The Doc Doctor’s Anatomy of a Film: “Rock and a Heart Place”

Case Study No. 2

Rock and a Heart Place, produced by Nancy Sabino and Michael Sodano
Running time: 80 minutes

Film Vitals

Logline: Each Christmas, 400 volunteers band together to give the greatest gift: joy to the forgotten of society, the homeless, the seniors and the disabled of their neighborhood.

Location: Shot in the metropolitan tri-state area: NJ, NY, PA.

Length of Shoot: Shot the film over the course of two years

Length of Editing: 2 years –on and off.

Length of Time: from pre-production through locking picture, 4 years. 2 years in outreach and distribution.

Money talk

Total budget: Roughly in the “low six figures” although that total excludes P&A (Publicity and Advertising)

Mainly self-financed, private and in-kind donations.

Most money was spent on shooting and music rights clearances.

Filmmaker’s History

Sabino and Sodano came up with the idea after witnessing a rousing event on the streets of Newark NJ on Christmas Eve by a group of volunteers called Holiday Express. Here is some of the background that got them ready for this project:

Film school: School of Hard Knocks – 20 years of corporate media production.

Other studies: More hard knocks in set and lighting design, project management, event planning.

Beyond academia: Producing short films for product and training purposes, Sabino and Sodano sought to produce longer format entertainment. Documentaries were a natural result of this desire.

Survival strategy: Production of corporate communications projects year round, which is one of the reasons the film took so long to produce.

Previous films: One previous documentary: Greetings From the Parking Lot – an examination of the fans of Bruce Springsteen.

Smart Move

The filmmakers documented the band and volunteers of Holiday Express for two seasons, including 22 concerts to their audiences, which afforded them great closeness and intimacy. A contained geography and time frame –the tri-State area between Thanksgiving and New Year– was a production plus, nothing like shooting around the corner of your house for a limited time. However the seasonal aspect of it also became a drawback to some degree, it meant having to wait a whole year for re-shoots. For distribution, this evergreen documentary has a very long shelf life, each year is a new chance to promote the film.

Never Again

Music Rights! Because the band plays popular Christmas Carrolls, they thought they were dealing with public domain material. Not so, to their surprise the rights clearances budget went through the roof. They had to reconsider what scenes to use based on music clearances availability and affordability. In other cases, some band members and volunteers were interviewed back stage and the background music became a bit of a problem, was it fair use or not? They received mixed info and decided to play it safe by taking it out whenver possible or re-shoot interviews. In their follow up films, they’re absolutely sure they’ll use original scoring.

Film’s Successes So Far

On first glance, Rock and a Heart Place is a holiday film. However various audiences are realizing its year-round use. In education it’s being heralded as a key support resource in Service Learning and Character Education courses. Scout Leaders are using it as a resource for Community Service Merit achievement. Slowly but surely Rock and Heart Place is becoming the documentary equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life of the Holiday season.

Most Memorable Moments

“Filming Bruce Springsteen in concert with Holiday Express had to be the most memorable moment of the whole filmmaking experience”, says Nancy Sabino. The serendipity of being at the right place at the right time is always part of the “magic” of documentary making.

Will Relapse?

“Yes. The process is intriguing and storytelling is still our first love. It’s important to us to produce entertainment that changes the viewer for good. Film inspires us and we like to use our talent to pass that feeling on to a larger audience”, says Sabino.

Related Links:

The Doc will be presenting her signature workshops on structure and trailers in Boston and Atlanta in January. For details check

To lighten your holiday season visit for a copy of the DVD. You can also watch the trailer.

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.