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Schools of Doc: Nonfiction Filmmaking Training Programs in the USA

By Mitchell Block

Stanford Documentary Film and Video Program student Andy Schocken shooting his Winter 2003 video as a first-year student. Courtesy of Stanford Documentary Film.

Ten feature-length documentaries released theatrically since 1991 have grossed over $15 million globally, Daily Variety reported on June 25, 2004. This does not include television/cable, home video/DVD sales of these films, music/performance works or IMAX films. With an unusually shrewd marketing campaign, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which grossed over $21 million in its first weekend, might be the first non-IMAX doc to gross over $100 million. Docs are the new feature film.

For over a decade, festivals such as Sundance, Toronto, Berlin and the IFP Market have screened far more interesting documentary programs than feature fiction programs, despite the enormous growth of the latter genre. The documentary boom on both theater screens and on television is being followed by an increase in the number of documentary film and video training programs and courses. While many programs do provide excellent training for both the television and theatrical markets, a close examination will show that a prospective student needs to do a bit of homework to sort out which programs will fulfill individual needs and how the cost of training justifies its value. 

How Does One Become a Documentary Director?

With the shift of documentary production from film to video, becoming a director today is as easy as getting hold of a video camera, sound gear and perhaps some lights and editing equipment, and starting to shoot. For less than the cost of attending many public universities for a year, one can make a documentary feature film. It's evident from the hundreds of feature-length works being produced that this is going on. Alas, most are not very good. The documentary world is full of documentary directors; some have the benefit of film school training and others do not. 

To be a working documentary director, a strong sample work or portfolio film is needed. Without such a film it is difficult to raise money for productions either from the public or private sectors, unless the project has another director with a track record (or a strong sample work) attached. Since networks or other documentary production entities in North America don't systematically hire graduates of film schools to be directors, most filmmakers need to create their own projects or be hired to make other peoples' projects. Directing and producing documentary work generally comes to those who have the skills to raise funds to make films and hire themselves to work on them or, in some cases, be hired to direct, based on a sample portfolio work. 

Making a Portfolio Film in Film School?

It's evident that only a very few of the hundreds of documentaries made each year in schools and other training programs have received Oscars and other key professional awards, or have appeared on broadcast or cable networks. This suggests some disconnect between the film programs and the industry. If programs are training students to make documentaries, then the training should relate to the positions or funding that is available. On dozens of websites the programs are positioned as direct training for the film and television industry. Logically, then, the portfolio works made in these programs should provide the student a connection with the industry by serving as sample works that can get them jobs. This is not to suggest that students should not explore issues of filmmaking or film art, but the portfolio film is the first step to a career as professional filmmaker.

The next question to ask: In which programs are the successful portfolio films being made? How have these programs succeeded in facilitating students to make these films? In the last five years, students from just three schools have won 10 of the 15 Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) Student Academy Awards for Best Documentary, while students from five different schools have won the remaining awards. In the last five years of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences College Television Awards, the same three schools have won 11 of 15 awards, and since 1991, these schools have won 18 of 33 awards. Considering how important a portfolio work is for a student, it is surprising that these key industry awards are so dominated by just three programs: University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television (USC), Stanford University Graduate Documentary Program and University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (see Tables I and II). These schools have demonstrated that they are providing training that produces student work that is appealing to both of these professional organizations' members and industry peers. 

Of course, there is room for programs that stress artistic and personal approaches for their students. While these documentaries have a great deal of merit, they have become more difficult to fund. The prospective student needs to consider if he or she will be able to get the training necessary to make films that will lead to a professional career. Film production appreciation courses are appropriate for any college program, but there seems to be some confusion within the programs as to whether students are being trained for a profession or as part of a liberal arts program. 

A Case Study: UC Berkeley

What's interesting to note is that a small department with a few teachers can influence student work enough to dramatically change the quality of an institution's student portfolio work. It has nothing to do with expensive facilities, large numbers of faculty, state-of-the-art equipment or large budgets; it comes down to the quality of the teaching.

Filmmaker Jon Else joined the UC Berkeley program in 1997 as a 3/4 time faculty member, joining Deborah Hoffmann (who works 1/6 time) to form a two-person faculty. (They have two staffers.) Students at Berkeley, as at most film schools, receive little funding for their productions, but since 2000, they have won four College Television Awards (two first prizes and two second prizes)—more than any program in the US. In 2003 and 2004 Berkeley students won three Student Academy Awards after 20 years of not winning any. (From 1991 to 1997, Else was a "consulting professor" at Stanford University, the only other program to win two AMPAS awards in the same year, 1998).

One might argue that success at Sundance or other festivals could be an indication of a program connecting to the industry, but judging and selection at festivals are not consistent from year to year and, statistically, the results from the academy programs appear to validate one another. Both academies have had a steady and regular judging base, which over time seems to be consistent in its process and without many of the biases that festivals inherently show. 

Criteria for Program Selection

Clearly there are numerous excellent documentary training programs across the country. Well-established programs exist at University of California at Los Angeles, Temple University and New York University Tisch School of the Arts (undergraduate), and outstanding new programs are being created in places such as American University and the University of North Texas. A would-be documentary director can choose to attend a four-year undergraduate program or a two- or three-year graduate program-or can just take some classes. It comes down to time, money and acceptance into a program—or deciding to make a film on one's own.

Prospective students need to develop criteria of their own to determine the value of programs. Some programs can point to faculty members who have won or been nominated for Emmy and Academy Awards in nonfiction categories, who make programs being shown on national networks or in theaters, or who are working in the industry. Programs can also point to the amount of financial and technical support they provide to their students to make their portfolio documentary films. Programs can show how their students are being hired by local and national broadcasters for news and other program-making functions. All good things, to be sure.

Questions a Prospective Student Might Ask:

1)   How many students in the program get to make full-scale portfolio films (works 10 minutes or longer, mixed, with music [if appropriate], color-corrected, on-lined, etc.)?

2) How much financial aid is available? What equipment, facilities and other support does the program provide?

3) How much time is allowed to make films? (Too short a time creates problems; too long a schedule means students could be in school for years. The best answer is one-half to one academic year.)

4) What are the track records of the faculty advisors? What's the mix between full-time and part-time faculty? Are there ongoing programs of screenings, guests from the industry and internships?

5) What success have the students had in selling their portfolio films to distributors, broadcasters, etc.? How have the works done at festivals and competitions? Does the program work with distributors? Festivals? Does it set up industry screenings?

6) How have students done in terms of getting work as filmmakers after graduation? What films have they made? How many graduates are working in the industry?

7) Are students encouraged to attend documentary markets or festivals while they are in the program? If so, which ones?

8) Is a college-based undergraduate or graduate program a good choice for me? What other options are there?

9) Can I make a portfolio film outside of college, on my own?

Other questions can deal with training courses that use film and/or video, editing classes using Avid (the industry standard) or Final Cut Pro. Classes in sound, lighting, writing, producing, marketing, distribution and fundraising should also be part of any program. Some programs invite network executives to teach. UCLA, USC and Stanford all boast of continuing programs of in-school appearances of filmmakers and screenings of new and historical documentaries.

Celebrity Exposure or Inoculations?

Many film programs operate in the "exposure" method of training, in which students are "exposed" briefly to successful filmmakers and "catch" some ideas or insights. Certainly, this is a starting point that can cause ideas to germinate, but it takes more than an evening or a week for students to get it. Programs that offer intensive week-long or longer workshops for a handful of students with pros offer good value, and a five-day week with 40 hours or more of instruction is far better than a crowded three-hour event that includes a screening and a Q&A. 

Some programs have "name" filmmakers in residence such as Harvard (Ross McElwee), Yale (DA Pennebaker) and USC (Mark Harris), to name a few. Filmmakers and producers who are actively producing and directing major documentary works have industry connections that can benefit their students. University of Texas at Austin brings in visiting filmmakers on a regular basis. Sheila Nevins, HBO's president of documentary programming, teaches a seminar at NYU's graduate film program.

The lack of this discourse perhaps might explain the lack of student work ending up on network television or winning Oscars and other major awards. Students need access to producers and executives who know what is being funded and who is funding the works.

Other Approaches, Other Paths

Another way to get a portfolio film made is to hire an award-winning filmmaker to make it for you. If you raise the funds, you are the producer. Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Robert Weide's (Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth) first work, after dropping out of USC, was a superb, PBS-funded documentary called The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, directed by Richard Patterson. R.J. Cutler's breakthrough documentary was the Academy Award-nominated The War Room, which he produced and which Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus directed.

While USC's Peter Stark Program encourages all of its second-year graduate students to attend the Sundance Film Festival, and the key documentary markets have numerous students in attendance, few American programs encourage their students to attend. In a few days at Hot Docs, RealScreen, International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) or the National Association of Television Professional Executives (NATPE) convention, students could gain valuable insights into the business of documentary filmmaking.

Lots of Programs, but Where Are the Jobs?

There do appear to be a historic number of students interning with documentary producers both in and out of the networks and major production entities. While this is excellent in terms of training, most documentary production companies have very few staffers and tend to staff up only when they are in production. Thus, while students gain experience as interns, the field consists mostly of boutique companies that can't offer regular employment to the several hundred graduates the programs produce yearly. Unlike in most fields, internships in documentary don't usually produce full-time jobs. Staff jobs can be found with television broadcasters, networks and larger production companies, but they are very competitive. While there are several thousand production companies worldwide producing thousands of programs a year, few of these companies support more than a handful of employees on a full-time basis.

The vast majority of filmmakers work as freelancers, and recent graduates are competing with seasoned professionals for every freelance job. Multiple channels mean that more programs are produced, but that does not mean the budgets are higher. The field in television is split between filmmakers working on tight schedules with budgets of under $100,000 and a few high-budget, high-profile programs produced by each network each year. The feature market is even more competitive. Sundance claims that over 800 feature documentaries are considered for their 16 competitive slots.


I used to say in my classes that it takes ten years to become an overnight success. Now it seems to take even longer. We can be excited for Jeffrey Blitz, whose first feature documentary, Spellbound, grossed over $4 million, when works like Winged Migration or Buena Vista Social Club do so well. We want to celebrate works like Murder on a Sunday Morning or a new film by Ken Burns. We are truly in an exciting field at an exciting time.

What is evident is that the market will embrace first-time filmmakers with outstanding stories, that there is a place on the networks and in the theaters for new documentary films and filmmakers, and we will continue to celebrate filmmakers who have had successes in the past. We just need to be smart and creative both in our training and in our professional lives. 


Mitchell W. Block ( is president of Direct Cinema Limited ( and works in Los Angeles producing and consulting on documentary productions for broadcasters as well as numerous independent productions worldwide. He has been teaching independent film producing at USC's School of Cinema-Television on an adjunct basis since 1979. He has been doing workshops on producing and finance globally for over 30 years. He executive-produced the 2001 Oscar- winning film Big Mama for HBO. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Academy of  Television Arts & Sciences and the University Film and Video Association.
© 2004 Mitchell W. Block (All rights reserved)


The Academy Programs

Table I
College Television Award Winners, Documentary Category, from 1991 to 2003

Program1st Place Winners 2nd & 3rd Place Winners
Brown University 1994 
Columbia University         19952nd 1991, 2nd 1998, 2nd 2001
Connecticut College         2002 
Northwestern University   2003 
Norwich University           1998 
New York University/
Tisch School of the Arts    
1992  2nd 1997
Stanford University (Graduate)   3rd 1997, 2nd 1998, 2nd 1999, 2nd 2002
University of Arizona 2nd 1992
University North Carolina, Greensboro  2nd 1994
University of Texas, Austin 1996, 1997
University of Southern California1991, 1993, 19992nd 1995, 2nd 1999, 3rd 2000, 3rd 2001,  3rd 2003
University of California, Berkeley 2000, 2001  2nd 1993, 2nd 1996, 2nd 2000, 2nd 2003
Visionaries Institute, Suffolk University 3rd 2002

Source: Television Academy  (Note: 2004 Award Year is in 2005)


Table II
Listing of All Student Academy Award Winners, Best Documentary, from 1973 to 2004

Program                                       Year Won 
Adelphi University1976
Antioch College 1975
Bob Jones University  1989
Boston University1979,1980, 1981
Brown University1989
California Institute of the Arts1986, 1989
Columbia College1983
Connecticut College 2003
Harvard University  1995, 1996
Loyola Marymount University1989, 1992, 1996
North Carolina School of the Arts1999
New York University1978,1982,1984,1985,
1986, 1993,1998, 2002
Tisch School of the Arts /
Northwestern University
Regent University 2000
Southern Illinois University1988
San Francisco State University1990
Scottsdale Community College1997
Stanford University
(Graduate Program)
1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989,
1990, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996,
1997, 1998, 1998, 2000, 2001,
2002, 2003
Temple University1973, 1978, 1979, 1992
University of California, Los Angeles1980
University of California, Berkeley1978, 1983, 2003, 2004, 2004
University of Colorado1985
University of Nebraska, Lincoln2004
University of Southern California (USC)1976, 1981, 1987, 1988, 1990,
1993,1997, 2000, 2001, 2003
University of Utah1994
University of Texas, Austin1977, 1979, 1983, 2001
Wesleyan University1994

Note: Generally one Gold, Silver and Bronze Award is given each year.

Source: Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences