Sam_Hampton.jpgDocs In Progress’ newest partner Sam Hampton has many years of experience as a consultant to organizations looking to manage their projects better. He sees definite parallels between the work of these organizations and that of independent documentary filmmakers, especially when it comes to managing the documentary project. 

by Sam Hampton
Docs In Progress Co-Founder
April 20, 2008

For many first-time filmmakers in the world of documentary storytelling, the excitement of being out in the field, conducting interviews and the like sometimes overshadows the importance of developing a comprehensive plan to help facilitate the documentary process. While some might shiver at the thought of treating the documentary process as project management, the making of a documentary can be enhanced as a project that is properly managed from conception to completion.

Managing your documentary project should not be difficult; it also gives a sense of comfort and calm when the going gets tough. Think about it: how can you feel at ease with your documentary if you have only a vague idea of whether anyone is interested in your story, you are not sure of the amount of time it takes to make your story, or if you question whether you have the proper resources to finish and distribute your story?

Perhaps the single most important factor in managing the documentary is to develop a plan and put that plan on paper. The plan you create should be treated as your guiding light, your best friend, your trusty road map. The quality of your plan will determine the effectiveness that you, the filmmaker, will have in navigating through the documentary process. It will also form the basis for other elements which need to be conveyed through text -- grant applications, press outreach, websites, and so on.

A good plan enables filmmakers to work better, and for that reason, I use the term "work plan" to describe the details of the participants, resources, actions and goals of the documentary project. There are established rules for developing a good work plan, and most plans include the same basic elements:

Project Mission
The first element of the work plan is a mission statement that includes the background, purpose, benefits and objectives of the documentary project. A mission statement is more than a summary of your project. The mission statement should declare the purpose of your efforts, and clearly define the project in order to keep everyone in the project team in necessary agreement. To use examples from well-known documentaries, the mission statement for HOOP DREAMS might have been something like €œThe film will follow the lives of two Chicago teenagers as they reach for their professional and personal dreams through basketball. By following the teenagers and their families over the course of several years, our hope is to tell the story of families seeking to overcome obstacles and rising above media stereotypes people may have about life in the inner city. Or the mission statement for SICKO might have read "This film will look at the failures of the U.S. health care system through interviews with ordinary citizens faced with extraordinary and bizarre challenges in their quest for basic health coverage and through comparing the U.S. health care system with that of other countries. The goal of the film is to draw public attention to the health care crisis and be a catalyst to bring political change to the health care system by calling for a replacement of private, for-profit health insurance with a universal health care program."

Scope of the Project
This part of the work plan demonstrates your understanding of the scope of the documentary project in terms of the resources needed to achieve your objectives. For example, who are the personnel involved in the project, what are the facilities, equipment, and budget? In addition, there should be a clear purpose to the project: advocacy, case study, historic preservation or other such intent. Also, who is the desired audience for your project? Most importantly, this part of the work plan should predict the benefits to the targeted viewer in watching your documentary. These benefits may involve changes in knowledge, attitude, values, behavior, condition or status.

Project Approach
As an independent filmmaker, it is important to establish a method of doing things for your project. While many different approaches may be considered for implementing a project, you will have to decide the best approach given the scope of the project and commit to it. Decide how you are going to communicate with others, how you will solve problems, and how you will effectively use your resources.

Project Time Frame
To the best of your abilities, the work plan should have a comprehensive and realistic timeline with milestones included to help stay on target as you move through the project. In this section of the work plan, it is important to list the events and locations, from beginning to end that are necessary to complete your project. For example, knowing when production ends and post-production begins has a direct impact on the scope of the project and how you utilize your valuable resources. In the real world of independent documentary filmmaking, your project time frame may change depending on many factors beyond your control -- needed funding takes longer than expected, the life of a character you are following takes a dramatic turn, your dream editor can't fit you in for another month, etc. But having a plan written down -- even in pencil -- will help you reach your goals faster.

Understanding risk is critical and should be reflected in the work plan. Risk is the cumulative effect of the chances of uncertain occurrences, which may adversely affect your project objectives. In other words, it is the possibility of exposure to negative events and their probable consequences. To realistically measure the risk in your documentary project, think about what events could prevent the established outcome of your project. Also think about the likelihood of a negative event occurring. What is out there that could jeopardize the success of your project? Remember, risk is the opposite of opportunity. Build in your work plan a mitigation strategy to lessen risk by lowering its chances of occurring or by reducing its effect if it does occur. Have an alternative for action if things don’t go as planned or if an expected result fails to materialize.

The documentary project can be viewed as a system, with elements such as mission, approach, scope, time and risk that operate together for the common goal of producing and distributing a quality work. As an independent documentary director, or project manager, you have the sole responsibility for ensuring that all the elements work together as best as possible for your project, and we all know that no one will care about your project as much as you will. So, well before turning on the camera, have a complete work plan in place to ensure the success of your documentary.

© April 2008, Docs In Progress
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

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