Secrets behind success docs revealed at Doc Summit

Ruth Leitman and Steve Dixon at Doc Summit

Documentary films are where the action is these days.  As features become chiefly high-concept driven comic book cartoons, the doc genre is where human stories can be told.

So the more than 100 filmmakers were told who spent two days getting a crash course on creative and business issues from Andrew Zinnes’ Doc Summit at Columbia College last weekend.  

And if they are well executed, audiences will pay attention.  Everyone seems to want to make a doc. Grant funders, festival programmers and distributors are swamped with projects.

Why is there so much attention and energy in the doc sphere? Doc Summit founder Zinnes brought in experts like walking Chicago film treasure Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin, A&E’s director of non-fiction and alternative programming Stephen Harris; Kartemquin social media strategist Tim Horsburgh, and copyright and clearance lawyer Tom Leavens of Leavens Strand, Glover and Adler to answer the question.

Bob Hercules of MPG Group talked about new ways to raise money – mainly the phenomenon of Crowdfunding. Indie director Ruth Leitman (Tony and Janina’s American Wedding) recounted how her film ultimately helped a family stay together after the mother was deported back to Poland.  

What programmers look for

A&E’s Stephen Harris Amy Shatsky, Series Manager of PBS’s Independent Lens, said she looks for “character driven docs that will appeal to diverse audiences, and for voices not normally heard on network TV.” PBS remains a top buyer of documentaries; it acquires or commissions up to 26 docs every year. 

A&E’s Harris offered his formula for any winning docu-series: It must have engaging, outsize characters who can leave a lingering impression, high stakes (short of life or death) or major obstacles, and give its viewers unique access to an unseen world.

Oh, and every storyline should resolve nicely at the end of each episode. 

Subjects’ articulation key to the story

Oscar nominated Tod Lending (Legacy) and Quinn create cinema verite style documentaries. Both said they look for people who can articulate their feelings on camera – a bar trickier to reach than it looks.

How does a filmmaker convince – or cajole – a potential subject to let a camera crew invade their life? Kartemquin’s Quinn recalled, “One day two tall guys walked into my office and said they wanted to make a film about Chicago high school basketball.” 

Tod LendingThe filmmakers started attending games and began shooting a scout who spotted a kid, he ended up being the focus of Hoop Dreams. In this case, the casting of their main subject is actually on film.

Quinn and Lending agreed on a general rule of thumb: be upfront with subjects that there is little or no money, that you will need to see them when things go well and when they don’t and that the filmmaker is the ultimate arbiter of what goes into the film.

Some of their wisest advice, though, was to remain open, because “the real structure of your movie may only emerge at the end of the project.” 

Why social media is important to successful films

Kartemquin’s Horsburgh and Shuling Yong of Media for Social Change discussed how they do social media and its importance to successful films.  If you’re just starting to create your web presence when your film is done, it’s almost too late. 

A few pointers:

  • Post on Facebook pages of groups whose members will be interested in your film.
  • Post often; clips from your film are great.
  • Don’t be afraid to have a strong opinion or point-of-view, i.e., be cheeky.
  • Pay attention to who is writing about your issue and engage them, building a relationship with that writer can lead to great, targeted press.
  • Funders are eager to support films that are embracing new media in innovative ways to build an audience.

Some distribution tips

Attorney Tom LeavensFinally distributor Abbey Rose of Facets Media says that they love Chicago documentaries. A big plus for filmmakers is Facets is so well known that Milos Stehlik can generate publicity from other reviewers.

Casey Callister of Garden Thieves Pictures added: When your film is done, “only 10% of the film is finished – you have to do marketing and promotion and be part of it!” 

He takes all kinds of documentaries but seems to favor entertainment oriented docs.

One good piece of news is Kartemquin Films offers a free lab where filmmakers can submit their work for review to see if it passes muster or must go back to the drawing board. Contact Tim Horsburgh at Kartemquin to see if your documentary qualifies.

Carey Lundin produces, directs and writes documentary style projects. Like Viva Lundin Productions on Facebook.