Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Just the Docs, Ma'am

We were quarantined this weekend due to the flu.  Since we didn't screen shorts, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about one of our most difficult formats to program – documentaries.

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.


Andrew Butts said...

"I want to make a movie," instead of, "I have an important story to tell."

Very well said. That was an important lesson I learned along the way, and I'm thankful I had 3 years to make the transition. I also got lucky since I was reading Walter Murch (In the Blink of an Eye) at the time and his chapter on cutting the umbilical cord was rather serendipitous as I struggled to excise my original aspirations from the film. And to be honest, I didn't have any skills to show off, just passion in a bottle. I'll definitely be carrying that lesson into my next project (and hopefully find some skills along the way!)

RSMellette said...

Re: the passion and skills.

When I'm teaching, I start out by making a martini. A good, dry martini has a lot of gin and a tiny amount of vermouth.

So, I start with a big shaker of ice, and pour in a ton of vermouth. If I were to add the gin at that point, I'd have a horrible martini.

You then pour off ALL of the vermouth - leaving just what clings to the ice.

Add the gin, shake, and pour.

The gin is talent - or passion. The vermouth is training - or skills. Without talent/passion, you'll never become a great artist. Then you'll need a lot of training at the start. Once that's done, you have to forget everything you ever learned, and get back to the passion.

Andrew Butts said...

When I'm teaching, I'd start with alcohol too! :)

That sounds like a good analogy though. I'm just not sure my vermouth had enough time to stick. I picked up a film as a second major in my junior year. All we had was theory/history/criticism major with a handful of production courses. Unfortunately by the time I trudged through all the pre-reqs to get the one thing I wanted, the production courses, we had two of the three production teachers leave. So I only ended up able to take 3. Once the writing was on the wall, that's when I started my film.

I guess what I'm saying is, I didn't have much of a martini teacher. But I knew one surefire way to never make a good one, was never to risk making a bad one. And if I didn't start then, I never would've started now.

I appreciate your insight, passion, and transparency with regards to both films and the festival selection process. I've very much enjoyed this blog (at least the most recent two years!). Your willingness to respond alone means alot. Sorry for the delayed reply, I just assumed blogger would've sent me some sort of notification.