Dear Doc Doctor:
I can’t wait for the time when I am able to be a full-time independent documentary filmmaker—it’s been really difficult juggling so many balls in the air. Is there any way to make the path quicker and smoother?
It used to be that in this land of opp-ortunity, the American dream was simply to make it no matter what the job. Nowadays, the dream is to make it by doing what we really love. And, unfortunately, the adage, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” doesn’t always apply in the documentary world. You can rest assured that your frustration is understandable and shared by many.
The idea of doing the films you want to do, in exactly the way you want to do them—meaning the right to final cut—while simultaneously making a decent living is every filmmaker’s fantasy, though a rare reality for most. Even those filmmakers who have recently become household names during the current boom in documentary still have to keep a good number of balls in the air. Morrie Warshawski, author of Shaking the Money Tree, says, “fifty percent to eighty percent of filmmakers’ time is spent fundraising and doing tasks that are not directly related to the actual making of the film.” And I say that you can certainly make that eighty percent of your time more enjoyable and purposeful.
Rather than dreaming of an end goal that may feel as challenging once you get there as did the process to achieve it, I would suggest you consider the following filmmaking scenarios as a way to gain perspective.
Trust fund and rich relatives aside, independent filmmakers come in three flavors: the ones that try to produce their projects within the requirements of a pre-formatted network program, the ones that do their projects on the side while marketing a skill such as shooting or editing, and those who also do their projects on the side while holding a regular job outside the business. As with most things, there are advantages and compromises with each situation.
The self-imposed goal of making money with your own films is a way of seeking validation, which makes a lot of sense in our society where money is the mark of professional success. But remember that you are still a filmmaker even if you make films at night and work for a shipping company that dresses you in orange and purple during the day.
Dear Doc Doctor:
I really want to push for excellence in my first documentary. What makes a good successful documentary filmmaker? I feel like I’m getting some mixed messages from people in the business.
Success means so many things to so many people. In the corporate world it seems more clear-cut: Success is a six-figure check and a corner office. Filmmakers, for better or worse, have a more diverse menu of definitions to choose from.
Some measure their success on whether they sell their films and for how much while others measure success by the number of festival awards they win. And others still prefer to count full houses or standing ovations or moments of clapping. You can be happy with any one of the above or miserable with all except one.
I have been amazed time and again when I hear colleagues express their disappointment at having won “such and such” award but not made “such and such” sale. And days later someone else will email me, “Got the big check, but no awards.” That’s when I decided happiness has to be included and budgeted into the production plan.
The first question to ask yourself is “What has been your idea of success with your past films, and what is your idea of success now for this particular film?” When I ask this question to the filmmakers I work with, I take lots of notes and try to guide them in the direction of their goal. We keep adjusting that goal until it feels right. Then, when months later I get the inevitable call of artistic gloom and doom, I remind them with care and compassion what their goal was. In most cases, they have accomplished their goals. They just changed the mark to somewhere else, dissatisfaction guaranteed.
However, some amount of dissatisfaction is healthy and necessary to help keep you striving for excellence. But continuous disappointment can be paralyzing. So, it’s best to decide what might make you feel successful, then go with it, and relax. If you engage fully with the characters of your film and develop a good relationship with your crew, success is very likely to follow.
Want to ask the Doc Doctor a question for a future issue of The Independent? Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.