Among the best things about screening submissions is the exposure to so many great documentaries I would not see otherwise. If nothing else, they makes for great cocktail party chatter when I want people to leave me alone. "Oh, yeah, I saw a documentary about that…" Pretty soon, I have my choice of hors d'oeuvres.
To me, a documentary filmmaker should think of his/herself not as filmmaker, but a journalist. Yes, filmmaking skills are required, but a well-shot and edited documentary without good journalism will fail. A well-researched, well-documented, story will work even if the filmmaking skills are at a minimum.
Another problem with the filmmaker-first approach to docs becomes apparent when we screeners get the feeling the project started with, "I want to make a movie," instead of, "I have an important story to tell." Sure, it doesn't matter how a filmmaker or journalist started a project, but it does matter if the audience feels a lack of passion behind the camera.
But the hardest question for Dances With Films programmers when it comes to documentaries is, "will people come out to see this movie?" As I've said here many times before, ticket sales are not a primary concern for DWF, but they are a big one. We love the sponsors we have – and many smart businesses have benefited by their association with DWF – but, because we are a discovery festival that insists on unknowns, sponsorships are hard to come by. Ticket sales are an important part of what have kept this fest around for 17 years.
So when it comes to choosing docs, we have to take into consideration our audience. Will Los Angelinos get off their couches to come see this movie?
This is a good question for you, as a filmmaker/journalist, to ask before you submit, or even before you shoot, your movie. Is this a story that needs telling, and if so, to who? If your answers are "yes" and "everyone," then you are well on your way to a good documentary.
Thanks for reading.