Budgeting for archival footage

Dear Doc Doctor:

How can I calculate how much archival footage I’ll need for my film, and how much it will cost?

Predicting how much archival footage you will use is like looking at those optical illusion drawings—you have to squint your eyes for it to make sense. But first, get a pen and paper, and then sign up for an unlimited calling plan and a fast Internet connection.

Squint your eyes and imagine your film. Is it a historical documentary with narration and interviews only? Will archival footage be adequate coverage or is other b-roll available? Will there be action/verité footage as counterpoint? Are re-enactments, animation and metaphorical/poetic footage appropriate for the project and to your liking? For now, don’t make choices based on cost—just list your elements.

Now draw a pie chart. Divide it up proportionally with those elements you listed. If your pie reflects that your film is all narration and interviews, maybe you need 70 to 80 percent of b-roll—whether archival or not. In general, voiceover needs to be covered 100 percent and interviews need at least 50 percent coverage, unless you are making a film Errol Morris-style. Rent a documentary similar to yours and draw its pie chart for comparison. It might not be a completely accurate method, but it’s better than throwing a die.

Once you know how many minutes you’ll need, it’s time to make phone calls or go online to locate collections with your film’s subject. Start with the national archives both in the US and UK (www.archives.gov and www.nationalarchives.gov.uk), and ask your prospective interview subjects for further leads, commercial or otherwise.

Licensing fees vary from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per minute, though some footage is exempt due to “fair use.” Check the groundbreaking research and educational work of Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi for insights on your case at American University’s Center for Social Media (www.centerforsocialmedia.org).

However, even if the footage is public domain or royalty-free you still have to calculate associated cost—such as film transfer and tape dubs for both preview and master copies (fortunately, preview samples are sometimes streamlined on websites), and research and clearance negotiation time, which can take several months. Don’t forget viewing time, especially if done with your editor, and shipping.

Boston-based writer/director María Agui Carter, who has produced several historical documentaries for PBS, says, The Devil’s Music, about fear of blackness and sexuality in American jazz censorship, was about 70 percent archival. “We hired a footage researcher who kept cost down by finding public domain archival newsreels, but our feature clips averaged $5,000 per minute.” Her choices paid off, jazz archivist Michael Chertok considers the film “the best use of historic footage in a film I have ever seen.”

Dear Doc Doctor:
There are so many classes offered for mid-career filmmakers. How do I choose and how much should I be willing to spend?

What was the point of that student loan for film school if a decade later you’re still taking classes, right? But as technology changes, markets shift and you mature as a filmmaker, which can mean that some updating might be necessary every now and then.

If the paranoia of not having gone to film school makes you sign up for everything and anything, a metropolitan city can provide too many options. Filmmaker Jesse Epstein, moderator of the New York daily listserv ShootingPeople.org, says, “We get 150 posts weekly, 30 of which are for professional training.”

Before you succumb to the overload of skilled marketing people whose ads pray on your fears and promise success, make sure you know what you don’t know. List your weak areas specifically. Then ask, “Do I really need to learn that right now, or am I better off hiring someone?” Maybe a two-hour class to get a general understanding of that particular aspect of film will suffice.

For mid-career filmmakers, I have found that educational opportunities can be divided into three groups. First group: the insiders. These are people from foundations and organizations that serve on panels and teach workshops around the country about their individual foundations. Don’t skip these opportunities—they are a unique chance to learn about various organizations.

The second group: the filmmakers. These are people who have just succeeded with their work through amazing outreach efforts, an incredible festival run, or an unprecedented budget juggle. And they are going to tell you how they did it fresh from the frontlines. Pay attention, though, their methods are just what have worked for them, which may not necessarily work for you. Fees vary, but no price is too high if your project and plan of action coincide with experiences these filmmakers may have had. It will save you a lot of time and money to learn from those who are a few steps ahead of the game.

Third group: the teachers. These are people highly specialized in one particular area of film, though they may or may not have a successful film career. Don’t let that discourage you—you want their knowledge, not their life. And contrary to the popular “those who can’t do, teach” cliché, these are people generous enough to share years of research and who possess the skills to pass that knowledge on in an effective way. Do beware, however, of ads that use superlatives—there is no “best” or “number one” in teaching and learning. Knowledge can’t be harnessed. A good teacher will be humble and aware of how much they still need to learn. Prices might shock you. Double check credentials and extra points if the class is sponsored by a film organization—they have already checked credentials for you!

All in all, keep a positive attitude and an eye on your wallet. Even if the experience doesn’t rock your world, there will always be something good to take with you—if nothing else, a contact number from the person sitting next to you. Who knows where that will lead?

About :

Internationally renowned author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers including the 2009 Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and the 2007 Academy Award® nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi shares her knowledge and research of story structure and the creative process in columns and articles in trade publications. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.