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IDA Panels on Documentary-Making Bring a Dose of Reality to ShowBiz Expo

By Laura Almo

By Laura Almo

Last June ShowBiz Expo held its annual gathering at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Amid the myriad of vendors were two panel discussions, both sponsored by the IDA: “Getting Your Documentary Made and Distributed” and “The Influence of Documentary on Narrative Filmmaking.”

“Getting Your Documentary Made and Distributed,” the first panel, was moderated by IDA Treasurer Richard Propper, founder of Solid Entertainment, a world-wide distributor of documentaries. Propper began by clarifying the three categories of projects: a commissioned project, a co-production and an acquisition.

Doug Chang, programming director at the Los Angeles-based PBS affiliate KCET, offered insights and advice from a programmer’s perspective. When trying to sell a completed show, the filmmaker should know that while the digital revolution is making it easier to produce documentaries with less funding at the front end, it is also creating a flooded market, causing increased competition and a standardization of documentary formats. As Chang explained, the explosion of cable channels doesn’t necessarily mean a corresponding spike in demand; it’s much harder to find a home for films that don’t fit into a particular mold. The good news is that there are places such as PBS’ signature series P.O.V. that seek out bold and distinctive works. Chang advised filmmakers to know both their film and their audiences—and the audience that a particular venue is targeting.

Independent producers Barbara Leibovitz and Jaime Hellman continued in this vein, stressing the importance of knowing the audience and being familiar with different broadcasters. Leibovitz and Hellman, who have an established relationship with Discovery Channel, shed light on how they balance their time and energies between producing and selling shows. They may come to a meeting with 30 ideas to pitch, never knowing which one the broadcasters will bite on.

Offering some practical advice, Barbara and Jaime reiterated the importance of “doing your homework.” Barbara emphasized that what works for KCET won't necessarily work for Discovery. They stressed the need to know the background of the broadcaster/programmer who’s hearing the pitch, as well as the broadcaster’s audience. Watch the channels; this is a great way to learn what’s out there and who’s showing what. And improve your pitches; go to festivals, markets, conferences and workshops and watch other filmmakers make their pitches.

Independent producers Paris Poirier and Karen Kiss, makers of Last Call at Maud’s, navigated the audience through the arduous road of a more challenging area: self-distribution. The filmmakers acknowledged that self-distribution—when the filmmaker does everything from producing the film to creating the press kit—is a lot of work, but there is a bright side: When you’re really passionate about your project, no one else is going promote it the way you will. But, Poirier and Kiss added, you must consider where you want to sell your film from the beginning. In addition, press materials are the key to sales, and if you have a good picture that is powerful to accompany reviews and press materials you don't need to pay for an ad.

The second panel, “The Influence of Documentary on Narrative Filmmaking,” moderated by Richard Crudo, ASC, focused on the craft of documentary filmmaking from the perspective of those who have worked in both documentary and narrative film.

The consensus among the panelists, a mixture of cinematographers and directors, was that anything and everything you do in documentary, particularly the ability to be resourceful and think on your feet, helps in the world of narrative film. Director Penelope Spheeris; cinematographers Haskell Wexler, ASC; Francis Kenny, ASC; Bob Primes, ASC; Gil Hubbs; and moderator Crudo were more specific about how shooting documentary gives you experience that will only help you be a better narrative filmmaker: working with less equipment, lighter cameras and fewer lights; taking advantage of natural light; and having a real understanding of reality.

The latter quality plays no small part in the crossover to narrative filmmaking. Shooting documentary, and cinema vérité in particular, allows for the opportunity to witness the authentic emotions of people—the nervousness, the joy, the sadness of real people.

Documentary cultivates the filmmaker’s skill of allowing the world to unfold and teaches the filmmaker how to recognize the difference between real life and acting. Knowing what reality looks like is invaluable when it comes to making dramatic films look convincing.

In the end it was a reminder of the pleasure, joy and power of documentary.


Laura Almo is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles.