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1 1. Overview: The Route to Success CAN YOU EARN A LIVING making documentary films? The answer is “yes.” The aim of this book is to show how that goal can be achieved. I didn’t always think so positively. Often I would meet with new documentary students and ask them, “Who here is mad, crazy, nuts, and certifiably insane?” They would look at each other in wonder. Is this nonsensical rubbish what they’d paid $35,000 in tuition fees to hear? Then a few would get it and slowly raise their the hands. And those were the people I used to take as students because they had realized that as documentary filmmakers, they’d soon be poor, divorced, and bankrupt. Well, I no longer think that way. I think changing conditions have made it much easier for the documentary filmmaker to make some decent money from his or her efforts. But to do that, students have to really understand what’s happening in the marketplace and in television. This book, then, is meant to be the documentary filmmaker’s guide to the real world, the world outside film school. It is intended to provide novices, students, graduate students, and current practitioners with the necessary know-how and skills to get ahead in the competitive and confusing world of professional documentary production. In short, it’s “The Lonely Planet” for all makers of documentary. In a very down-to-earth way, this book introduces you to the commercial possibilities open to filmmakers and shows a variety of paths that will hopefully leave some money in your pocket at the end of the day. Inter alia, it discusses markets, finance, contracts, coproductions, and distribution, offering the hope that if the advice is followed, then documentary filmmaking might be a pretty good career path. And who knows, you might even be able to repay your parents for their help. 2 / Overview Changing Conditions Recently, a Texas student told me he’d appeared with his film at various universities, sold two thousand DVDs, and arranged screenings on a few cable stations. More triumphantly he mentioned that he’d made about $15,000 profit after paying off all costs. This success would have been almost impossible twenty years ago and is mainly due to changing conditions in the industry. The student understood that and took advantage of the changes. To get ahead, you need to evaluate and understand those changing conditions. Unfortunately, not all the changes are positive. At one time, the three major U.S. commercial networks screened about five hundred documentaries a year. Today, they barely make it into double figures—opportunities to work in and around the networks have virtually disappeared. However, the positive changes have more than offset those drawbacks. The rise of cable TV, with specialist documentary outlets such as Discovery , National Geographic, A&E, and HBO, among others, all point to new opportunities. Equipment and film costs have drastically lowered, making it much easier and much more feasible for the filmmaker to get his or her own individual productions off the ground. The DVD has taken over the world, and new sales markets have opened up, including Amazon and the Internet. There has been a rise in coproductions and in the making of company and public-relations films. There has been an increasing demand for film graduates in industry. More documentaries are being shown in theaters, while more and more foundations have tuned in to financing nonfiction films. Film markets have become popular , and there has been a rise in film festivals and pitching opportunities to place films. Last but not least, I suspect that the demand for “reality” films will diminish, while the hunger for documentaries will increase. This book will take you through all these changes and discuss their implications for your career advancement. Know Your Objectives I have a filmmaker friend Jane. Every few years, she makes an impassioned feminist tract or does a film about an obscure Balkan poet that rarely finds an audience above a few goats and old blind shepherds. OK. I’m making the last bit up. The point is she knows she cannot achieve anything above a minority audience. Yet Jane longs for commercial fame, wants to dress well, and buy quality jewelry. It seems to me that Jane Overview / 3 fails to understand that her desire for impassioned minority filmmaking usually runs counter to her financial desires. She has in fact never sorted out her imperatives. She has never clearly...


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