The challenges of feature-length documentary filmmaking

Over the course of making “Fit to Print” (now well over a year in the making), I have come realize just how much we take the genre for granted.  By this I refer to several things.  As of right now I have collected over 80 hours worth of footage which has been shot out in the field with working reporters and sit down interviews with various media experts.  On top of this, my team and I (now thinning out due to …um… budget constraints) have been hit with some low points.  I made a deal with my primary editor to pay a pro-rated fee of $75 a day for a 5 minute promotional spot for presentation to Reynolds Journalism Institute.  A member of the institute was in contact with one of our team members.  He was excited about the project and suggested we submit a proposal, budget and demo reel for fiscal sponsorship consideration.  This would have been great because it would have allowed me to pay my crew what they deserve (unless I can pay my editing team, this project simply will never be seen by anyone).   Not to mention the ridiculously expensive stock footage fees we will be hit with in the near future.

Long story short, Reynolds Journalism Institute turned us down. They never even watched the 5-minute promo.  It wasn’t over the proposal.  It wasn’t over the budget.  Rather, it was because we didn’t know who would be distributing the film and where it would air (sort of a catch 22 there).

In making any film, whether it’s a documentary or narrative, you learn to collaborate very quickly with as many people as you can in order to reach completion.  Over the course of filming “Fit to Print”, I have sat down with roughly 18 different people who were all interested in helping with the project, from transcribing to helping arrange locations for sit down interviews, to other tasks.  Of those 18 people, only 4 of them have ‘stayed on’ (probably because they are friends of mine).  The other 14 people were respondents to my various Craigslist postings seeking assistants.  All were great.  All of them understood my friends and I are flat broke (no joke there — I recently had my cell phone turned off, had to move into a smaller apartment and told my student loan officer that higher education should be set up like it is in France — free! …I’m still waiting to hear back on the official response from that).

Regardless of my petty needs to have a cell-phone in order to call people for the project, what concerns me most is what has concerned me all along:  if we can’t pay people what they are worth for the jobs they perform, what chance will we have to maintain quality content in any form, whether it be films, music, or journalism? Whether it be Hollywood or Bollywood, indie or mainstream, everyone who works in ANY form of media must band together and demand that their content has value.  YouTube is great, but unless it can lead to financing for our next project, you won’t be seeing the feature film on there!

I could give a shit about tightening my belt in order to keep the film afloat.  After all, I’m an indie filmmaker.  Struggle is what we do.  Period.  But if a guy like Albert Maysles can’t find financing for his next film, or if Oliver Stone is barely able to find an audience to see “South of the Border” because HBO and Showtime won’t air it, then what are viewers supposed to do?  The answer has been to roll the dice and hope the algorithms associated with Netflix browsing will help you land on a rare find.

As for helping finance these filmmakers next works …this has been thrown to the wayside.  As for my team and I …well, I will have to continue to eat Top Ramen and add more debt to the credit cards in order to create a film, which I hope you (whichever crazy person out there is actually reading this) the viewer will find informative and useful as you attempt to sort out, not just the newspaper crises, but the crisis within media as well.

On a less depressing note, I would like to share a great quote from Martin Scorsese, who’s work I turn to often in order to keep the fuel on the fire.

SCORSESE ON DOCUMENTARY FILMS:

I do tend to get more of a satisfaction with documentaries almost because it’s not necessarily me directing actors and framing and working with writers, but instead seems to be in the moment …or…is a compilation of images that were created over the years by other people and edited together in a certain order.  The documentary has fueled my work, because in a way, it’s what we aspire to create when we do [narrative] movies .  Even when it’s highly stylized you can get a sense of documentary.”Martin Scorsese

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