What if nobody "gets" my film?

Dear Doc Doctor:

Nobody seems to like my film—they say it’s unclear and hard to follow. Why aren’t they getting the story?

If people are “not liking your story,” you have to accept it. If people are “not getting your story,” you have to work on it. Knowing the difference… as priceless as a packed theatre.

It’s tempting to think that the reason somebody didn’t like your film was because he/she didn’t get it. It’s easier to dismiss this kind of critique than to make changes to your documentary. Others might argue that if nobody gets it, it’s because you’re ahead of your time, which is possible, but not as common as we’d like to think. As filmmakers, we are responsible for the entire process of communication, from delivery of the story or message, to the audience’s understanding and appreciation of that story. In other words, if for any reason nobody “gets it,” you have work to do.

Let’s define “nobody.” How many nobodies are we talking about? Is it many people in a badly-targeted test screening, or just one person, but one you really care about? Knowing the demographics of your unenthusiastic audience can help you assess the problem— or figure out if you’re just miscalculating prospective viewers.

Here’s an experiment: Choose three consecutive scenes in your documentary. Write down the objective of each scene. Ask someone who is your ideal viewer to define the main points of those scenes, and check his/her answers against your notes.

If your objective in each scene is not clear, audiences are left to pick and choose what to follow in the story. This mistake over the course of a 90-minute film amounts to a significant cumulative error. Audiences will eventually fall asleep, walk out, or feel anxious about figuring out the story.

Repeating the exercise above for all the scenes in the film can help you identify why and where the objective is not coming through in each scene. Are you giving too much on-camera time to a secondary character? Are lesser issues conveyed in a more memorable manner than the main issues? Once each scene’s objective is loud and clear, you can check the order of those scenes. Some shuffling might be needed. Do another test screening and enjoy the difference!

Dear Doc Doctor:
I have a lot of ideas for a documentary—how do I decide which idea to go with, and how do I develop a story out of that idea?

Choosing which ideas to pursue and which stories to tell is where all filmmaking starts. You have a very important decision ahead of you so before you pull out the latest box office numbers and make vector calculations of the future, I recommend you test your passion.

Write down all your ideas on separate index cards. Lay them out on the floor and build a pyramid, with the idea that you like the most at the very top. Try to imagine which one of these ideas you would enjoy thinking about, shooting, and editing every day for the next (at least) three years. An idea that intrigues and amazes you will do the same for your audience.

While shuffling your cards, you may be happy to discover that ideas for different films are actually just different angles of the same overall concept. Feel free to redo the cards to illustrate these changes.

After you decide on one or two ideas, ask yourself if these ideas can evolve into stories. And can those stories in turn be told with images and sound? Since filmmaking is such an expensive and time-consuming form, you have to be really sure that the story is worth telling in this medium.

To check for story development potential, ask yourself as many questions as possible about each idea. If you run out of ink and paper, then there is enough material for a film. Next take imaginary photographs of your imaginary story. Are you overwhelmed by images or can you not get past the still photo for the poster of the film? How about sound—can you hear many people commenting or do you hear a voice-over explaining abstract concepts?

These preliminary exercises can help you get started in asking core questions about your future documentary. Marketability, comparative financial analysis of similar films, and box office totals are all equally important numbers. But when the work has to be done day in and day out, there is only one number that really matters: one-self.

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