The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

  • Public

This is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. Professional members of The D-Word will come by and answer your questions about documentary filmmaking.

Joshua Moro
Hello, we are considering producing a feature length doc that
utilizes dramatic Alaskan landscapes and wildlife as major
characters. We are novices and so don't think we can go with film
and instead think HD will be more realistic. Are there different
types of HD? What is a good example of a doc or program recently
shot on high-end HD?
Steve Holmes
I don't mean to be disrespectful, Joshua, but if you're novices, can
you afford HD shooting and editing? I haven't worked in that medium
and will defer to people who have, but I know it's high-end stuff.
So I don't seem to be just a naysayer, here's a place for info. on
HD: It's a group that promotes the
use of HD. You might get some answers there.
Joshua Moro
No worries about disrespect. We've made one 50-minute doc, shot on
location in China, Montana, Seattle on widescreen digital beta. It's
had a good amount of success at the second-tier festivals and we are
currently looking at broadcast deals. We still think we are novices,
but have an opportunity, story and some connections to make a leap
into the feature-length doc world. From what little we know about
HD, it seems a great option for capturing the details of vast
landscapes and wildlife. Maybe not for interviews or indoor footage,
though. Thanks for the info!
Michael Lieberman
Hello. I forgot my user info last fall, and am finally back.

I was/am making a documentary about an Iraq War veteran, and am in the post-
production stages. I was curious, as I was sent here last fall for a discussion, lost my login
info (and my job, moved, etc.), and am now back.

At the time, I asked a bit about grants and producers. I've been turned down by a few
grants, mostly because I suppose this is the *wrong* time to be making a film about a
veteran, given the timeliness and the vastness of films about this subject. Oh well.

I've self-financed this project from beginning to end and have spent under $1000. I have
no distribution or festival plan, and work most of my time so I am unable to edit as I'd
like. I know this sounds, well, like alot of other filmmakers doing the same thing. But I
was wondering if there might be a few pointers someone would consider offering. I have
no experience or helpful people around me regarding this, even though I know
filmmakers who have found distribution. When I ask them, I get a cold shoulder or my
question ignored, as if they're protecting their precious resources.

I've tried some local fundraising, and haven't found any organizations or individuals
willing to put any financial backing. I've offered clips and a small edit (like 20 minutes)
and nothing still. I don't hope to change minds about the war and refuse this idea of fair
and balanced reporting about the war, because this project isn't about that at all. Could it
be that, given how most feel about the war, that putting money behind a project with this
subject matter is considered fruitless, given most disagree with the war and my subject as

Sorry for the ramble, but I've about given up finding any funding at all, or a producer. At
this point should I do everything myself?
Doug Block
I mean, his Fundaising Conference on The D-Word is here: {LINK NOT IMPORTED}
Steve Holmes
Michael Lieberman wrote:

<<I've been turned down by a few grants, mostly because I suppose
this is the *wrong* time to be making a film about a veteran, given
the timeliness and the vastness of films about this subject.>>

I know of several Iraq films out there, including two by our own
James Longley and Julia Guest, but timeliness usually means it’s the
*right* time to be doing something.

Where are you in the process? I’m confused. Are you looking for
distribution of a completed film or fundraising to finish it? Those
are two different animals.

<< even though I know filmmakers who have found distribution. When I
ask them, I get a cold shoulder or my question ignored, as if
they're protecting their precious resources.>>

Strange. I can understand being coy about some funding sources,
especially if a filmmaker feels he has a special “in,” but people
around here are quite open with advice about the pros and cons of

<<I've tried some local fundraising, and haven't found any
organizations or individuals willing to put any financial backing.>>

Where are you located? Is there a filmmakers’ group nearby that has
occasional workshops on fundraising and distribution? There’s no
money in doc distribution unless you’re Michael Moore. Most doc
makers get their funding through grants or their own checkbooks.
Very tough to sell this as an investment. You need people who will
put money into it for emotional reasons. They believe in the topic.
They believe in the veteran. They believe in you. Maybe some group
such as Vietnam Veterans against the War. They might not have money,
but should be able to steer you to people who can help you with
cash, in-kind, endorsements or contacts.

Try the Foundation Center (<>). Its site allows
you to search by key word for potential funders. The group also has
placed copies of its core collection of grantwriting books in
libraries around the country. Get the nearest location through the
Ross Williams
In my documentary I want two quick shots of two seperate
celebrities. Unable to afford paying for any usage rights, I'm
wondering about how to get around this.

How I've worked it now, is I've changed photos of them very
significantly, cut them out, messed with them in photoshop and
animated them. I don't know if anybody would ever be able to
recognize them from the original photo.

I thought I'd heard somewhere that if you change a photo more than
50% than it's considered a new image. Is this true? I can't find any
evidence of this anywhere.

Has anyone dealt with this before? Or point me to a website that
would explain this?

Thank you.
Doug Block
call me dense but who do you need to pay the usage rights to, ross?
the photographer? a magazine?

and if you change the phot so much you can't recognize the celebrity,
why are you even using the photo?
Ross Williams
I believe that you would have to pay the photographer, because they
are the copyright owner.

The celebrities are still recognizable, they look more like
charactures now... but the photos aren't recognizable.
Christopher Gallant
Hi everyone,
I also have a usage question. I need to use some footage from some of
the old roman empire b+w epics - ya know "cast of thousands"kinda
ficks. There are a few really old ones from the 30's and 20's which
might be less problematic(?) I would love to write whomever owns the
rights to ask but I have a tight deadline for the finishing of this
documentary... It's for my thesis project. I would like to show the
film more widely later on, but for now I just need to show it on
campus and have a small community gallery/space showing to fulfill my
requirements. Using this footage, a minute or two, will make the
project concept work sooo much better. What's your advice?
David Seidman
I'm a longtime print journalist and non-fiction author who wants
to work in documentary film/video. I've joined IDA, I've started
pitching ideas to various production houses, and now I'm here.
What else should I do to find work in this field?

David Seidman
Robert Goodman
Find work - look elsewhere. Most of us support our habit by working in
peripheral areas. For example, shooters do everything from corporate
work to commercials to weddings. The ranks of the doc makers who earn
their entire living from making docs is slim. The Maysles earned more
from commercial work than they ever did from making docs. Michael
Moore likely earns more from book sales than doc films. Lots of people
teach. Some are independently wealthy. As several famous nonfiction
filmmakers have told me - this is a hobby not a profession.

sorry to disappoint.
Steve Holmes
Excellent advice from Robert, as usual. To find work in this field
as a producer, which is what I infer you want to do, you have to
make your own work. You'll find no ads that say, "Wanted:
Documentary makers." Almost everyone on D-Word has created labors of
love that they have funded by themselves or through grants or co-
production deals and then attempted to sell and distribute. Find an
idea or topic you can stay in love with for at least several years
and begin to pull together funding possibilities and a filmmaking
team. That's how you find work in this field.
Robert Goodman
Actually find an idea or topic that will remain interesting to people
for the next 40 years - we call them evergreens. An evergreen brings
in a trickle of money year after year. Anything less and you'll never
get a return on your investment.
Doug Block
David, hopefully you can keep doing your print journalism to fall
back on. A first doc generally takes years to make and then get out
into the world (don't forget that part).
Karen Nedivi
I just started working on a documentary as the cinematographer, that
will take place in the cloud forest in ecuador. I don't have
experiecne shooting abroad on film. They are planning on buying either
the arriS or the SR (money) and will be either sending film or
bringing film with us. We also are worried about the bext way to
develop the film, since we will be there for over 3 months, and if it
is better to do this locally though a kodak, or send back to AMerica
to a lab.
If anyone has experience with shooting abroad and have any
recommendations or warnings, it would be very helpful, or online
resources. We will contact kodak and labs to ask them what they
suggest, but I would like to find out information from people who
actually had the experience.
Julia Guest
Karen this sounds like a very expensive, high risk medium to use in
a steamy jungle. You will face problems with condensation for a
start. Have you consider going Hi Def instead? I doubt a lab in
Ecuador is going to be adequate to process the film, so you will
also not see your results till you get back.
Luke Walden
Hello all. This is my first post here, and I'm wondering where should
I go and whom should I ask to get some really experienced advice about
technical issues around post production for an indie historical doc
that combines contemporary 24P DV interviews/B-roll with a wide range
of archival footage formats and stills. I'm trying to plan and budget
for an edit that will cause minimal headaches in an online for
broadcast and also for possible film transfer. We will most likely
edit in Final Cut and online on a high end AVID at a decent post house.

I've done a lot of internet
searching and talked to several post houses in New York, but I don't
feel like I've yet gotten answers that really take into account the
possibility of mixing all that archival material with 24p footage and
what that might entail in terms of technical issues, workflow and
onscreen look. Perhaps the person I need is on this very board! But
if not, where to look?

Doug Block
as noted in the intro topic, since you clearly qualify as a
professional, luke, you'll find qualified pros to answer that question
in the professional community here: www.d-

but you could also post this question on the shooting people website:
Joe Wilson
Greetings Folks,

I'm new to this world, and am up to my neck (or is that in over my
head?) in my first big project:

As I begin fundraising, I'm wondering if there are recommendations on
which org(s) work well as a fiscal sponsor .. ? (So far, I'm looking
at International Doc Assoc., Film Arts Fdn., & Southern Doc Fund.)

Also, as I begin to grapple with approx. 70 hours of footage, I'd love
to connect with (and hopefully hire) a talented writer, experienced in
documentary work, to help me flesh out the narrative / structure for
the piece. Any suggestions on how / where to reach out / connect with
writers? (I'm particularly interested in someone with experience in
queer film and/or activism.)

Thank You for any comments or suggestions that may come my way:
Ethan Yarbrough
Hello all. I'm new to the forum, and new to documentary filmmaking.
I have a subject I'd like to pursue that will require multiple
interviews with multiple subjects. My question is just a basic one:
how do you find people willing to participate as subjects of a
documentary? Do you put an ad in the paper? Ad on craigslist or some
other online board? I want to follow a few willing subjects for some
time, but I just don't know the best way to find those subjects.

I appreciate any tips you all can offer.

Joe Scherrman
Anybody know Kevin Costner's Publisist? I would like to get an
interview with him. How about any producers or contacts at netflix?
Doug Block
Ethan, hard to answer that question without knowing your specific
topic. But often you go to experts first and either interview them or
ask who they might recommend you talk to.
Steve Holmes
And as you explore your topic, you'll soon figure out who the
experts are. Wouldn't bother with an ad, but a notice on an online
forum or newsgroup dedicated to the subject might help.
Dustin Ogdin
I hope I'm posting this in the right place. Moderators feel free
to move if you'd like.

I recently found a fiscal sponsor for my project. I want to do
fundraising on my website through paypal. The problem is that my
sponsor is not very tech-savvy. Is it ok for me to collect
donations on my website through MY paypal account, and then give
the funds (or their percentage) to my sponsor? I know the
opposite situation is the typical scenario (sponsor gets money -
takes out their share, then gives money to me.) My sponsor
doesn't have a problem with this - they trust my honesty. I'm
just curious to know if it is legal?

Thanks for any input!
Robert Goodman
It's legal just not tax-deductible. Contributions have to be made
directly to the organization. If people give you money and you give it
to the organization, then you can take the tax deduction. The pay to
line on the check determines whether it's a charitable contribution.

Why not set up the fiscal sponsor with an account?
Dustin Ogdin
Thanks for the clarification, Robert (and for the quick response).
My fiscal sponsor is not too tech savvy, but I'm definitely going
to try to get them to set up an account. Thanks!
Gary Parker
I'm new here. I posted the newbie intro and came over here. I helped
produce a documentary for a local TV station back in the 70's and
haven't been doing anything since. As I said in my intro, I have
several historical documentaries that are in pre-production. One of
the most important things that I'm looking for is a good producer so
I can get the financing for the completion of the first project. The
companies that I plan to approach for funding are not willing to
give money to someone with no track record. I have two production
companies in mind but, as usual, they say they will get back to me.
I'm not holding my breath. What kind of advice can you give me about
getting the financing started? Should I just contact the companies
with the story and hope for the best? Thanks for the suggestion for
Shooting People in a previous post. I signed up there.
Gary Parker
Doug, I watched the trailer for the 51 Birch Street doc. I'm very
impressed! You have a great one there. I would love to see it but,
the Nov. 3 showing in SF is in conflict with me being in Ohio at
that time. And all the others are too far away. I'll be working on
the history doc I'm trying to put together. I'm basically doing
everything right now. I'm writing narration, shooting script, review
of existing film and interviews, document selection and placement,
interviews with experts in the field, etc. This project will take a
few years to complete.
Doug Block
Thanks, Gary. It's scheduled for a one-week run in SF, and if enough
people show up, it can easily be held over. So don't give up yet.

As for getting fundraising started, I suggest you attend as many
markets (IFP, Sunny Side of the Doc, BritDoc), festivals and pitching
forums (Toronto, IDFA is the best) as possible and start to introduce
yourself around, familiarize yourself with the Commissioning Editors
and see how it all works.
Ken Mackenzie
Hello, by the looks of the posts here this sounds like a good place
to get some advice. I am a post production professional (with a
steady job!) that is interested in writing my first doc. I have...a
million questions but I'll keep it to two (for now!). The first: If
I am one of the main subjects within the story how much should I be
involved with in the process? (ie bringing on another writer or
interviewer). The second: Where can I get some solid advice or
resources on the form of documentary writing?
Justin Frimmer
I am in the process of doing a investment memorandum and have a
question regarding the way documentary films are sold and revenue
distributed. Is the documentary model the same as the fiction
model, in that net receipts are distributed between the distribution
company and the producers/investors? Or does the distribution
company simply buy the rights, giving them all the receipts? For
example, the film Wordplay "sold" for 1 million. Is that 1 million
the end of the revenue for the filmmakers as far whatever
domestic/international/theatrical/dvd rights were agreed upon or
will the filmmakers get a percentage of film receipts as well?
Joe Scherrman
I'm having trouble updating my personal info. When I submit it comes up
I am looking for informantion about fiscal sponsors. I have one
interested but they want to know how. Also looking for an example of a
contract between my LLC and the fiscal sponsor 501c3.
I appreciate the help.
Doug Block
Ken, there's no set rule to your first question. As for documentary
writing, most docs these days aren't pre-written or scripted. Tend to
be shoot first, "write" it in the edit room (if there's even narration
at all, that is).

Justin, it's pretty much the same regarding the kinds of sales to
distributors you refer to (the big "Wordplay" ones), that are the big
exceptions, btw. It's one in a thousand docs, at the least, that make
that kind of a sale. And in almost all cases (including Farenheit
911, I've heard), the advance is the last money the filmmakers ever
saw. And don't forget that in that advance the filmmakers are
required to pay for the deliverables, which can take a huge bite out
of it.
Robert Goodman
Never believe the "sales $$" sold for hype. I really really doubt
Wordplay sold for $1 million.
Elena Ghanotakis
I am working on a documentary following rape survivors through
a rape clinic in South Africa. I am shooting the project in HD
format. I would like to backup all of the footage on an external
hard drive. Does anyone have advice about which is the best
external hard drive on which to do this? I am looking at Western
Digital, Lacie and Seagate. Also, is it better to go with a
larger drive, i.e. 1TB or break it down into 2 500GB drives. Do
the larger drives have more problems?

Would appreciate any feedback!

Robert Goodman
Single drive 1TB units not generally available.
The cost/GB sweet spot is around 350GB. Seagate.
Are you backing up HDV, HDCAM, DVCPROHD, or HDCAM-SR footage?
All have different needs - from USB to Fiber Channel connections and
from a single drive to RAID arrays.
Robert Goodman
It's not 1TB drive - it's two drives in a box. Read the description.
I'd forgo the huge single unit and get multiple drives as you go. HDV
uses the same space as miniDV - a 350GB drive holds a lot of footage.
Cheap so you can buy two and make two backups.
Gary Ballen
This is the first Documentary I have been involved with. We are
doing a piece on the history of the Negro Baseball League and the
Negro Baseball League Museum. We are putting a business plan
together and I have to research potential income streams for the
1. aquisition from a network and cable station
2. potential sponsorship income
3. Advertising Income
4. DVD sales
5. E commerce
6. cd soundtrack income
7. Grant $
8. Military Sales
9. Infomercial Sales
10. Licensing Income
11. Ancillery $$

I would really appreciate any help I can get on this.

Thank You,
Erica Ginsberg
Is the museum sponsoring your project? How many visitors do they
get a year and what partnerships do they have with other
organizations -- both baseball and African-American orgs? I would
think your best bets are grants and DVDs sales through the museum's
existing network of contacts. Depending on how the project is
developed, you may be able to sell it to PBS or a cable channel, but
don't expect to make back any money from those sales.
Gary Ballen
The museum is not sponsoring us but they are supporting us, it will
be an authorized documentry if that means anything. We are looking
for funding right now, got any cash?


Gary Ballen
Joe Scherrman
Shaking the Money Tree, 2nd Edition: How to Get Grants and Donations for
Film and Video: Books: Morrie Warshawski by Morrie Warshawski.
Barry, I enjoyed talking with you the other day. I know you are pressed
for time so grants may be out of the question. I'm on my first doc that
needs funding. It seems to me that finding a 501C3 partner is my best
bet. Good luck and keep me in the loop. We're both doing baseball
related stuff.
Erica Ginsberg
Ha, Gary. Last place you want to raise serious funds is from other
doc filmmakers. We're all in the same sinking boat. Good luck!
Ana Da Silva

I'm new here and looking for further guidance. I want to get into
documentary film making to cover issues in children rights
(broadly). I studied Communications for both my BA and my MA and
have a day job to pay the bills. I've been reading more and more
about docs and I want to do it for a living (or try anyway).

Any ideas on where to go from here? If you ask me what I'd like to
be doing (in the field) in 10 years, I'd say producing and still
writing, which is what I'd like to do soon.

I hope this is a clear intro and I hope you guys will be able to give
me some constructive advice.

Thank you very much!