- Succeeding as a Documentary Filmmaker: A Guide to the Professional World by Alan Rosenthal
Alan Rosenthal's latest book, Succeeding as a Documentary Filmmaker: A Guide to the Professional World, is one that will have a long shelf life in my home editing suite and my university office. It is a sensible contribution to media production education, easy to read and personable, and one I will reference (and refer to others) again and again as a documentary filmmaker. Rosenthal, who has authored and edited a number of books on documentary cinema, is also an active documentary filmmaker, with films exhibited and distributed worldwide. His concise and practical language is inviting to readers, and Rosenthal's experiences as a professional filmmaker ensure fresh and professionally sound material. Rosenthal sets out to inform readers about the business (not the art) of making documentaries, and does so with appropriate moments of humor and candor. From financing to proposal writing to budgeting and distribution, the user-friendly book is a rich contribution to the industry and media education, but it goes beyond "how to" guides that might confine readers with their emphasis on standard formats and forms. The author provides numerous professional examples, from his own work and that of colleagues he interviewed during the book's development and writing. These examples are real and practical and reflect the nonfiction work currently securing funding and being produced and exhibited globally. There are a number of texts on documentary filmmaking as art, journalism, or social commentary. This book steps away from that well-published content and offers a new angle on media education and professionalism.
Rosenthal begins the book with advice to documentary students (and no doubt their instructors, who may not have picked up their cameras in a few years). "Making the Most of Film School" is a chapter that could be included in new student orientation packets— before the students get their hands on the ever-evolving precious production technology that comes with tuition dollars. Rosenthal explores whether there is an advantage to documentary film departments or degrees, asking also whether someone who studies sociology, history, or political science comes to filmmaking from that angle. He questions the cost of cinema education while also championing excellence in cinema instruction—people who inspire students with their knowledge and real-world experience. Rosenthal develops the book from here to follow the progression in one's career and producing/directing expertise—from transitioning out of film school to developing professionalism, working for others, and becoming an independent filmmaker. Rosenthal recognizes that nonfiction filmmaking might be one's goal, yet a part-time day job or occasional contract work is a part of developing professionally—and paying the bills. His inclusion of a budget for a short public relations video exemplifies the range of nonfiction work useful to the emerging professional.
One of the most useful sections of the book—from my perspective as an experienced digital video instructor and independent producer/ director—is "Writing the Winning Proposal." Having submitted nearly a dozen proposal versions for a documentary feature I am producing, I find that this chapter covers with breadth and depth the reality of nonfiction financing. The examples are excellent in diversity and international scope. This extended chapter and the following ones on treatments and then budgeting all offer useful counsel on getting [End Page 56] the film planned and financed. Not many filmmakers have the luxury of waiting for offers to produce or direct a documentary. Rather, they notice ideas around them and are required to captain these concepts through the waters of fund-raising, television broadcast pitches, production, and finally distribution and recuperating finances. This is a challenge for emerging filmmakers, as well as experienced artists or journalists, especially in economic hard times, which recently have resulted in significant arts funding cuts.
Some of the most helpful documents on cinema production, which appear online, in trade articles, and in instructional/scholarly books, are examples and standard forms and formats: budgets, contracts, production forms, checklists, and script formats. Rosenthal...