“Get to the Doc – tor!” Documentary film making and the Documentary Summit 2013

Documentary film making and the Documentary Summit 2013

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I spotted this fellow on my way to the Docsummit in the morning walking form Baker St Tube to the venue in Regent’s park.

I have a documentary film in its very last throes of completion. We have locked the edit, and are now doing the colour grade – not a huge job thank goodness. The sound editor is on the case and we should be wrapping in a few weeks. Let it be said that all of us – me as the producer/director, the Editor Ale, grader Stefano and sound editor Max – all have full time jobs. And this doc is 100% a labour of love. I didn’t seek any funding at all for the doc* but have relied on networking, favour trading and general good will from people who love the project.

However we are not making the film just for ourselves and so it’s all about the next step: getting it to its audience, and what’s next. These questions took me to the Documentary Summit 2013.

Documentary Summit is a programme run by Andrew Zinnes, a US based film-maker and event organiser and author of the useful book The Documentary Film-maker’s Handbook (here is a plug for a product, but it is a good product). Essentially, Zinnes sets up in various cities (LA, London, New Orleans), gathers together various movers and shakers in the local industry – film makers, technical personnel, composers, producers, funders, lawyers etc. – and spends an intense two days in presentations, clip screenings, Q and As and so on.

It was a packed two days and by the end my head was spinning. I would have thought I knew most of this stuff, after all I have been in the business for years, worked for all kinds of producers and film-makers, and have a first class film school degree (and an MFA) to boot. Yet the industry changes all the time. I learned a lot of stuff in that weekend that I would have otherwise have had to learn the hard way: by trying to do new things and finding stuff has changed, or learning stuff a bit later than I needed to. Thanks to Zinnes’s workshop I have a little notebook packed with detail, a few (hopefully useful) business cards and also access to the Docsummit website that luckily features video clips from the event as well as past events.

The summit in London featured a few of my personal heroes. Kim Longinotto, whose work I have been aware of for a long time, gave a great account of how she makes relationships with her subjects. Craig McCall who made what is certainly one of my top docs of all time Cameraman The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (now that is vehemently a plug – and here you can buy it) told us about how he used Fair Use law to get his film made – after a decade of trying. I admired the film even more when I learned that.

I had a sense that everyone in the room wanted to kill themselves during the lawyer’s presentation It’s the bit we all hate. The uncreative bit. But there is no use putting our heads in the sand over it. And if you’ve done your clearances you should be able to get into the festivals. After that, if there is going to be any money made, the legals will be part of the costs. It does however mean we in Europe need to think twice if we want to have our work optioned for the US – the legal steps are a lot more onerous. I think what we fear is forking out for lawyers before we even have a film, before we have a penny. However there are various ways to deal with this; for example the union BECTU does offer legal advice to its members.

I thought I knew everything about social media, but Chris Jones did give me a few useful tips that I implemented straight away. One being to get the URL for this very blog here! Basically, to brand what you do and pull it together to make a comprehensive picture of you, the film maker (or artist). Following on from that, we looked at crowd funding Now I had thought of doing this for Taking over the King’s Land, as in some ways it’s a natural, but the bare fact is you do have to work at it and I didn’t have time. Actually shooting the film, doing my teaching and writing jobs and running an artist organisation – that was about all I could do with myself Had the film been more planned out in advanced I would have got someone on board to run a campaign, but it was not that kind of film. I am thinking of doing a campaign for £ to get the film out to the festivals though as that is an expense I just might need covered. We shall see. In any case a lot of the process was demystified in the talk.

Producer Al Morrow, who (together with director Jerry Rothwell) has made some great docs, gave some really useful info about the trailer. Luckily my trailer was not badly awry of what she advised but I already know I have to revamp it when the film is ready, since the sound and grade is awful! Finally, Chris Atkins gave a fascinating almost surreal account of making a Dispatches film about the illicit trade in personal information I would probably never make a film of that kind, but wow do I ever admire Chris for his ability to make that kind of essential film. I just wish these films would get more outreach than a half hour slot on mainstream TV. I rushed online to try and see it after Chris’s talk but sadly it’s not available. And I would bet the farm that the subject Chris covered has not in any way gone away.

Above all what I learned is that documentary film making is bloody hard work. Like I didn’t know that before? Well this latest film Taking over the King’s Land, is the most conventional doc I’ve done in a while. Because of this I thought it might be easy. Nothing is easy. The Summit showed me that yes it is hard, it’s hard for everybody. There is a lot of graft and grind and near miss. Yet it works. The films get made. And it’s worth it.

So, would I recommend Docsummit. Absolutely. Who would I recommend it for? Actually not for new film makers. They need to just get out and make a film or two before they think about all the rest of this stuff. Honestly I am bloody glad I never thought about “marketing” when I made my first docs. I just made them and showed them in local screenings and small festivals. I also made some total crap and am glad I never invested more time in it than just making it.

Docsummit is better for those who’ve made a film or two, and who want to take it to the next level, or who are getting into doc production form other media, or who are returning to doc after a break, or who need a boost of networking and inspiration.

I kind of wish I was going to go to Docsummit New Orleans next month, cos I know that the speakers Andrew Zinnes has lined up for that are going to be fascinating. If I had a grand to spare I’d even go just for fun! But with a film to get out asap, that’s not gonna happen. But fingers x’d maybe I’ll be taking the film to New Orleans for next year’s festival.



 Taking over the King’s Land

* Not entirely out of any sense of worthiness! The project erupted very suddenly and it was a case of “jump on it now or lose it forever.” The time it would have take to try to get funding would have meant there was no film at all, that’s even before thinking about how to jump through the hoops.

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“England” – A still I took during the Taking Over the King’s Land shoot