Documentary Cookbook

UPDATE 9.1.2009: Looking for the Documentary Cookbook article for our students at Virginia Tech we noticed that it’s been taken down from the UC Berkley website and appears to have disappeared from the internet… except in this mildly abbreviated copy/paste job.

I first read the UC Berkeley Center for New Documentary’s “Cookbook“ essay over three years ago. It’s a fairly straightforward essay that investigates, through theory and practice, the question of how one can inexpensively produce intelligent, saleable documentaries. In its subject matter, there’s nothing especially revolutionary about the Cookbook — people have been making movies cheaply for years, and people have been writing about how to do the same for nearly as long. But a couple of things make the Cookbook a keeper (aside from the fact that it’s free, of course):

First, it’s written by working filmmakers, about working filmmakers, for working filmmakers. It’s very, very readable. A damn good read as far as these things go, in fact.

Secondly, it’s written from the conviction that all personnel on any film should be paid the going professional rate for the work they do. Salaries are not reduced, deferred, or eliminated from the budget in order to “get the film made.”

This second point is critical. It doesn’t take a genius to know that if you have access to a camcorder you could theoretically shoot a feature for about $10 (the cost of two 60 minute MiniDV tapes) these days. Making a movie on the cheap and paying all parties involved is much harder. The Cookbook’s focus, then, is on helping “journeyman filmmakers” (their term) find ways to make a living while producing vital work. Good stuff.

What makes all of the Cookbook’s ideas especially seductive is the reasonable, intelligent voice of the writing, which avoids the unrealistic cheerleading (or sketchy used car salesman vibe) you sometimes find in these You-Can-Do-It essays.

Of course, the question is: Can these ideas work for anyone? The Cookbook was written in 2002, and as far as I know it has not been updated since. How have documentaries using the Cookbook’s guidelines fared, both critically and in the marketplace? An email asking about updates and further thoughts, which I sent to its authors last week in preparation for this post, hasn’t been answered. I was hoping they would address what the Cookbook spends the least time discussing: distribution. After all, the key question these days is not “How can I get a movie made?” but whether or not it will be distributed.

I’m also interested in what the Cookbook has to say to narrative filmmakers. Obviously, the issues facing the genres aren’t identical. To name just one, documentaries are marketed on their content far more than narrative films, which typically rely on the use of one or more “name” actors. Since a $100,000 budget isn’t likely to cover the salaries that name actors command, productions in that budget range are usually at a substantial disadvantage in the search for distribution. For that matter, just paying your cast SAG scale would strain a $100K budget.

It’s for this reason that the Cookbook probably has the most application to filmmakers that are working “regionally”since they typically are working with fewer resources, a smaller crew/talent pool, and in a style that’s more humanistic than spectacle-driven. Reading over the essay again tonight, I was inclined to think of filmmakers like John O’Brien, Todd Verow or Caveh Zahedi whose films blend fiction and non-fiction, actor and non-actor and, script and improvisation in rewarding ways. Soderbergh’s upcoming Bubble is another film that springs to mind.

The Cookbook’s ideas aren’t radical. Or if they are, they’re not alone in their radicalism. InDigEnt‘s production model (as just one example) is not so very different from what the Cookbook proposes. InDigEnt productions (from what I remember) are made for about $300,000, and feature name actors (Sigourney Weaver, Katie Holmes, etc.). The main difference is that talent and crew are paid minimal wages up front and deferred the rest through profit participation. But that is a big difference and, in fact, is the distinction that separates the Cookbook from other models.

One way or another the essay‘s worth a read… I’d enjoy hearing your comments on it.

3 Responses to “Documentary Cookbook”

  1. Ole Olson Says:

    http://www.neverbeenthawed.com/

    Just saw this film at local indie theater (www.moxiecinema.com) and the owner was telling me it was shot for $35K and has made ten times that amount now. He also hears from the filmmaker on a daily basis via email thanking him for showing it and soliticing feedback.

  2. Josh Boelter Says:

    It all sounds good in theory. The second point about always paying crew market rates sounds especially great in theory. But when you have no funding, where do you come up with that $100,000? Ideally, you’d pay everyone market rates, but a lot of wonderful films have been made with crews working for deferred payment. It’s not recommended, but sometimes filmmakers have no choice because they have no money. If someone wants to give me $100,000, I’ll shut up and accede the point.

    Anyone? Anyone?

    Cheers,

    Josh

  3. Peter Nicks Says:

    I’m surprised (but shouldn’t be in this era of the web) that anyone has actually seen our cookbook and is commenting on it.

    This was part of an experiment a few years back that was funded by several foundations. After 9/11 our funding dried up as various foundations re-shifted their focus. However, we are now finally getting ready to re-open and expand the documentary center with a particular emphasis on expanding the “cookbook” to include more films and models. To date we have three films that have been directed by Peter Nicks, Lourdes Portillo and Al Maysles.

    The new effort will include models not only for TV and theatrical distribution but for the internet as well. We should be up and running this summer.

    Feel free to contact me withy any questions @ pete.nicks@gmail.com

    In the meantime, good luck with your projects.

    pete