The Academy has posted 15 documentaries on its short-list for Oscar consideration: Art and Craft, The Case Against 8, Citizen Koch, CitizenFour, Finding Vivian Maier, The Internet’s Own Boy, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Keep on Keepin’ On, The Kill Team, Last Days in Vietnam, Life Itself, The Overnighters, The Salt of the Earth, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and Virunga.
They are all terrific achievements, and, as always, it’s too bad only five can be nominated and only one will win.
Last week, I shared the seven best reasons to make a documentary film. If you have at least four of those seven reasons, you should take the next step and push ahead.
However, there are reasons not to make a doc. Many reasons, actually. But I’ve boiled it down to the Top Five, because these represent the most common errors documentary financiers, producers and directors make.
1. You think it will be easier than a dramatic feature. Some people, often first-time filmmakers, think a doc will be simpler–no actors to hire, no locations to find, no costumes or hair or makeup. Just point the camera and shoot, right? Alas, it’s not like that. Documentaries are substantially harder than dramatic features for all of those reasons. You don’t have control, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you don’t even know for sure who the main characters will be until you get into the editing room and sort through terabytes of video. The craft of wrestling a watchable story from the real world around us is neither easy nor simple.
2. You don’t have a script. The best docs actually have a script before they start production. It isn’t a normal movie script, with all the dialogue and scenes, but it is written down, and it is a plan. Having a plan is essential; otherwise you will shoot and shoot and rarely get anywhere. I’m familiar with a number of documentaries that exhausted their budgets because they kept shooting without having a scripted plan for what the end result would be. Those docs often don’t even get finished.
3. You think it will make you rich. You certainly can make some money from a documentary, but you can’t become a millionaire. Most of the documentary filmmakers support themselves by doing commercial work, reality TV, and corporate videos.
To be clear, docs needn’t be unprofitable. What are the keys to documentary profits? Making a film for a specific audience that will pay to see it; having a distribution strategy–both domestic and international–and a marketing plan and budget to go along with it; creating different versions for different markets (the educational market may want a 30-minute version, while the international television market may want one that’s 55 minutes; exploiting every possible alliance to share your message; and, of course, not spending too much to make it in the first place.
4. You believe it’s “a movie for everyone.” No documentary in history has ever been a movie for everyone, in the way The Hunger Games or The Hobbit become must-see events. Even Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, the top-grossing docs of all time, were for very specific audiences, and I’ll bet almost no one has seen all three!
The audience for docs is a niche audience. And the niche is your strength, because a niche can be targets and brought into relationship with your movie.
5. You don’t have all the money you will need, including funds for marketing and distribution. At least once a week, a documentary filmmaker comes to me with a film that is almost complete, and still needs some money. In these cases, there is little one can do. Finishing funds are the hardest to raise, and if raised, the most expensive (because the filmmaker is so desperate). A successful doc will raise all of its money before it begins, so the producer can budget and plan wisely, and will include marketing and distribution money as part of the budget, so the investors have a fair chance of getting their money back.
Photo: Broken window photo by Tomas Castelazo, courtesy Wikicommons.