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  • Kenneth McGrath

    As an independent producer, you have to create the business model for your project but that shouldn't supersede your creative process when making a documentary film/video.

    Your project, like any other business venture, creates at least one "Value Proposition" (your movie) but it can create others depending on what your business goal(s) are.for the project. For example, you can make a documentary and have a plan (in advance is best) for a study guide for educational outreach, ancillary (e)Learning media, a book version of the movies' content, etc., etc.

    You should know who your customer segments will be as well. Your customers are your audience and they can be identified, and your documentary's messaging can be directed to how they break out demographically and so on.

    You should have a plan for your distribution channels as well. Are you selling to theatrical distribution, television, Internet, direct to DVD? How will you reach your audience. How will you market your doc to them?

    But, in my opinion, you shouldn't compromise the integrity of your project for ANY reason. You are the producer and you have to decide what that project will represent; what theme it will have, what key points you want to make, and so on. There are many opinions and viewpoints on what documentary really is (or what it should be) but ultimately the producer sets the creative direction, tone, and messaging. As a former teacher, I see documentary as essentially "educational" but that's MY bias... that's my approach. I wouldn't change my project for funders, I would change my funders for any given project.

  • Michael Galinsky

    The points made in the article are only valid if one's goal is to make propaganda or make work to please the stated goals of a funder. The idea that documentaries should merelybe tools to push an agenda is a maddening one.

    "Filmmakers who ignore analysis in a misguided fealty to some conception of artistic integrity are, consciously or unconsciously, placing their aesthetics above the issues they care about."

    Even if I believe in an idea I hate propaganda. I plead guilty to have a fealty for ideas over arguments. It's a good idea to click through and look at the data about "Waiting for Superman's" effectiveness at pushing an agenda. Sounds like it was, but whose agenda was it? Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and others who have never spent any time in public schools.

    Data can be useful but it can also be dangerous if we don't look at the complexity behind it.

  • Ronnie Das

    Great Article John! Do you have any of the statistics on documentary investment's social impact or names of the social science researchers who studied this idea? Thanks!

  • Sean Foster

    I believe the medium of film has always been one of storytelling and always been a tool used for the distribution of visual propaganda to the people. Much of the reasoning behind many artists' use of the medium places emphasis on its distribution to the masses as well as its visual prowess not only in power but also sequence. The use of time as well as realistic rendering make it perhaps the most accurate possible media thus created by the human specie in the use of storytelling. Perhaps the trend is more a shift in consciousness and a more ready willingness to analyze the actualities of our time in situ. Much like Dickens and Honore Daumier in their respective mediums and in their times, it seems film has emerged into a phase of social analysis. Who will emerge as the greats? And who will fund their efforts? Have you listened to Aaron Schrank's piece on the economy of Los Angeles as it relates to film? Interesting and holistic perspective. Might make an excellent thesis for a documentary...

  • bennlich

    In your second to last paragraph, you claim that filmmakers who choose not to change their creative practices in response to emerging analyses are misguided, "placing their aesthetics above the issues they care about," and "ignoring the first rule of public speaking." In fact, fidelity to aesthetics is extremely important in all art forms, and documentary filmmaking is no exception.

    Many filmmakers choose to work with film because they are interested in its medium, what it affords, how meaning is made from it. In this case, aesthetics often /is/ the issue they care about, and we, as interested consumers, are damn lucky they do so. These filmmakers ignore the first rule of public speaking because they are practicing filmmaking, not speechmaking. Instead of trying to persuade, their goals can be investigatory, perceptual, and personal. They may ask themselves questions like, how does my viewing experience change with and without this edit? How does the presence or absence of sound influence the aesthetic of the scene? What does naming or not-naming this character do to her characterization? Such questions are personal--they pertain to the filmmaker's aesthetic experience--and they lead to meaningful and influential experiences, even if only for small, unpredictable audiences.

    Though the kind of research you are excited about can certainly have a positive impact on much of filmmaking (especially documentary), I would be wary of the pretentious mindset that it can accidentally lead to. Research that claims to "solve" an aspect of art-making (even in genres like architecture and urban planning) can be dangerously homogenizing when considered without critical skepticism. There is certainly value in the kind of research you've described, but research in any discipline benefits most alongside large doses of humility and thoughtfulness.

    • graceadams830

      Maybe "art films" are about personal esthetics and documentaries are about presenting facts in an effort to persuade.

      • bennlich

        I think those might be useful definitions of endpoints on some complicated spectrum, but few films could be accurately described as falling into either category alone.

  • Terry Kaldhusdal

    Two points I'd like to add to this story: the democratization of funding and tools.

    Two years ago my co-producer and I applied to 20 foundations to fund a film on end-of-life care. We were turned down by all 20. They included local, state, and national foundations. The politics of the the issue (death panels) made the idea of funding a beautiful film about a taboo subject radioactive. We did two things, built a website to spread the word and this created a grassroots effort to self-fund the project. Since then the film, Consider the Conversation, A Documentary on a Taboo Subject ( has been shown and purchased in all 50 states and 13 countries.

    Regarding the democratization of tools, I teach fourth grade. My co-producer is a hospice educator. Yet we use many of the same tools that those in Hollywood use. Tools like Final Cut Pro, affordable HD cameras, You Tube, reproducing DVDs, websites, and social media, like Good, allow us access to the modern equivalent of the Gutenberg Press (1436 AD).

    The fact that a fourth grade teacher can produce a documentary in his basement that is played across the country on PBS, in churches, libraries, community centers, movie theaters, and homes, and the message of improving end-of-life care is heard across the country and internationally should give all of us hope.

    Doctors have asked us to produce a second film that zeros in on the doctor/patient relationship, so we are back to square one in trying to fund the film. Visit us to learn more about our calling, our mission, and our simple goal: change our culture regarding end-of-life care.

    Terry Kaldhusdal

  • nilu.d.sherpa

    I agree very much with what you are saying. I think that movies should be a tool for the better hood of mankind. Here is a short film that I made would love too feel some feedback on it. Its about education and street children.

    Hope you all will give a feedback...

  • stephon.litwinczuk

    Great article! I started my first major doc in college that touched the surface of the topic of homelessness in Los Angeles, known as the "U.S. Capital of Homelessness". Completely self-funded and after 8 years, I finished what is now a compelling, transformational doc about a homeless man who overcame life on the street which was partly due to the power of LOVE and a safety net that does work! I am doing all I can to get it on television to a wider audience and to inspire and educate people. I sure learned a lot and this article gives insight into the major goal of effecting change with a film beyond just telling a story. It's exciting times to be able to quantify this ideal impact in mind. Find out more at: Best, Stephon Litwinczuk

  • David Culver

    In addition to 'know your audience' we will better serve our purposes by 'know your topic' as well.. so I think it is great some of these tools may become accessible to the independent film producer..

  • Joojoo Eyeballs

    Wonder how this is going to change the pre production phase and the writing of treatments and proposals. Question is: Are the media development bodies or film councils around the world changing their criteria on handing out money based on this?

  • Ben Goldhirsh

    really interesting, John. have you seen any filmmakers start to dig into this on the front end of their projects?

  • Erin Levin

    This is great news! I could not agree more. As a social impact filmmaker, I'd love to learn more and have "imba means sing" be helpful in the research. Thank you for sharing!

    • Ronnie Das

      Pleasure to explore more about imba means sing, i'm interested in learning more about you. Please feel free to check out , an Eco TV show about the community!

      • Erin Levin

        Very cool Ronnie, way to go on your project too!