Continuing from last week’s interview with Olly Lambert, filmwatch.org will be delivering weekly Top Tips from a variety of people in the film industry, either speaking directly to filmwatch.org or as a summary of notes gathered from events and masterclasses.
One World Media ran the above event at London College of Communication on 3rd February as part of the International Student Film Festival.
Here are some top tips from the two speakers on that day.
Dominique Young (Al Jazeera English) – Dominique is a Senior Producer at Al Jazeera English, commissioning documentaries from Africa and the Middle East, for broadcast in the channel’s flagship documentary strand “Witness”, which showcases the work of established and emerging talent from around the world. (Bio from oneworldmedia.org)
- Watch the channel and especially the slot in which you propose to show your doc: is the subject appropriate? Witness is about characters and individual stories, not issues; ie a doc about drought wouldn’t be appropriate, whereas a doc about a family’s life during drought would be. Also consider that a pitch announcing “my 19 minute doc” will be rejected if there is no 19 minute slot (Witness has a 30 minute slot).
- Can the viewer recognise themselves in the persons depicted? The audience must be able to relate. It also takes years of experience to recognise a good, strong character and this is, for best or worst, a matter of trial and error.
- Has the story been told before? If it has, you must be presenting it under a new angle.
- When pitching by email: a commissioner doesn’t have the time to read 20 pages. When composing your pitch, think of a TV listing which draws in its audience in no more than two sentences. Include an attachment of your detailed proposal (one A4 page max).
- When contacting a commissioner, you must know and be able to explain how you’re going to film.
- If you’re a first time director, you’re unlikely to get a budget from a commissioner. It’s judicious to approach a production company that produce the same type of film and are more likely to take you on board; this also ensures that you’re not personally legally responsible for the budget.
- A commissioner must trust your experience and background, and that you can deliver on time. Young herself worked as a researcher for years before commissioning.
- When choosing whom to approach, consider that TV docs and festival docs are very different material: a festival audience wants to be there watching your doc; a TV audience might just be channel surfing. Global warming as a subject, for example, is appropriate for both, but will be treated in a different manner: for a festival doc, you might use a nice 5 minute opening shot (we don’t have to know what the subject is straight away); as a TV doc, if the intro lasts 5 minutes the audience will be likely to have switched channels.
Brian Woods (True Vision Productions) – Brian is a filmmaker who co-founded the highly regarded production company True Vision. He has directed and worked on a string of award winning films, covering human rights stories from around the world. His films have won numerous Baftas, RTS Awards, Emmies and One World Media Awards. (Bio from oneworldmedia.org).
- Know where to look for stories. When Robb Leech’s brother converted to Islam, it was “a nightmare for him, a dream come true as a filmmaker” (My Brother the Islamist – BBC3, 2011). Another example is of a filmmaker who had kept in contact with a hospital’s press officer and heard that the first stalker clinic was being opened in the UK: she mentioned the idea and was commissioned straight away to develop it into a film.
- Know who to pitch your stories to. There are several platforms for emerging talent, such as the 2008 BBC3 documentary scheme Fresh or Channel 4’s First Cut (Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Aysha Rafael has recently commissioned 12 new films under the scheme).
- Keep up with current budgeting. Dispatches‘ 60 minute slot has been reduced by 30 minutes due to budget cuts. The average budget for Al Jazeera’s Wtness is between £23,000 and £30,000 for a 30 minute slot (this affords about 10 days of editing max). Commissioners don’t generally ask for a cost report, though some do! Bear in mind here is little money or no money when it comes to international development: rather approach NGOs.
- Experience is key. Commissions are often based on the track-record of filmmakers. Commissioners will also more often select ideas from people they’ve worked with.
- If you have little or no experience, there are three things you must have: a great idea, a great character, and actual access to that character (evidence of access is generally necessary, such as video footage of that person). A 3 minute taster should be all it takes to convince a commissioner: if a character requires a 45 minute taster introduction, they’re probably not such a great documentary character.
- Persistence is key: even as a filmmaker of renown, it sometimes takes years for a good story to make the screen. Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children (BBC4, 2010) was first pitched in 2004 and eventually commissioned in 2009. It went on to win an AIB Award and a Peabody Award.
- Once you do have the attention of several commissioners, a good way to urge competition between them is to present a “letter of interest” from a different broadcaster. Make them fight for the rights to broadcast your film.
Next week: Notes from Sorious Somura’s masterclass