Inside the Docs In Progress Screening Selection Process

by Erica Ginsberg

Docs In Progress is gearing up for our seventh year of presenting work-in-progress screening programs. When Adele Schmidt and I started this (ad)venture back in May 2004, our only goal was to help fellow documentary filmmakers have a space to share their works in progress with peers in a public setting. At the time, we could not imagine how Docs In Progress would evolve. In the first year, we relied on word-of-mouth among the DC-area filmmaking community to garner submissions. To this day, I am still amazed at the filmmakers who put their trust in us to present and moderate feedback sessions on their works-in-progress....especially in those first few screenings where we faced technical challenges and an uncertainity if anyone would show up for the screenings.


In the Beginning...




In the early years, Docs In Progress garnered submissions by word-of-mouth. We posted on local film listservs, spread fliers at film events, and participated in filmmaker networking events so we could keep our ears open for new works. At the time, Docs In Progress had no office space so we would have filmmakers submit their films to our homes. Some filmmakers were reluctant to submit their films, thinking that we were overwhelmed with submissions like a film festival. Others were reluctant to show their films in a public space, worried that they would be facing an audience of Simon Cowells ready to tear their films apart.



The reality -- as with any new enterprise -- was Docs In Progress usually got only a handful of submissions per call. This kept the job of reviewing the films easily manageable by Adele and me, but we knew our bigger task was ensuring that the filmmakers felt they were in an environment where the critique would be constructive and encouraging. We encouraged filmmakers who were on the fence about submitting their films to attend another work-in-progress screening first so they could determine if it would be an appropriate process for them. By the second year, we noticed that many of the submissions were coming from filmmakers who had themselves participated first as audience members -- a tremendously valuable experience since they could see firsthand that the audiences were hardly mean-spirited, but instead were tremendously valuable in helping the filmmakers step back and view their films in a new light.



We also noticed that word was starting to get out beyond the region. This was pre-Facebook and Twitter so we were impressed with the non-local filmmakers who found us through web searches or heard about us through word of mouth. Though our commitment was (and is) to helping the mid-Atlantic documentary film community, we brought in filmmakers from other places who found DC audiences to be the smart and engaged critical thinkers that we long knem them to be.



While Docs In Progress has since expanded to offer classes, workshops, consultations, Fiscal Sponsorship, and a Youth Summer Camp, the Work-in-Progress Screenings still remain a capstone of our programming. Just as the organization has evolved, so too has the process for recruiting, reviewing, and programming the films.



An Evolving Process...



As Docs In Progress has grown in depth and following, the number of submissions has also grown. We are hardly to the levels of submissions of the typical film festival (though I have a feeling that many film festival reviewers wish more films went through the reality check of a rough cut screening prior to being submitted to a festival). We have managed the increase in submissions by revamping the review process in several ways. We started by creating written review criteria. This was important as submissions increased so we could give feedback to those whose films were not quite ready for a public work-in-progress screening. It also allowed us to expand the review process beyond the two founders just "knowing" instinctively which films would be a good fit. After all, we want to build Docs In Progress as a sustainable nonprofit organization which could -- horrors! -- exist with or without the founders.



We next brought in a humanities scholar to join us in the review process. His feedback was invaluable as we continued to hone the review criteria. His involvement also freed me up to focus on numerous day-to-day administrative tasks to help keep a newbie nonprofit running.



When Adele left our staff this past August, we switched places in terms of the review process. While she would continue to serve as program advisor and co-moderate the work-in-progress screenings, she would no longer be involved in the review of submissions. This was around the same time that the number of submissions was fast increasing. Already encouraged by the new perspectives of the humanities scholar, I decided this would be the time to create a new Screening Evaluation Committee.



The Committee is made up of staff, board members, the humanities scholar, filmmaker alumni, and several laypeople -- audience members who have consistently provided cogent feedback at our screenings. While the programming decisions still remain with staff, members of the committee review and discuss submissions against a criteria sheet.



Hardly a Mystery of the Ages






So what is this mystery criteria, you ask? It is not secret. We have minimum requirements that films must be unfinished, they must be in English or subtitled, they must be available for screening on DVD, they must be no more than 90 minutes in length, and they must be documentaries.  Whether a film is a documentary is a rather sensitive issue right now in the documentary community given some rather high profile films in the past year which have sold themselves as documentaries in spite of questionable factuality. Docs In Progress takes a fairly broad interpretation of what is considered a documentary. However, films submitted to Docs In Progress rarely fall into the "is it really a mockumentary?" category. More often than not, we must consider whether a film made with the cooperation of an NGO is a documentary with advocacy elements or is an advocacy film posing under the guise of a documentary.



Once the basic criteria are determined, the key points the committee is asked to consider are:





  • Whether the film feels like it is coherent with at least somewhat of a storyline developed and adequate background research done



  • Is the storyline clear? Does it appear to have a beginning, middle, and at least a suggestion of an end?



  • Is there a dramatic arc (whether character-driven or issue-driven)?


    Does the film use a variety of production elements or is it overly dependent on a single element such as interview clips or pure verite with little contextual information?



  • Would feedback from a general audience at this stage benefit the filmmaker to get to a further stage of development?




Usually the main problems with submitted films have to do with the point at which the film is submitted. Some films may be so far along in their edits that the committee wonders if a feedback session is likely to be helpful to a filmmaker who may already have locked picture. Giving a filmmaker the ego boost of experiencing a live audience screening or garnering further interest from potential funders is not the main purpose of a Docs In Progress screening. Workshopping an unfinished film with a real-world audience is.



Other films are at such a rough rough stage that they are simply not ready for a public screening. It is this last consideration which makes the review of works-in-progress the most difficult. Afterall, we are considering a film's potential - not reviewing it in a finished form. At the same time, the reviewers must recognize that a real audience will be watching whatever films are programmed and we are asking that audience to provide beneficial feedback to the filmmaker.



If a film is so rough that it is convoluted, the audience will only focus on the fact that they are thoroughly confused and not focus on the key issues of structure and character development which would be more apparent if the filmmaker resubmitted the film when it is further along in the edit. The beauty of Docs In Progress screenings is that they take place an average of every other month so if you miss the next deadline, you can hit the one after that. We also provide aggregated feedback to filmmakers and welcome resubmissions.



Hardly Noah's Ark



So once the committee reviews the submissions, how do we decide which films actually get programmed, particularly if there are more suitable submissions than there are program slots? We aim to program two (or, on rare occasions, three) documentary works in progress in an evening, so length is certainly a consideration. We have learned through trial and error that audiences have patience for a short and a feature or a few shorts, but become itchy if asked to watch two films which are 60 minutes or longer in length in a single evening. Availability of the filmmakers is another consideration since very often we don't know the exact date of the screening at the time we are soliciting submissions.



After those two considerations, the most important factor is how the films pair up (or triple up). Here is where Docs In Progress diverges in approach from film festivals. We do not necessarily want to couple films together which are similar in style or theme. In fact, we often program in just the opposite way. The main reason for this has to do with the importance of feedback from strangers. While we have stalwarts who come on a regular basis, often we have screenings where at least half the audience is attending their first Docs In Progress screening workshop. This means they may be attracted to the screening because they know one of the filmmakers or have a particular interest in the topic of one of the films. That's wonderful, but it is often the feedback from those who have no vested interest in the film or filmmaker which can provide the most food for thought.



We Are Not Gods



In spite of this biblical references throughout this article, the world neither starts nor ends with Docs In Progress. Being selected or not selected for a Docs In Progress screening is not a reflection on the potential quality of a documentary or the passion of a filmmaker. Sometimes we can't program films which would be perfect for a Docs in Progress screening simply because we have received too many submissions which would be perfect for the very same screening and must make choices. In some cases, we might be able to program a film at a future screening. In other cases, the filmmaker has very valid reasons why they need to move forward on their edit and cannot wait for a future screening date.



At a recent screening review session, one committee member asked whether it would come across as discouraging to turn down certain films for a screening. This is certainly a concern since Docs In Progress has built its reputation on being open and encouraging to emerging filmmakers. Another committee member pointed out that the film world is full of rejection and that filmmakers must start to deal with that reality. However, I don't see a lack of programming at Docs In Progress as rejection or anything which should be viewed as discouraging to a filmmaker. Afterall, we are not Documentary Film Gods. We are simply a group of filmmakers who want to help other filmmakers move forward with their films. Even if a film is not screened at Docs in Progress, we encourage filmmakers to take charge of their own editing process, whether it means arranging their own focus groups or meeting with us or any number of other story development consultants.



In the end, it is about empowerment.



To see what films will be programmed at the next Docs In Progress screening through our imperfect review system, click here.



© January 2011, Docs In Progress®


This article may not be reprinted without permission.


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