Documentary Question | Maintaining Full Creative Control or Not?

by Sidney
(Los Angeles)

Question: We are at an impasse in making a doc, and the impasse comes down to creative control. Our subjects would like a 'can't live with it' clause in the release form, so should there be something in the film that they feel is harmful, they can ask for it to be deleted, or at lease re-vectored.

The director is adamant about keeping complete creative control. I am the producer, and although I support the director, I feel there could be some middle ground. Any thoughts on this?

Desktop Documentaries | Answer

Welcome to the world of making documentaries where a million difficult questions like this seem to pop up every day. There is no exact science to making documentaries and a lot of times, you simply have to make your best judgement depending on the circumstances.

What I can tell you is that yes, in general, what your director is saying is true. If at all possible, you want to keep creative control of the project. Because you are putting in all your time and in order to make your time worth it, you've got to be able to create the best, most compelling product in the end that can be sold or marketed. If you're having to "water down" the product and take out the "best parts" because your subjects don't approve, you may be left with a "less than awesome" product in the end.

With that said, would you really do something or make a decision that would hurt your friendship? My guess is that you are looking to make a great story that in the end will show your friends in a positive light. That's the TRUST you have established with your friends. They are signing over creating control to you because they TRUST that you will make decisions that will be beneficial to everyone.

Somehow you have to convince your friends that it's in their own best interest to give you creative control. YOU are investing a lot of your time and energy in this project and you can't risk them coming to you in the end and blocking the project after everything you've put into it.

If your friends don't have trust in your abilities as a filmmaker to make the best film possible, then they shouldn't move forward with the project.

However.. and here's the caveat and why there are no simple rules in filmmaking. In the end, you have to do what seems right for YOUR project and situation. If it's a "fluff" documentary and you don't mind getting input from your friends, then sure, make them co-producers and allow them to have a say in how the film is made. Only you know your friends and how you think they'll react during the editing/editorial process. If you want to include them in the creative process, that's your call!

So in one way, your director is absolutely correct. If at all possible, you want to keep as much creative control as possible. But in the end, you have to "organically" understand all the things at play and where you're willing to compromise.

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Apr 05, 2013
Any verbal agreements made prior to shooting?
by: Scott

Quite a sticky situation to be in...Were there any verbal agreements made before shooting began? When were your subjects informed of an agreement? Have they suddenly changed their minds or are they simply exercising a right they knew they could exercise prior to shooting? Were they recorded picking their noses and now worry that that clip will make it into the final cut? Did they "lawyer-up" mid production?

I guess the question I would ask (other than the other dozen above) is; did your subjects agree that they would not have a say in the edit when shooting began? If they were OK in the beginning, what happened that made them change their mind? If they never agreed to give up control or were never offered the opportunity to give up control and then found out mid-production that they had no control, you may have a harder time convincing them to trust you and the director since you did not discuss editorial control options in the beginning.

What was said or not said, in the beginning, could be used as a basis for legal agreement. (I AM NOT A LAWYER.)

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