The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

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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.

Rob Stewart
wish i could ask some vaguely technical question so i wouldn't seem
out of place, but all i really need help with (and i REALLY DO need
help with) is an idea of where to start. What do i mean? Well, I have
an idea that i'd like to turn into a documentary, but in school kid
terms, i'm still in pre-school. In documentary terms,i can't speak
and have no teeth.

Where do i / should i go to find out how i might turn an idea that
i'm passionate about into a film? I need to know everything really -
technicalities, equipment / funding / story telling etc etc. Is a
passion for something and a creative eye enough to go on? Is formal
training totally neccersary?

All i can say is that i'm totally commited to fulfilling this project
and would love to get on with it. I'm based in London and would love
somebody to point me in the right direction.
Rob Stewart
Thanks Doug - interesting.
I've been back through the postings, but is there a definitive line
on writing treatments? The obvious point (and one discussed
previously) is that its impossible to write something other than a
synopsis as your story (assuming its based on unfolding events)
hasn't happened yet.

Can anyone share any thoughts on structuring a synopsis? AIVF has
some thoughts, but not sure how relevant these are to Doc's, perhaps
more features based. I'm currently at concept stage, haven't begun
filming, but am looking to pitch to some production companies I've
targeted here in London.

Be really grateful for this.

This place is a godsend!
Doug Block
Rob, a synopsis is basically just a summary of what the film is
about, told as compellingly as you can. Can be anywhere from one or
two paragraphs to a couple of pages. There's no real formula to it,
but you should try and find some treatments that are on file

If you're in NY, visit the AIVF office: Or try an
organization like NYFA or Film/Video Arts that has been a fiscal
sponsor for many projects and would have proposals on file. Even if
you're not in NY, there should be a local organization in your nearest
city. Doesn't even have to be a film proposal to get the idea.
Doug Block
I meant some synopsis's on file, not treatments.
Riley Morton
and I wouldn't send anyone a tape -ever.
The purpose of a tape is to allow distributors
to say we saw that - it's no good. You
need to take the trailer to a market, show
em that only, and make a deal or not. No
deal no show. The alternative is to take
the completed doc to an A list festival
and win a prize. Then let them approach
you with a deal.

Sending tapes out is the kiss of DEATH!

I'm just curious if the other 'working pros' out there agree with
this Statement of Robert's - and Robert, if you could back this up
with some examples or experience.

As someone who has made a few films, but hasn't had much
luck with broadcast, I'm still mystified by this idea. Why would a
broadcaster agree to buy a film if they haven't seen more than a


Doug Block
Riley, there's a big difference between a trailer and a sample and
sometimes the terms can get confused. A trailer is basically a minute
or two long. A sample can be anywhere from a few minutes to, well,
almost any length. I helped produce a doc called "Silverlake Life"
and the sample was almost a half-hour. And very effective, too.

If you have a contact or previous experience with a broadcaster,
sending a cassette out is perfectly fine. If you don't, then a market
like the IFP's is better. But there aren't many like them out there.
Robert Goodman

For confirmation please check a recent issue of the Independent Film
& Video Monthly - I think Dec/Jan with the Open City folks on the
cover. Jason and Joanna Kliot.
they wrote a piece about distribution that confirmed everything I've
learned and made the points i posted.
Deleted User
Dear Pros-
Is it necessary to secure "life story rights" for a documentary?
Is it ever kosher to pay a subject for appearing in a doc? The
subject of my film feels he needs some kind of compensation, beyond
publicity-- He also needs the money, which I totally understand.
Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks--
Robert Goodman
we all need money but paying for participation seems unethical to
most. What can and does happen is if the project is successful, the
participants share in the wealth, e.g., hoop dreams - the players
and parents received a share of the pie.

It's a very good idea to secure "life rights" because Small Wonders
becaming Playing with Strings with Meryl Streep and the life rights
holder benefited from Hollywood's interest after the doc was
Doug Block
Nothing wrong with the participant reaping much, if not all, of any
profits. Not that docs make profits ;-)
Rhonda Moskowitz
Robert- What are life rights? Is this something that all documentary
filmmakers need to get from their subjects?
Doug Block
Rhonda, as I understand it, life rights are rights to the life story
of the main character(s) in your doc, which are nice for you to secure
in writing in case someone wants to make a fiction film based on their
lives after seeing the documentary.

Not always easy to get. It brings up possible issues of the subjects
feeling exploited, so you should tread carefully and find out from an
entertainment lawyer how to go about it. Also, wouldn't do it unless
you feel your character and his or her situation is so compelling that
Hollywood is sure to come calling.
Rhonda Moskowitz
Thanks Doug. You are right about treading carefully. I'm just in
the beginning stages of production, so I won't deal with this until
further down the road. Speaking of an entertainment lawyer, is there
a difference between an entertainment lawyer and a producer's rep?
Also, is this the place on D-Word where I can ask specific questions
about my film-in-progress? This is my first film.
Doug Block
the lines are getting increasingly blurry with the john sloss types
out there doing both, but generally an entertainment lawyer is paid by
the hour and a producer's rep gets a percentage of any distribution
advance and, depending, other sales.
Deleted User
hi there, new to the board.
i am thinking of making a doc, i have very limited resources
in terms of money.just curious what is fair compensation for a main
character(s) in terms of percentages if the film makes any money?
Doug Block
it's your choice, jennifer. most doc makers don't give their
subjects a profit share. some give up to 50%. it all depends on your
relationship to the subjects, what they want, what you want to give,

just make it clear to them that the chances of making any profit is
excedingly small.
Rhonda Moskowitz
Thanks Doug.You are a wealth of information and very generous in
sharing it! Which would you advise for someone like me? An
entertainment lawyer or a producer's rep?
Rhonda Moskowitz
Hi Doug, Just saw the list of Sundance grant recipients and saw you
just received a development grant. Congratulations! That's
Doug Block
thanks, rhonda. i'd recommend an entertainment lawyer until you're
confident your film will start a bidding war at sundance next year.
then, hey, give me a call ;-)