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.

Deleted User
Hi Working Pros,

I'm entirely new to film/video and starting a New York Film Academy
course this summer. Although I don't expect to become a filmmaker
in 12 weeks, I hope to pick up technical skills that will allow me
to start making videos/films and be valuable to potential employers
in the industry.

A couple questions: first, I've heard positive and negative things
about NYFA, and haven't paid yet, so if you think it's not a
worthwhile place to go, I'd be interested in what you have to say
(if you'd like to respond privately so as not to make a public
statement about them, that's fine!).

Second, I'm given a choice between a "film & DV" course or
a "straight DV" course. I'm leaning toward the latter, as I'm most
interested in documentary and like the idea of learning by lots of
shooting, without fear of wasting expensive media.

Miscellaneous advice is also very welcome.

Thanks for the help!
Rouane Itani

My understanding about life stories is that it is a case by case
scenario. It is not uncommon for producers to have to pay money to
basically buy the right to the life story. Sometimes even other
members of the family will interfere and want money or say you have no
right to the story, especially if they are somewhat involved in the
story you're telling.

How much money to pay and whether to pay at all depends on situations,
stories, people. What the subject is asking for is not surprising,
perhaps only the attitude.

There are different ways of doing that, where perhaps a small amount
could be offered initially and additional amounts to be paid if the
film gets distributed and makes any money. and yes a release and a
contract would be signed. It is in a way like optioning a book.
There is a possibility that you could "option" the story for a term
[2-3 years for example], and pay a specific amount of money that gives
you exclusive right to tell her story. After that time expires, if you
secure additional funding or a distribution deal, then you can pay her
additional money.

There are many versions of this. I am not an expert, so you might
want to check elsewhere on this, but that is my general understanding.
and a lawyer could help draft a contract. Some samples are available
online and in some books and one could edit them to fit the case.

Hope this helps. This is an interesting experience and I would be very
curious to learn what happens as you keep negotiating with her.

Perhaps if she realises you're not interested in paying and that it
would mean that she would loose the chance of having her story told,
she might reconsider. Perhaps a small token might be convincing.

let me know if you find out some of what I said was completely wrong.
I am testing my knowledge here. so take it with a grain of salt. sorry
for this long post.
Adele Schmidt
Perhaps you are interested:

Are You a Documentary Filmmaker Desperate for Feedback?
Been working on your film for so long that you can’t think straight
anymore? DOCS IN PROGRESS may be for you.

At the heart of DOCS IN PROGRESS is a monthly workshop
where film professionals and the general public screen
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filmmakers get to the next stage of the editing process. The
workshops are moderated by D-Word's own Adele Schmidt
and Erica Ginsberg.

We are now soliciting submissions for the DOCS IN
PROGRESS workshop to take place on the evening of Tuesday,
July 13 at the Warehouse Theater in Washington DC.
Filmmakers do not have to be based in the area, but must be
available to attend the screening/feedback session at their own

To be considered for the July screening, you just need to send a
brief, written description via our website by May 31. See our
website for details: or contact us

If you would like to check out our next workshop, details are

When? Tuesday, June 8 at 7:30 pm
Where? Warehouse Theater (1021 Seventh Street Washington
DC - walking distance from the Gallery Place or Mt. Vernon
Square Metro stations)

THE LAST COLONY - Rebecca Kingsley
In Washington DC, the capital of the world's best known
democracy, local citizens continue to be denied political rights
that other Americans take for granted -- the right to be governed
by their ownlocally-elected leaders rather than by the U.S.
Congress. This film looks at the history of Washington DC's
unique relationship with the federal government and its impact
on the city's residents.

Women have often been at the forefront of immigrant families
and Arab-American women are no exception. This film traces
the stories of Lebanese and Syrian women immigrants to the
United States who settled with their families in cities and small
towns across the country and emerged as entrepreneurs,
artists, and activists in their new communities.
Doug Block
Adele, this goes in the Classifieds and Announcements topic, not the
Mentoring Room.
Deleted User
A friend (amateur videographer) is documenting a travel
journey and the footage was originally just going to be
for family viewing. But as things develop it looks like some
interesting stories and people have emerged. Some footage
includes informal spontaneous responses from people along
the way, and a few people have given voluntary on camera
interviews with informal verbal approval. I'm going to send my
friend some written performance release forms in case he wants
to use them. We think we "might" be able to edit the material
eventually into some educational documentary or similar program
- who know if there would ever be any profit. Where do you
draw the line about who needs to sign a performance release
eg.,people on the street spontaneous interviews, etc. For those
interviews with no release he might eventually be able to track
down some but not all of the people to get a release. What
would you advise?
Simone Fary
From digging around here I've learned that Errors and Omission insurance is a
necessity for a major broadcast or distribution outlet. (it's never been an issue for
any of the second tier festivals or broadcast outlets we've been in so far) The insurers
won't give you a quote until they've seen the finished film, which is understandable.
I've heard that if one doesn't have written releases the cost is higher than if you do.

Our project is doing a fair number of "man on the street" interviews in public places,
and the rest are of willing experts. We won't be doing what Micheal Moore
sometimes does - filming reluctant subjects in private places. I realize that a lawyer's
role is to help you protect yourself, so would probably advise us to have written
releases for all our interviews. However, I'm wondering if it wouldn't be worth paying
extra at the end (if the documentary turns out to be marketable enough) not to have
to deal with the written releases now. It's not the nuisance of the extra paperwork so
much as the chlling effect of asking somebody to sign that paper, and what it will do
to the tone of the interview and the subjects willingness to participate. We will keep
copies of the emails between interviewees/their agents where we explain the project
and who we are and their agreement to the interview.
If we do decide to do the full paperwork route, do folks have any advice on how to
present it in the least intimidating way possible? Besides having a "friendly young
female" production assistant to handle the matter which is not in the budget right
now :-)

This forum has been invaluable - thanks to all,
Deleted User
Whenever I've had subjects sign releases, I always ask them
immediately after (not before) the interview or appearance
is completed, so that it doesn't make them freezeup or run
away. In my previous post re: my friend (amateur videographer,
traveler) he felt it would spoil the moment and will probably
opt to just get their name and contact info in a friendly
interchange after the on camera stuff. That way if we
eventually produce anything that might be distributed for
profit or aired etc. he'll try to contact them and get a release
signed at that time. In the worst case scenario where we couldn't
reach someone for a needed signature and we really want to use
the footage, I guess we could wait til they see or hear about the
release and pursue us asking for pay or whatever. He's not shooting
any reluctant people or embarassing type of subject matter.
Doug Block
simone, i agree with chris2. have them sign after the interview.
explain that it's not your druthers but the broadcasters require 'em.
be low key and professional about it.

chris2, i tend to draw the line with people who speak on camera. or
if they appear prominently in footage that might cause embarrassment
later. otherwise, i don't worry too much about it. but that's just
me ;-)
Erica Ginsberg
With the "willing experts," have them sign the release before the
interview. Usually, I send it to them a few days ahead of time and
explain why we need it and to feel free to call me if they have any
questions or concerns. I ask them to bring it to the interview.
I've never had anyone question it (but I did have a "willing expert"
become "unwilling" when presented with the release AFTER the
interview; it was a big blow to both of us for feeling we had wasted
the time of the interview).

With "man on the street," I judge the circumstances of the
interview. In general, I also try to get the release signed before
the interview, but have done it after as well. I usually find that
using a dose of humor helps - "Now's when I need to ask you to sign
your life away," followed by a brief explanation of why I need the
release (similar to what Doug said) usually does the trick.
This is more of a producing question--but i'm looking everywhere for
help...I'm producing/directing/writing/editing, etc. a doc. about an
independent avant-garde record label. They want the copyrights and
so do I...what do you think is fair? can we share?
thanks if you can help,