced no closeouts from screenings, a problem which has plagued other growing festivals (and certainly some of the bigger festivals like Sundance).

In terms of the films, more than 100 were screened and it was sometimes difficult to choose among them. Films which were all the buzz from Sundance and South by Southwest were often pitted against each other and you pretty much had to make difficult choices since no films were screened more than once (if you weren't able to stay to watch the award winners on the final Sunday afternoon). The scheduling in blocks rather than overlaps sometimes made it difficult to pop out of one film and into another and I would find myself with large blocks of free time between screenings. Great for networking. Not so great if you wanted to see lots of films.

So I tried to choose wisely, based partially on the buzz and more often than not, just on my own interests.

The opening night film was TRUMBO, a doc about the blacklisted screenwriter which had premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. Much of the film was told through the writings of Dalton Trumbo, as interpreted by a number of film actors, including Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, Donald Sutherland, David Strathairn, and an unforgettably hilarious Nathan Lane. Allen joined director Peter Askin and Trumbo's son Christopher for a Q&A following the screening, marred by microphone difficulties.

Technical problems were few and far between, but the other most unfortunate one was at the screening of the new Werner Herzog film, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, another alum of Toronto. The festival had been given a bad tape so there were digital artifacts through the entire film which could not be remedied. Annoying with any film, it was downright tragic with a film enhanced by its cinematography. Still it was possible to appreciate Herzog's latest opus which takes us into the world of Antarctica and the scientists and wanderlusters who work there.

While mild complaints about the constant drizzle of Durham were overheard, it all fell into perspective after seeing two different films about Hurricane Katrina. I had originally intended only to see one because I didn't think I could emotionally bear to relive the horror of witnessing your country let its own citizens down in the face of death and destruction. But I changed my mind afer seeing the first film, THE AXE IN THE ATTIC. This film looks at the diaspora created by the hurricane by taking us on a road trip with filmmakers Lucia Small and Ed Pincus who are very much outsiders and reflect often on this along the way. Ultimately Small and Pincus become the most interesting characters in the film since the others are people they spend only a few days with to capture their stories. I found myself intrigued by the filmmakers since they, in many ways, represent the white middle class liberal northerner feelings of anger and powerlessness over a preventable disaster which underscored the race and class divides in our country. So, in a sense, they are stand-ins for me. But at the same time, I found the filmmakers annoying for many of the same reasons, because ultimately the film becomes not about Katrina or the people directly affected by Katrina, but about white guilt and ambivalence towards African-Americans, poor people, and the South. I felt too much time was spent focused on issues of documentary ethics (i.e., of giving money to film subjects) and not enough on the people they met. Small, in particular, worried aloud so much about giving money. And yet the filmmakers also reflected that in one scene (where they filmed Katrina survivors going to a FEMA office to deal with some ongoing bureaucratic hurdles which have prevented them from getting benefits) that the subjects themselves were hoping the presence of the cameras would help move things along faster. So the issue of money became almost irrelevant because this reflected on a larger issue of the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Interesting, but still made me feel at arm's length from the people who the film was purportedly about.

So, with this as a backdrop, I saw a second Katrina film,TROUBLE THE WATER . This film was a bit of a 180 from AXE IN THE ATTIC since it focused on one set of characters who were very much insiders – an aspiring female rap artist and her family and friends who could not afford to leave the Lower Ninth Ward and stayed put in their home to brave the storm. The film was propelled by the "money shot" of having first-person home movie footage from the main character in the days leading up to and during the hurricane which really made me feel the experience more than any news footage. But, while this insider footage is what has given the film so much attention, it was the story the filmmakers captured which really gave life to the characters and the world from which they came. For them, Katrina was a disaster, but far from the first or last of a long history of struggles and heartaches. The filmmakers did not impose their vision of the characters upon them, but instead showed them for who they are, warts and all. I have to say that, of the Katrina films I've seen, none has done a better job of personalizing the story and making me feel less of an outsider looking in on an event than a human being sharing in an experience with other human beings. Apparently others agreed, since the film won three awards at the festival, including the Grand Jury Award, a human rights award, and an award from film outreach pioneers Working Films.

Always interested in international issues, I switched gears a bit and saw two films which gave unique insights into life in Iran, one by an Iranian filmmaker and one by an Iranian-American. TEHRAN HAS NO MORE POMEGRANATES! was a refreshing look at Iran's capital city and more importantly into Iran's unique Iranian culture which is full of humor and pathos. As U.S. relations with Iran have continued to sour, the country is a question mark for many Americans and this film gives us a better sense of urban Iran which faces many of the same challenges and class divisions as American metopolises. Beautiful cinematography, archival clips, and a deadpan narration buoy a film which is part city symphony, part reflection on the urban divide between the haves and have nots, and part an hommage to a place and people who manage to have both a proud and rich history and what appears to be a constant sense of self-deprecation as a form of free expression.

In a very different vein, BE LIKE OTHERS looks at the phenomenon of sex change operations in Iran. A more common practice than many of us might assume, gender change is acceptable under Iran's interpretation of Islamic law since it is seen as a medical-psychological condition whereas homosexual practice is outlawed. So the result is that many who may be homosexual undergo the operation, whether they are transgendered or not. The film follows the story of two such men and the challenges this brings to their relationships with their families, societal expectations, and their own sense of being. Along with A JIHAD FOR LOVE (which has been playing the international festival circuit, but, as far as I know, has yet to premiere in the United States), BE LIKE OTHERS will surely create discussion and controversy around the topic of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world.

BE LIKE OTHERS was paired with FLYING ON ONE ENGINE, a film about an Indian-American doctor who travels to India for months at a time to perform hundreds of free surgeries for children with cleft lip and other facial deformities. What could have been a sentimental feel-good story is balanced by the quirky character of the surgeon himself. Though beset by his own physical limitations, he is only too happy to revel in the god-like status his patients' families bestow upon him. He spares no-one -- neither the women he believes chase him down nor Mother Teresa who he notes won a Nobel Prize even though she left all the dirtywork to others while he has never won the prize (in spite of numerous nominations) even though he conducts the surgeries himself. The film provides a good balance of exposing his character and yet leaving us with a sense of mystery as to his motivations.

Being from Washington DC, U.S. politics is always of interest and the festival marked the premiere of BOOGIE MAN, a film about a unique character in recent American politics, Lee Atwater. While some have wondered why this film would premiere at a festival like Full Frame rather than a larger film festival, I think it was a very appropriate setting to screen the film because of the film's underlying theme -- the impact of the North/South divide on American politics at its very core. Political junkies of all partisan stripes will be drawn to the film because it not only characterizes a legend among political operatives, but also returns to this theme. In an election year where the Southern vote may be crucial (in spite of the fact there are no real Southerners on the ballot), this film will be sure to inspire debate. If it had a major weakness (aside from being in a technically unfinished state), BOOGIE MAN's main drawback is that it presumes a certain pre-existing level of knowledge of the American political system and U.S. history. I tried to watch the film from the perspective of an international who understands the big picture of the U.S. political system as it impacts foreign policy, but may not understand the nuances or the context of why we vote the way we do and who "we" are anyway. I think it would be difficult for a film like this to bring much more understanding since it jumps headfirst into the Reagan Revolution without helping us understand the politics and history which led up to it and why someone like Atwater was so crucial to this shift in political focus and to honing the skills of his successor, Karl Rove.

It remains to be seen how the festival will continue to develop. Though its local audiences are growing and it is still a great place to mix and mingle with industry in a relaxed environment, Full Frame still faces the challenge of being positioned between other, more prestigious festivals which may make it difficult for it to boast many premieres. However, it is definitely one which I would recommend all filmmakers attend -- whether you have a film in the festival or not -- to get a good sense of what's garnering buzz in the world of documentary.

Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award — "Trouble the Water"
Special Jury Award — "Man on Wire"
Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short — "City of Cranes"
Full Frame Audience Award — "Man on Wire"
Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award — "Lioness"
The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award — "In A Dream"
Honorable Mention — "Up the Yangtze"
Full Frame Inspiration Award — "At the Death House Door"
Full Frame President's Award — "Summerchild"
Full Frame Spectrum Award — "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)"
Honorable Mention — "Up the Yangtze"
Full Frame Women In Leadership Award — "Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai"
Full Frame/Working Films Award — "Please Vote for Me" and "Trouble the Water"
The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights — "Trouble the Water"