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Survival Techniques: Clearing the Hurdles of a Career in Nonfiction

By Cynthia Close

Succeeding as a Documentary Filmmaker: A Guide to the Professional World
by Alan Rosenthal
Southern Illinois University Press
224 pages


If I had written a book two or three years ago, targeted to recently graduated film school students and other wannabe documentary filmmakers, it probably would have been very much in the style of Alan Rosenthal's Succeeding as a Documentary Filmmaker: A Guide to the Professional World. This is a laid-back, personable, accessible introduction to the business of documentary making that covers most of the essential points one must consider before transitioning from film student to professional filmmaker. It's the kind of information that should be covered in every film school, yet is rarely offered.

Rosenthal is himself a filmmaker and writes from a practitioner's perspective. The fact that he studied law at Oxford, earned an MBA at Stanford, is a professor of communications at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has taught at Stanford's MFA program in documentary and at film schools in England, Australia and Mexico gives his writing some authoritative weight. Despite his impressive résumé, he does not burden us with constant reminders of his own achievements. Rather, he sprinkles his own life experiences across the chapters, sharing his mistakes as well as his success stories, and naming names along the way.    

The book opens with an encouraging chapter: "The Route to Success." After all, isn't this what we want to hear? Imagine that, in spite of all the discouraging stories out there about failed attempts at becoming a documentary filmmaker, there is indeed a guidebook to get us over the hurdles, and if we read it, there is hope for us. Rosenthal clearly has the average film student in his sites. He devotes a chapter to "Making the Most of Film School," just in case you happen to be thinking ahead but are still protected by the walls of the academy. He then starts to lay out your options for survival: Do you open your own office, and just dive into filmmaking, hoping for the best? Or do you have a day job and try to build your real-world experience working for others?

Much of what is said in these early chapters might seem obvious to a 30-, 40- or 50-year-old who has had a fair share of developing survival techniques, but if we remind ourselves what it was like when we were 20, Rosenthal's approach makes more sense. In general, there is much that I agree with in the book, but Rosenthal does make a number of assumptions that do not reflect my personal and professional experience.

Early on, in the overview, as a rational for writing the book, the author states that the documentary student is poorly served due to the lack of books that have anything of value to say to the prospective professional nonfiction filmmaker. I would take exception to that--the proof being the number of books I am offered for review on exactly that subject. The world of documentary-making has exploded in the last decade, and the increasing number of books dealing with both the making of and critiquing of documentary films has grown exponentially to fill the demand.

In Chapter 7, "Writing Your Winning Proposal," Rosenthal states that, in some cases, the filmmaker need not bother to include a paragraph explaining the need for his or her film--in other words, what I call the "why factor." I would say that this is one of the most important elements in every written film proposal; all funders, commissioning editors, etc., want to know that if they buy into the project you present, you can answer that question.

There were a number of other instances in this chapter that I found problematic. In discussing the budget, Rosenthal writes, "...In most other cases, I would leave all reference to budgets out of the proposal because you don't want to scare the sponsors off..." I would disagree with this advice. I believe it is always best to include some sort of budget at each stage of the funding process, and that budget should be as realistic as you, the filmmaker, can make it, without low-balling. This communicates a great deal of necessary information about your knowledge of what it takes to make the kind of film you are proposing, and establishes a negotiation benchmark for you and the funders. If a potential funder or sponsor is scared off by the budget, better you should find out earlier than later.

Further on in the same chapter, Rosenthal claims, "Like budgeting, any discussion of audience and distribution within the proposal is usually optional rather than obligatory." Again, I strongly disagree. Defining your audience, even if you are approaching PBS with a program for NOVA (the author uses this as an example), is essential. Having a fully developed marketing/outreach/distribution plan needs to be part of your project development from Day One. Filmmakers who wait until they have a finished film (usually in these cases, it will be a "self-funded" finished film) before thinking about distribution, do so at their peril. Rosenthal is also a little sloppy with his terminology in this chapter; when he refers to "video teaser," "support video" and "trailer," they all seem to mean the same thing.

One of the most helpful aspects of the book is the inclusion of actual successful proposals as well as budgets written by Rosenthal and others. Learning by example is a tried-and-true approach.

Ultimately, the book feels dated. While some of the general advice would hold true now and in the future, Rosenthal is not fully up to speed with the latest demands of the documentary world. The book leans toward filmmakers who would still have the option of shooting in 16mm film or BetaSP. There is little specific mention of HD technology, or the impact of digital technology on every aspect of filmmaking, including the way filmmakers communicate with each other, with potential funders, and with their prospective audiences.

While the book targets those students coming out of film school, it is my guess that the most talented among them will have already moved beyond what this book has to offer. 


Cynthia Close is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.