Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Int’l Documentary Challenge

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

Doug Whyte of KDHX (St. Louis Community Media) emailed me recently about a new “timed-filmmaking” competition called the International Documentary Challenge (IDC), which will be happening this March 22-27, 2006.

Much like the 48 Hour Film Project, in the Doc Challenge teams from around the world have just over 5 days to make a short non-fiction film (4-8 min.).

The organizations involved seem first-rate: the competition has been developed in cooperation with the International Documentary Association, the Documentary Organisation of Canada and the creators of the 48 Hour Film Project, and the winning films will screen this summer at a theatrical event presented in association with Silverdocs.

The competition costs $125 to enter ($110 if you register by Feb. 28). I asked Doug what the entry fee goes towards since it’s more than the $35-$50 you usually see with film festivals. He replied:

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the email. As far as the entry fee, the amount is based on several things:

1. We only accept a limited number of teams (as opposed to festivals that will accept hundreds if not thousands of entries.)

2. The fees take care of many expenses: administration, marketing, judging, prizes, etc. Even with the $110-125 fee, we will still not make a profit.

3. We actually pursue distribution for the films – theatrical and TV and will also release a DVD. We are a non-profit organization and by no means make money on any of these deals. (If the winning films happen to earn a profit, we share that with the filmmakers.)

That said, I would like to see the fees become more affordable for the filmmakers. But that won’t happen unless we are able to get a sponsor who can help cover our expenses for running an event like this.

I hope that explains it. If you have any more questions, I’d be happy to try and answer them.

Thanks,
Doug Whyte
IDC Producer

So there it is. Good luck to anyone that enters and good luck, also, to Doug and his crew in their launch of this competition.

Frederick Wiseman: Pro and Con

Tuesday, February 7th, 2006

This year’s honoree of the ASC’s Award of Distinction is Frederick Wiseman. American Cinematographer‘s appreciation of his career is worth a read, and there are some great photos of Wiseman editing on his Steenbeck 6-plate. Wiseman’s a great filmmaker — probably one of the five or six greatest living American filmmakers. If you’ve not seen High School or Titicut Follies, add it to your to-see list.

Of course, if you haven’t seen any Wiseman films it’s not like I can blame you. Unless you’re friends with bootleggers, your best bet for seeing one is to go to a university library, which is about the only kind of institution that could remotely afford one of his movies: $400 per title. (That’s $400 per VHS tape, folks.)

This is the way Wiseman wants it, apparently. Here’s a quote from his company’s website:

I am a student/filmmaker/individual without the resources to rent or purchase a film. How can I see a particular Wiseman film?
We have the Wiseman films on deposit at several public libraries and archives throughout the United States. One of the largest collections is at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City and Los Angeles. Patrons may not remove the films from the premises but there are video booths available to view films and television programs free of charge. If New York and Los Angeles are not convenient please call us and we will let you know if there is a library in your area with any of the films.

Wiseman is, of course, entitled to do whatever he wants with his work, but it seems at least a little hypocritical that the people he’s trained his camera on (the poor, those living in remote areas, etc.) are those that have the least access to his movies. I guess I expect more from a filmmaker who’s otherwise so sharp at seeing the relationships between people and institutions.

Oscar-inspired miscellanea

Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

In case you didn’t hear, the Oscar nominations were announced today. I always like nosing around the documentary and short film category nominations after they’re posted. They’re usually the only films that haven’t been over-hyped.

My award for “Best [and only] nominated film that I’ve never heard of that sounds interesting, which I will now seek out because of its Oscar nomination” goes to…

(more…)

Documentary Cookbook

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

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.

Maysles Retrospective in NYC

Friday, December 2nd, 2005

I’m preparing a post relating documentary production methods to narrative cinema and, browsing around, just discovered that MoMA is having a retrospective of the Maysles’ films the entire month of December.