15 Essential Survival Tips for Documentary Filmmakers
Are you stuck somewhere in the process of making your documentary? Have you lost confidence in your ability to finish the project? Or maybe you're just wondering how to get started.
There are all kinds of devilish issues that can sabotage your filmmaking efforts.
Here's a list of some of the most common pitfalls new
documentary filmmakers face.
1. Don’t Quit Your Day Job
It’s the rare and privileged few
who actually get to make a living making documentaries.
2. Stand Out in the Crowd
Cheap video gear means a saturated market
of filmmakers. It’s more important than ever to have a unique story, a unique
pitch and a unique angle that will make you stand out.
3. Don’t be a lone ranger
It’s easy to get overwhelmed and
discouraged during the documentary process. And making a documentary from
beginning to end involves numerous skills. Focus on what you do best and
delegate the rest. Of course, funding to hire these skilled jobs is always an
issue. We get that. But remember this. People LOVE being involved in a
filmmaking project (hey, it’s cool!), so find a student or friend to help you
even for some small assignments.
4. Start building your audience early, communicate often
You’ll thank yourself at the end of the process if you do this. When you’re
ready to fundraise or distribute your film, your social media followers will be
the ones you count on for support, ideas and to help build buzz.
5. Anticipate distribution
Before you even start making your
documentary, imagine where your film will be shown and what you hope people
will do or feel after watching your film. Image the film playing up on the
screen. Who’s in the audience? Why are they there? Will your documentary be
shown at community centers or on broadcast television? Or perhaps it will be best suited
for online viewing only?
6. Network & Attend Events
Join Forums. Find a supportive
community that understands what you’re going through. Go to them when you’re
stuck or lacking courage.
7. Anticipate the loss of momentum
At some point, you WILL ask
yourself “What was I thinking!?” You will question everything about the
documentary project. Think back to your original excitement and remember what
made you so interested in the topic in the first place. Even if you can't
re-ignite that passion, ask yourself what small step you can take right now to
move the project forward. Movement has a funny way of getting you back on
8. Invest in quality audio gear
Go ahead, shoot with your old
VHS camcorder, but do not, I repeat do NOT skimp on the audio. Buy the best
microphone and audio recording set-up you can afford. Your audience will
forgive bad video before they will forgive bad audio.
9. Set Goals
This is a no-brainer. Just do it.
10. Take baby steps
Ask yourself exactly what it is that's stopping you from moving forward. Break the problem down into manageable bits. For example, if you need $25,000 and are stuck finding someone who can donate that amount, ask yourself how you can get ten people to give $25.00. It's not $25,000, but it's a start and gets you moving in the right direction!
11. List "Five Quick Wins" and "Five Bold Moves"
This tip is from Morrie Warshawski in his wonderful fundraising book "Shaking The Money Tree". For example, raising $250 would be a quick win. Having these mini-successes can play a big role in boosting morale.
12. Set a small goal to complete THIS week
A BIG first step is
to make a "teaser" or fundraising trailer. Producing something that
is 1-5 minutes is much less daunting than trying to produce a 60-90 minute
movie! For example, you could have your trailer completed one week from now!
And that is a fantastic fundraising tool. Another thing you could do is come up
with a list of people you'd like to interview. Choose one of them and go
interview them! You could have that done in one week also!
13. Craft an elevator pitch (ASAP!)
As soon as you mention to
someone that you’re making a documentary, they will ask what it’s about. Don’t
get stuck giving a boring babbling answer. Crafting a great elevator pitch takes time. But
it’s worth every second of effort you put into it. A great pitch helps you
survive the inevitable naysayers.
14. Avoid Naysayers like the plague
Making a documentary is
hard enough. Surround yourself with people who support your dream.
15. Be Kind To Yourself
Forge ahead one step, one day, at a time and DON’T beat yourself up if you aren’t going as fast as you like. Learn to forgive yourself when things don’t go according to plan.
Of course, there's always the chance that your original documentary idea is not panning out to be what you envisioned. And it's perfectly okay to cut your losses and try the next idea. Just make sure you're quitting for the right reasons. Sometimes the beauty of a documentary is that it turns out completely different than what you expected and can still be a great (if not better!) story.
So keep your head up, face your problems head-on and keep moving forward. If you do that, you have a great chance of surviving the documentary filmmaking process.