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!