What I've Learned About Making Documentaries
by April Wright, July 2013
Documentaries. There are so many ways to make documentaries these days. Some take the form of a non-scripted or reality television show. Some are 52 minutes intended for television broadcast. Others are feature-length. Although it's rare for docs to get a theatrical release, there is an increasing number of broadcast outlets for docs, as well as places like Netflix and other online content providers.
As the Foundation Manager of Women in Film and a Programming Associate for the Sundance Film Festival, I have had the opportunity to view and be involved with many independently produced documentaries and the filmmakers. I recently completed my own documentary "Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie."
This is what I've experienced about documentary filmmaking:
1. Follow your passion.
Every documentary is a passion project. In most cases they don't make a lot of money. They often take a number of years to complete. Tenacity is a key skill for a documentary filmmaker. In the case of Going Attractions, it took 7 years.
2. Connect with your subjects.
An experienced documentary filmmaker gave me the best advice when I was starting my film - he told me to "get involved with the community of people your film is about." You're making a film, but you're telling THEIR story. Over time, you develop an obligation to your subjects to honorably tell their story and to see the project through to the end. As you're involved with the communities, they will tell you who to speak to, who needs to be in your film, what should be covered to represent the story. And once you're film is completed, they will be the early adopters who will see it first and will help get the word out.
3. Find your audience.
While most independent documentaries use the traditional approach of screening at a film festival then selling broadcast and other rights, the landscape is changing to allow for direct distribution - as long as you can identify and build your audience as you're making the film. I've heard many interesting success stories where documentary films were able to directly market their films to key groups using mailing lists and special events. In the case of Going Attractions, since the film is about an exhibition channel, the first phase of release this summer has been to get the movie out to the drive-in audiences directly by playing at drive-ins. Nothing's better than experiencing your film in the presence of a passionate audience.
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