New Year's Resolutions for Documentary Filmmakers

by Erica Ginsberg, Executive Director, Docs In Progress

Welcome to 2014 Docs In Progress friends.

It's a new year.  One in which we'll be celebrating 10 years since we began our first work-in-progress screening.  We are starting 2014 out with a fresh coat of paint at the Doc House, a new Program Coordinator,  a new film project for our Executive Director, and a host of popular returning and new programs.

One of these new programs will be a series called "10 Things You Need to Know About..." This will be a monthly program -- and occasional blog entries -- on various topics of interest to emerging documentary filmmakers.  While our first face-to-face program at the end of the month will be on budgeting, we thought we would kick things off this year by following our New Year's resolution to blog more.

So here we are living up to our resolution, by challenging you with  recommended resolutions tailored for documentary filmmakers.  We won't overwhelm you with 10. But how about 5?


#1 Be a life-long learner.


Whether you went to film school or not, there is always more to learn.  Video technology changes so quickly, it's hard to keep up.  Whether you prefer face-to-face instruction , online learning, or just using trial and error, it's worthwhile to keep up with your video skills.  This is true even if you are a producer/director working with a crew.  Understanding what goes into camerawork or editing can help you plan your shoots and communicate more effectively with your team.

We also believe that learning is not limited only to filmmaking. Documentary filmmakers have to make films about something.  So why not go out and gain knowledge about those potential somethings?  You don't even have to spend money.  Check out free lectures at local universities and think tanks.  Meet people with similar interests through Remember your local library has lots of books and periodicals and likely access to online research tools.  And, of course, there is the Internet.  How did documentary filmmakers survive before Google?  We sometimes wonder.

#2 Don't Overlearn.

We just recommended you learn more and now we are telling you to stop learning.  Gosh, we sound like hypocrites.  However, there is a fine line between studying up on something and using the learning process as a crutch not to go do something.  All the filmmaking classes and workshops and books and panels and lectures in the world won't make much of a difference if you don't start to apply some of that learning by going out and making your film.

Similarly, you can sometimes over-research your topic to the point that it stops you from actually moving from research into production or creates a situation where you are so confident you know exactly what your film is going to be about that you leave no room for any discovery.  If you are not discovering something new about a topic in the process of shooting and editing the film, you run the risk that your audience won't see that process of discovery which is what sets apart great documentaries from good ones.

and speaking of your audience...

#3 Know Your Target Audience.

From the very first Docs In Progress work-in-progress screening back in 2004, we have always asked filmmakers to tell us who they think their target audience is.  Far too many filmmakers have not spent enough time really focusing on this until they are well into the distribution phase and are bemoaning the fact that their film isn't getting into festivals or wasn't picked up by broadcasters.  We wish every documentary had an audience of everyone between the ages of 18-80 around the world.  We really do.  But, in a world where we are bombarded by media options from the big screen to hundreds of TV channels to countless distractions on our phones, it just ain't so.

Think carefully about what attracted you to the topic of your film.  Put that topic down on a piece of paper.  Draw a circle around it.  That is the inner circle of people who will go see this film no matter what: likely your family and friends.  Then create another circle beyond that of the people who would be most likely to want to see this film made.  Perhaps these are people who have had a similar experience to the main character you are following? Perhaps they are big fans or practitioners of the main activity your film documents? Perhaps they have spent their entire adult lives working to create change in the area which your film spotlights?  This is your target audience.

Does that mean you can't think bigger?  Absolutely not.  Ideally you will have a film which will reach beyond that target because it has a universal theme, because it is opening up our minds to a world beyond what we know, and because your target audience will help lead the way to ensuring that your film reaches their circles.

#4 Watch documentaries.

This seems painfully obvious, but  it amazes us how many people want to make documentaries without having seen lots of documentaries.  While it is important to understand the tools of the trade and your audience, it is also important to be familiar with different types, genres, styles, and approaches to documentary storytelling.  Just as great writers are well read, great documentary filmmakers should be well viewed.

It's not that hard to do. The beauty of where the documentary film industry is today is that it has become easier and easier to see documentaries.  Between Richmond, VA and Baltimore, MD, there are more than 100 film festivals, the vast majority of which show at least a few if not many documentaries.  Documentaries air regularly on at least a dozen cable channels, not to mention PBS.  In fact, PBS wants you to see their films so badly that you can even watch many POV and Independent Lens films on your computer or your phone.  You can see even more docs through Snagfilms, Hulu, Netflix and many more places online. Or you could support your filmmaker peers and actually buy their films on DVD or through a digital download.

Don't have time to watch films? One filmmaker we know watches one documentary a day while he works out on his Exercycle.  So you could even kill two resolution birds with one stone while working out your mind and body at the same time.

We will also take a stance here that some folks may not agree with; if you are making a film about Topic X, you should try to see all the films out there about Topic X.  Some filmmakers are reluctant to do this, for fear it will be hard to look at their own film objectively.  They don't want to be influenced by the style or editing choices of the other film.  They don't want to see something for fear they may not be able to live up to the artistry or reputation of the other film.  The reality is that there are no original topics.  Likely whatever you are making your documentary about is being made or has been made by others. If you are trying to market your film to potential funders, broadcasters, distributors, festivals, and consumers, there is a very good chance they may know of the other film.  They may even ask you if you have seen it.  Or ask how yours will be unique.  You need to be prepared.

#5  Connect with Other Filmmakers

This should be the easiest of all the resolutions since there are many opportunities to meet other filmmakers. In the DC area, between formal film organizations (like WIFVTIVA, and Docs In Progress) and informal get-togethers via, there's someplace to meet other filmmakers face-to-face almost every week.  Online you can connect for free via forums like The D-Word or listservs like Doculink. Whether you are looking for potential collaborators or just others who share your passion for documentary filmmaking, now is the time to make some new doc pals.

Have some other resolutions of your own?  Share them in the comments below.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.