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The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

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.

Neil Gaerhard
Wed 23 Jul 2014Link

Hi all,

I've signed up to the D-Word as an unusual situation has presented itself, and hopefully some of you guys can offer some advice.

I work mainly making short online promos, commercials and corporates, but over the years have produced and directed three full length web-docs, (30-60mins).

I've been approached by an agency who have a multi-national client in a fairly controversial industry – palm oil – who are looking to produce a documentary about what they do in a developing part of the world. However, they don't want to produce an 'expensive' corporate film that no one will watch – they want to get it broadcast on TV, preferably globally.

Normally, it wouldn't be my job to tell them how to do this, but this time it is. And unfortunately, I don't really have any experience on that side of it. I just make em!

Obviously there are a few ethics and transparency issues here. There probably aren't too many mainstream broadcasters who'd be eager to snap up what is effectively corporate propaganda and put it on their channel. I've had conversations with the agency about this, and have told them of the need for honesty and transparency and independent voices within the field to fend off allegations of corporate shilling or astroturfing.

So I guess the questions I have are:

Are corporate sponsored films a complete non-starter for broadcast? Let's assume I make an honest, transparent doc, that although in 'association with GloboCorp', doesn't shy away from asking and answering the tough questions to paint an honest picture of their operations, would broadcasters be open to acquiring it?

Would a broadcaster pay for it, or would 'GloboCorp' have to pay? (Presumably this ratchets up the whole ethics issue if the company were to pay to have it shown!)

What would be the best way to approach broadcasters, pre-production with a treatment or post-production with the completed film?

I apologise if this gets anyone's back up. I'm sure some people might not be too comfortable with the idea of the D-Word discussing corporate propaganda. That said, I wouldn't touch this project if I was being asked to produce a film about how they don't go tearing down the rainforest if they're tearing down acres of rainforest.

As I've had it pitched to me, there are a lot of misconceptions on the subject and a lot of untold stories, and the company is (I'm told) looking to present their work in a way that let's people make up their own minds.

Ok, so I've probably gone on long enough. Over to you guys and thanks in advance for any advice!

Julia Guest
Wed 23 Jul 2014Link

Interesting situation Neil.

I heard someone complaining recently that Liberia's new Government had agreed to oil palm plantations.. Not just any government, but one that now has a very high ethical bar, compared to the past. Already there are stories of corruption related to the contract and people losing their land. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

It made me wonder what is the other side of the story.. undoubtedly jobs for Liberia.. but how many and at what cost, what protection of the environment will there really be.. and so on.

I doubt a broadcaster would fund something that was effectively directed by the company or accept something they had funded.

You have access.. that counts for something. It should be about how effectively you manage that access to create a transparent film. Involving a broadcaster during production would allow them to push all the really awkward questions forward.

Vivian Kleiman
Wed 23 Jul 2014Link

In reply to Neil Gaerhard's post on Wed 23 Jul 2014 :


First of all, congrats on all of your thoughtful questions. It's clear that your approach to filmmaking must be equally methodical and inquiring into the nuance of choices made.

As a veteran Producer/Exec Producer of many docs broadcast on national PBS, I can say that there's the rule, and then there's the implementation of the rule. They aren't always the same.

It's clear that you understand the principle of self-aggrandizement. And it seems that the company is proposing a film that has broader significance than that. But it can be a grey zone. I recall once when my local PBS station launched production of a documentary profiling the patriarch of the Gallo family. IIRC, it was paid for by a donation from Gallo Wines to the wine industry's professional association here in the Bay Area, and then re-granted to KQED. A huge uproar ensued and ultimately, KQED aborted the project and funds returned.

Other broadcasters might be more flexible in their interpretation.

I might suggest that you contact the legal depts of the potential broadcasters and see how they respond to the query. My experience with PBS is that the legal dept is available for such conversations.

Neil Gaerhard
Thu 24 Jul 2014Link

Hi Julia and Vivian,

Thanks so much for your thoughts and advice.

I'm thinking that an approach that may make it more attractive to broadcasters while also helping with the transparency issue could be to have the doc fronted by a high profile presenter from an environmental background. Someone deeply skeptical of palm oil and not afraid to scrutinise the company's claims. If the company genuinely feels it has the evidence to back its position up, they should have the cojones to welcome that... right? ;-)

Thanks again, I'll let you know how it goes!

Julia Guest
Thu 24 Jul 2014Link

Thanks Neil, it does sound very interesting and worthwhile if you can get it right. Love to hear more and email if you'd like more direct input.

Katrina Sarson
Fri 1 Aug 2014Link

Hi all
I'm in pre-production on a documentary that will involve videotaping people performing material that is copyright protected – specifically, excerpts from plays. I'm trying to figure out if I need to get licenses for the use of the plays from the copyright holder, or if that's the responsibility of the people who are creating the performances (because I'm just documenting an existing performance). Any thoughts/ideas/places to look would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Summers Henderson
Tue 12 Aug 2014Link

My thought is that you are responsible for licensing this copyrighted material, even if you're not the one saying the words aloud. Because you're using the playwright's work as part of your documentary. If anything, the copyright holders are more likely to go after you than after the performers. Because let's say they're in a basement theater, performing for a few dozen people. But you're making a film that can be reproduced and distributed and seen by millions (ideally!) so you're even more of a threat to the copyright holders.

The only way you could legitimately get away with using others' copyrighted material is under the doctrine of "fair use," which you can read more about here:

But in my opinion, based on the limited information in your post, you don't have a fair use case. Fair use is for situations (to give one example of one use; there are others) like you're following somebody throughout their day and they walk past a TV showing a TV show. It's fair use to show that in your doc without licensing the TV show. But if they sit down to watch TV and you focus on the TV and let the camera roll for 5 minutes... then you're not gonna be able to make a compelling case for fair use. Because at that point you're just using somebody else's work. Same thing for if someone gets up in front of your camera and performs a long monologue from a Broadway show. It doesn't matter that they were gonna do it even if you weren't there. The point is that you ARE there and you are capturing that work and when you show it on the Internet somebody may say, "Wow, that was great, glad I saw it, now I don't have to pay to go see the show on Broadway." That's gonna piss off Broadway.

Thomas Haffey
Wed 20 Aug 2014Link

Please forgive me if this is not the correct forum for this issue.

I just finished filming a documentary about a motorcycle rally, including concerts. One band was three teenage sisters (who were awesome BTW). I got performance footage, autograph signing, and on-camera interview with them. Mom signed a release for them. I wish I'd stopped there. I then interviewed dad about the band, but when it came to the release he wanted to further review. Got an email saying he couldn't sign because they need to be "unencumbered" for potential TV deal in the works.

Where do I go from here legally? Mom as parent and legal guardian gave the ok, so can I use the girls' footage? I obviously can't use dad's footage, but does his refusal force me to cut all the girls? Am I asking for trouble for my project, or potentially harming their deal if I move forward? Can I use the performance footage as "public fair use" but not their personal interview?

I am in Mississippi, United States, by the way. Thanks for any help. I hate legal gray areas. lol.


Doug Block
Thu 21 Aug 2014Link

The Legal Topic is actually the right one for this, Thomas. Mentoring Room is for "enthusiasts" who don't qualify for pro status.

Gail Mallimson
Wed 8 Oct 2014Link

I am in the finishing stages of my documentary, The Edge of the Wild ( The film tells the story of a 30-year land-use battle over endangered butterflies living on private land in the small town of Brisbane, CA. This local battle resulted in the weakening of the Endangered Species Act 30 years ago that has had detrimental effects on wildlife management across the country. The film follows the fate of the butterflies and is told through the eyes of a resident of the small town who becomes determined to save the butterflies before they die out.

I am starting to plan an outreach program for the film that centers on current attacks on the Endangered Species Act in congress and highlights the species die-off crisis. I have identified potential non-profits that are likely partners in this, but I've never created an outreach program and I don't really know where to start. For instance, when I talk to these people what do I ask?

I do need to do a crowd-funding push to raise the last $10,000 to $20,000 to complete the film, and would like to establish these partnerships before I do this, so that I can access their membership to hit up for the crowd-funding. I am wondering if anyone on the list has created partnerships/sponsorships with enviro groups for their films and what their experiences have been.
Gail Mallimson

John Burgan
Wed 8 Oct 2014Link

Gail, the Mentoring Room is for first-time filmmakers – you should repost this in the Professional Topic Crowdfunding

Natasha Mottola
Thu 23 Oct 2014Link

Can a professional on the D-word need mentoring?

I have been an assistant editor in feature length documentary for the past six years.
The last two films I worked on, I was encouraged by the editor to cut scenes and currently, I am employed as an associate editor on another feature length verité documentary. I am editing a lot and involved in creative discussions, but ultimately, all of my creative work can be overwritten by the editor.

All this is to say is that I still, six years into this all, wonder if I will ever be an editor.
As my d-word profile states: "I am at a point in my career where I have been waiting for a project to call my own, one in which I can devote myself to completely, especially one with meaningful subject matter. I can say with out doubt that I am an excellent editor ready to challenge myself."

I know that there are lots of folks out there who have never assisted, but to those who have, how did you make it out?
One editor friend said to me, "if you want to stop being an assistant, stop taking assistant editor jobs." Easier said than done.

Does anyone have any advice or helpful suggestions?
I'd love to buy you a coffee and chat.

Doug Block
Thu 23 Oct 2014Link

Natasha, you may need mentoring but being as this topic is in the public area not that many professional members will wind up reading it. It's a great question you ask, so though we don't encourage double posting I suggest you cut and past it to the Editing and Post-Production topic in the Professional area.

Natasha Mottola
Thu 23 Oct 2014Link

Thanks Doug. I'll take advantage of the double post pass.

Jesse Yost
Wed 29 Oct 2014Link

Looking for advice on media licensing... the short version is I'm working w/ MTV regarding some footage that would be fairly key to our project, which is a docu about a local, now defunct, music club that catered to local/regional acts as well as big name national acts.

Our guess is that our project will make the film fest route but probably not much more than that unless something crazy happens.

Anyhoo – I've never dealt with licensing clips so I could really use some straight forward explanations of license types, etc. I realize this is pretty standard biz info but I've just never dealt with it and the explanations I've found thus far require being somewhat familiar w/ legalese... which I'm not.

Thanks in advance!

Jill Morley
Wed 29 Oct 2014Link

Hi Jesse,

You will need to contact the owner of the footage and ask them for a festival license. You can try to bargain with them, etc and sometimes you can get lower prices.

Later, if you get worldwide distribution, you will need to go back to them and ask for worldwide rights in perpetuity and pay those prices. We just went through this with ESPN and Madison Square Garden. You will need these to get E and O insurance as well as a distributor. Otherwise, just secure the festival license. Good luck!

Jesse Yost
Wed 29 Oct 2014Link

Thanks Jill!
I've been in touch w/ the footage holder and we're just working out details. In addition to the Primary Display, to which we answered Film Fests, they are asking us for:
Usage (use and timing)
Rights (Territory, term, and media)

Are these things typical?
Since answers from the media holder have long delays I'm trying to submit the correct info all at once and am trying not to send them "What do you mean by X" emails. I just need to know what it is, exactly, they want for answers.

Tom Dziedzic
Thu 30 Oct 2014Link

In reply to Jesse Yost's post on Wed 29 Oct 2014 :

Usually you can get "off-line" archival footage with a watermark or time code for a research fee. Don't buy any festival rights until your film is finished and the edit locked (and maybe until your film actually gets into a festival). Then negotiate for only the footage you actually use in the edit. Best case is getting "all media, worldwide in perpetuity" if you get to that point as Jill pointed out. Good luck with your project.

Edited Thu 30 Oct 2014 by Tom Dziedzic

Andy Schocken
Thu 30 Oct 2014Link

And keep in mind, if there's music in the clip, you'll most likely need to clear that separately.

Judy Van Wyk
Fri 31 Oct 2014Link

I'm working on a profile of an Indian-American couple and am looking for royalty-free music that's reflects the music of India but also works under narration. I'm finding sitar doesn't work well and is hard to edit. Much of Indian music is lush and streaming w/out clear phrases. I need to find something to use for titles, transitions, and narration and that isn't "over the top" like most movie scores.

Edward Goldberg
Mon 3 Nov 2014Link

Dear Friends,

My company, Catalysta, began publishing documentaries, interviews and roundtables on in September. We would like to distribute the work to broadcasters' websites in the US, Europe and other English-speaking countries.

Would you recommend connecting with a sales agent? If so, agent contact info would be most appreciated.

All related suggestions are welcome.

Thank you!


Vivian Kleiman
Mon 3 Nov 2014Link

In reply to Jesse Yost's post on Wed 29 Oct 2014 :

You've received great feedback. I just want to make a footnote to 1 comment: The notion and going back and asking for more rights later on can be very unpleasant. Instead I suggest that you agree on a fee for all possible territories and usage at once, but only pay for them as the need presents itself.

Mark Rinehart
Wed 12 Nov 2014Link

Re:  Exclusivity legal forms, etc.

Curious if anyone knows where I can find an exclusivity agreement form?  Just need some basic legal "boilerplate" language that states that a subject agrees not to appear any other documentaries, etc...

I am also providing a camera to an individual who will be filming himself.   I need a legal form stating that the footage is owned by producer and can not be used for any other purpose besides the film, etc.   Anyone know of a website where I can download basic legal forms of this nature?  Much appreciated!  


John Burgan
Thu 13 Nov 2014Link

Mark - welcome to The D-Word. The Mentoring Room is just for beginners, so as a Pro member you should re-post this in the Legal Corner

Also, no need to "sign" your name as it appears above each post. Maybe also add a photo to your profile?

dragos ionescu
3 days agoLink

hello everyone,

i am dragos,a hitchhiker traveler living in amsterdam for the moment who came with the idea to make a one year trip from northern europe to balkans via middle east and till the caucas.

i came here as i wish to document my trip(i see it as a pity that so many adventurous trips people have/had are not properly documented,lack of photos,movies etc and also annoying when u see pretty good shorts about not that wow short hitchin trips like from berlin to prague etc..)

i am totally new to this thingy and want to learn more what i have to know and do about my project.i plan to start my trip in a year and a half,in like may 2016.

now since i am in the mentoring room,i have to ask a couple questions:

1.since it is most likely that noone will travel with me for the whole period,i am prepared to film everything myself,so i was having in mind of maybe some hd camera glasses for those sweet moments when hitchhiking and meeting people etc,and also i was thinking of a gopro cam.any advices regarding this?i don't really have a big budget and i am aware that i need to spend some money on some external hard drives,cards,batteries etc besides the cameras themselves.

2.any good resources on this kind of documentary i want to make,or just something essential for a total begginner like myself?

thanks in advance,


ps. important is to know that this project is meant to be as no budget as possible as that is my traveling style and the project is just to document my experiece.

i will also add a photo to my profile but i cannot from the computer i am using now at the library :P

peace out


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