CREATING WINNING DOCUMENTARY FILMS
By Joseph & Sandra Consentino & Elizabeth English
First, select an interesting subject for your documentary film! A subject that is of interest to a wide-ranging audience, and will be the kind of project many different types of film festivals will select for screening. A unique story, well-told is what gets selected and wins.
Write or have a screenwriter write a script for your film! Yes, documentary films need a script, a blueprint, a plan, an outline to follow during all phases of the production, from location scouting, interviews (if any), the shoot, the edit and adding the music background.
Avoid “talking heads”! Film is a visual medium, and must always be cinematic. Use voice-overs, instead. Dialog or interviews work best with perhaps a 10 to 30-second shot of the speaker, then segue to a visual to show what the speaker or narrator is saying or describing. As they say in Hollywood, “Show; don’t tell”.
Here’s an example of a winning short documentary film screened at the first Moondance in 2000: the “Beyond Words” short doc, directed by Linda Phelan McCoy and Andre Alosine, is a cinematic and visual expression, without words, of the truth, sorrow, hope, emotions and thoughts of breast cancer patients. As I remember it, from 13 years ago: it shows a dozen women & kids arriving at a barn on a lovely Rhode Island farm. They go in, take off their shirts & bras (if wearing one), and help each other put wet white plaster over the front tops of their bodies.
No introductions, no explanations, no captions, no dialog or talking heads, other than vague soft chattering in the background. Some women have already had a mastectomy, one needs second one, all will be having one. Some women who will lose a breast cut a hole in the cast where it will be removed. They let the plaster dry, then peel it off, everyone helping each other, kids included. By now, the film audience is starting to understand. Next, they all paint or draw something on the dry body casts. They paint rainbows, birds, red hearts, write poems, & etc. on the casts, then…this is the kicker, everyone carries the painted body casts outside and hangs them on the clothesline to dry, and stand back, smiling.
The camera now sees only the red barn, blue sky, green grass, the music rises, and we see these beautiful, sad, hopeful body casts waving in the breeze. Beyond words. Touching, heartfelt, passionate and real. The film evokes much emotion. See why it won?! The director got a standing ovation for 5 minutes, and half the audience had tears streaming down their faces. People started giving her money to continue her work with this marvelous program in RI.
Finding Your Subject:
Telling a Story:
Sound & music:
Some other good examples of winning documentaries:
William Erwin, artist, www.william-erwin-artist.com
PEACEABLE KINGDOM: THE JOURNEY HOME: feature documentary, Directed by: Jenny Stein (US). Combining the gripping testimony of farmers breaking a long-held code of silence, and with rare footage demonstrating the rich emotional lives of farm animals, this new documentary from the award-winning filmmakers of THE WITNESS invites viewers on an epic journey of awakening conscience. The farmers’ touching personal experiences with individual animals challenge what they’ve been taught since childhood, forcing them to acknowledge that these beings have greater mental and emotional depth than they were ever led to believe. A Moondance 2009 premiere & festival winner!
FAMILY VALUES: THE MOB AND THE MOVIES, feature documentary, directed by Joseph Consentino & Sandra Consentino (US). This film asks the question: who influenced who? Did the mob influence the movies, or did the movies influence the mob? They break arms, shoot off kneecaps. They leave the gun and take the cannoli. Sometimes they whack people. Stars from “The Sopranos” and other Mafia TV shows and films describe the broader issues of Italian-American identity and Hollywood’s fascination with the Mafia way of life.
BLUE VELVET IN THE SINAI, feature documentary, 52 minutes, directed by Gulrukh Kahn (UK).This lovely film is set in the exotic Sinai desert, Egypt. It focuses on the remarkable relationship between a wild female dolphin in the Red Sea, named Olin, and a hearing- and speech-impaired Bedouin fisherman. Olin gives birth to a male calf, who develops a remarkable bond with a Bedouin child, and the family of dolphins bring healing and prosperity to the village. Each part of this story relates to larger issues such as captivity, oceanic pollution and over-fishing. Ric O’Barry (Oscar-winner for THE COVE) relates stories and evidence relating to captivity and solutions for it, as well as dolphin healing with sonar and giving birth amongst dolphins.
ONE DEGREE MATTERS, feature documentary, directed by Eskil Hardt (Denmark). Now, even one degree matters! Travel to the Arctic to witness climate change at first hand, in this visually stunning travelog. An insider’s view on immediate and realistic solutions for tackling climate change. “It could be called An Inconvenient Truth, Part 2” – The New York Times film review
MISSION OF MERMAIDS, short documentary, directed by Susan Cohn Rockefeller, 15 minutes, (USA). Mission of Mermaids is about the current state of the ocean. Ms. Rockefeller takes a radically personal approach in the film, based on her deep love and concern for the seas. She invokes a mythical and spiritual connection, using the metaphor of the mermaid, as well as describing dire facts: ocean acidification, over-fishing, and pollution. This personal approach offers a powerful way to open a dialogue about changing the human relationship to the sea, knitting our past reverence for the natural world with our understanding of the urgent need to change course.
UNDER OUR SKIN, feature documentary film,directed by: Andy Abrahams Wilson (USA). It’s bigger than AIDS, West Nile Virus, and Avian Flu, combined, yet most physicians don’t recognize it or are afraid to report it. Insurance companies pay experts to say it’s all in your head. And the mainstream medical establishment won’t want you to see this film. Each year tens of thousands go undiagnosed or mis-diagnosed with such conditions as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and even autism, MS and Alzheimer’s. The shocking story of Lyme disease, what may be the fastest-growing infectious disease in the nation, and a hidden epidemic destroying untold numbers of lives.
- The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: A Guerilla Guide, by Genevieve Joliffe & Andrew Zinnes (www.amazon.com)
- Documentary Storytelling: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films, by Sheila Curran Bernard (www.amazon.com)
- Filmmaking for Change: Make Films That Transform The World, by Jon Fitzgerald (www.mwp.com)
- When The Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story, by Ralph Rosenblum & Robert Karen (www.amazon.com)
ELIZABETH ENGLISH, founder, executive director & artistic director: Moondance International Film Festival, award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, playwright, editor, producer
by Elizabeth English
OK, what is a screenplay? A screenplay is an instrument or blueprint by which words are transformed, by a collaborative effort, into images and sound in film.
What is the most important part of a screenplay? According to William Goldman, it’s the first fifteen minutes, and/or the first fifteen pages. Screenplays should snap, crackle, and pop on page one! Start with the story in motion, and that scene should foreshadow the story and the ending. And the 2ND most important part of a movie is the last fifteen minutes, as noted by the late actor, Paul Newman.
First, write a high-concept logline, telling the story concept in no more than two sentences or 25 words. Next, write a one-page synopsis, which is a SELLING tool, not only a TELLING tool.
You may also want to write a treatment, three to ten pages, double-spaced, present tense, telling each and every scene, little or no dialog. Whose story is it? What happens? Some studios also want a step outline, which describes each and every scene, one line each scene.
You may also want to write up a character list, with lead roles, supporting roles, speaking/action parts listed. Maybe even a list of Dream Team actors & director.
SCREENPLAY STORY COMPONENTS:
- Most important element? Structure! Act I, II, III. Beginning, middle, end.
- Protagonist, bigger than life, someone with whom the audience can identify.
- Conflict (vital, early on), well-defined.
- Protagonist changes by end of Act I.
- Antagonist(s) should be equal to or greater than protagonist.
- Focus of story, start story just before most interesting part.
SCREENPLAY STORY STRUCTURE:
ACT I: who is protagonist and what is his/her story? Set up dilemma for protagonist. Introduce characters.
End of Act I, most conflict, protagonist is ready to change to new direction.
ACT II: This is where the real story begins, and is the longest part of your screenplay. “A story is built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality.” (From Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting”)
Screenwriters sometimes have a lot of trouble with Act II. It can seem monotonous, episodic, or aimless. This may be because they’ve conceived of it as a series of obstacles to the hero’s final goal, rather than as a dynamic series of events leading up to and trailing away from the central moment of death and rebirth. (Chris Vogler, “The Writer’s Journey”)
End of Act II. Crisis at high point, realization has set in for protagonist, confrontation with antagonist coming up, moment of truth about to occur, movie moment happens.
ACT III, no more than fifteen minutes long, resolving all conflicts, yada, yada, yada. What’s the hardest part of the script to write?
The ending. The climax usually happens about one to five pages from the end of the script, followed by a short resolution that ties up all loose ends. The big finish, the problem is resolved, the question is answered, the tension lets up, and we know everything will be all right!
Using a standard Hollywood-required screenplay format (such as Final Draft) will help get the screenplay read. 12-point Courier font is a necessity. Two solid brass brads, only in the top bottom holes, in white, three-hole-punch paper. 90-120 or 130 pages.
Title is important, although not always. I mean they made a film titled “Claire’s Knee”, didn’t they?
Other things screenwriters need to know:
THE FIVE PHASES OF FILM PRODUCTION:
1: Development, from script to financing, to production package & greenlight, can take up to three years for a studio film Maybe even five to seven years. OK, let’s talk about “development hell”, OK? Three words: money, money, money…and packaging. Don’t forget packaging: getting a screenplay, attaching stars, a director, producer, editor, distributor.
What kinds of movies will the typical big-studio exec greenlight? Formula movies, targeting their main audience: 14-to-28-year-old males. “Popcorn movies”. Hot package deals, with major stars, and/or an A-list director/producer.
Where big-studio execs and producers get their material:
- Adaptations of best sellers
- re-working of old films
- copy-cat films,
- TV spin-offs,
- comic books
- foreign re-makes.
Why? Zeitgeist (popular trending subjects). Audience recognition.
What? No original work? Not usually. Why? To minimize their financial risk!
2: Pre-production, which is the most critical part of making a film. Pre-production takes up to four months, and involves location scouting, story boards, production boards, script re-writes, production schedules, getting permits, setting the budget, finding the right director, producer, editor, production designer, art director, cinematographer, director of photography, costume designer and screenwriter all sitting down together and making sure they all have the same vision for the film. Rewrites and more rewrites. Getting a film crew together, contracting distribution, insurance bonds, completion bonds, hiring a caterer. Renting sound stages and equipment. Casting the parts. Rehearsals. Everything but shooting the film and editing it.
3. Shooting phase, takes ten to twelve weeks, if you’re lucky. This is just one of the creative phases in making a movie.
4. Post-Production can take up to six months. OK, what happens in post? Post is where many, many people try to fix the holes in your script, and try to make a film out of the director’s coverage (filmed footage). Post-production phase: Editing, sound, Foley, dubbing, special effects, background ambiance, music, lab work, color, title, trailers, ads…etc. The most pressured, most expensive and most complex part of film-making.
What can go wrong in post? Everything. Not enough coverage, too much coverage, not enough usable coverage, artistic differences, money problems, bad performances from actors…you name it.
5. Distribution. You must find a distributor for the film, or nobody but you and your friends and family will ever see it, and you’ll be broke.
PITCHING YOUR SCREENPLAY:
And now, for the moment of truth. Pitching! You’ve gotta pitch this baby to the Big Suits! You’ve gotta grab ‘em by the throat and tell the story, tell them why they should produce this film, convince them to love it, hope they’ll pay attention, convince them your story will make them rich & famous, and give you money, but you’ve got to be willing to change everything, re-write, no matter how much it hurts! Learn to say this phrase: “What kind of ending did you want, sir or ma’am?”
And while you’re sweating out the pitch session, what are they thinking about? Let me spell it out for you: B. U. D. G. E. T….the film’s production budget. A screenwriter needs to be aware of, and sensitive to, film production costs. You sit at your little computer and calmly write: “EXT. VIET NAM – 1967 – OLD BUS – NIGHT”. Action: “The old bus rattles and bumps along the dirt road, and is full of families and children and pigs and chickens. Military jets fly overhead and bomb the road. Explosions are everywhere. The bus driver swerves into a ditch trying to avoid bomb craters in the road.”
Do you have any idea how much that little one-minute scene costs? Salaries and perks for your stars, director & producer. Vehicles, airplanes, stunt men & women, location scouts, permits, transportation for talent, cast & crew to Viet Nam (or Florida, even), cinematographer, extra hazard insurance, pig & chicken trainers & wranglers, special effects, explosives experts, sound effects, Steadicam operator, SAG requirements, greensman/woman, costume designers and wardrobe assistants, makeup, hair stylists, script supervisor, drivers, continuity overseer, stills photographer, special permissions, translators, crowd control, tow-truck drivers, craft services, ambulance & EMTs, parking permits, shooting permits, electricity, weather reports, fire department, what else? Honey wagons (portable toilets)! Last-minute rewrites of the screenplay.
And we haven’t even started shooting yet! We still have casting, production office and staff, lighting set up, actors and extras salaries and perks, housing trailers for stars, camera set up, rehearsals to pay for and accomplish…all that stuff. Next time, after watching a film, stay and read all the below-the-line credits to get a better idea of all the folks involved, and who all need to be paid. And your little one-minute scene, shot out of sequence, of course, takes at least three days to shoot, needs several re-takes, costs many, many dollars, and that doesn’t even include post!
MAKING A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE:
See all those people out there? All that equipment? Each and every one of them cost money. You wrote a screenplay, didn’t you? It got the greenlight. We’re making a movie here. OK? Quiet on the set! Rolling!
Director, assistant directors or ADs, Cinematographer and/or DP, focus-pullers, gaffers, best boy, key grips, script supervisor, body doubles, sound and light techs, still photographer, videographers, body-doubles, actors’ assistants, and actors!
Production assistants or PAs, studio execs, animal wranglers, props, art director, production designer, extras, location manager, assistant to the director, producer’s assistants, Foley, prop master, special effects, stunt coordinator, tech advisors, book-keeper/accountant, fire marshal, production designer, art director, story board artists, line producer, editor, catering, (and maybe even the screenwriter, if you’re lucky!). How many people are we talking about? 100+ below-the-line, maybe 25-50 above the line. Budget for this pic? Anywhere up to a hundred million dollars, give or take a million or so.
Now, the DIRECTOR’S GOALS here are two things: to get the best, most believable performances from the actors, and to get the best visual images on film.
The PRODUCER’S GOALS, however, are to solve problems, give the director everything he or she wants, to spend the available time and money properly, and report to the investors. Of which, 70% goes to above-the-line costs, and only 30% go to below-the-line expenses.
But what do the studio execs want to see? They want to see their money up on that screen! A movie is the most expensive entertainment production ever devised (other than the US presidential campaigns)!
Directors strive for a certain “harmonics”, a balance between the story components in your screenplay and proper production values. They want the story to be authentic: believable even. And entertaining!
All those elements that make the world of the film believable to the audience: set design, lighting, sound, special FX, continuity, locations, props, extras, stunts, costumes, hair and makeup, music, editing…
What about the acting, the movie stars? What makes a star? The power and ability to sell a film to an audience. A star is someone who “opens”, and is a hedge against disaster. It’s whomever a studio exec thinks is a star. A superstar is someone they’ll all kill for. It’s also wonderful if they can act.
But what about the story?, you ask. What does the audience want for their money? What do they expect? They want their dreams and fantasies to come true. They need to relate to the story and the actors. They want to leave happy and satisfied when the house lights come up. It’s a lot like sex…
Film editing 101: In simplest terms, editing, or cutting, is about juxtaposition of elements in filmed coverage. The key part of a film editor’s job is to make his or her own contribution as imperceptible as possible. The film should be seamless. How long does it take to edit a film? Two to three times longer than the shooting phase! Editors select, tighten, pace, embellish, arrange and translate the director’s vision into a movie; taking a mess of chaotic bits and pieces that seem to defy continuity, sometimes 20 to 40 hours of raw footage, adding in the film score, and turning it into a cohesive story, letting the director’s filmed material guide the editor. Film editing should not call attention to itself nor strive to impress.
The power of music in film. We need 30 to 40 minutes of music, one of the most important elements in a film, which can be artfully used to arouse, to manipulate, to frighten, or to soothe & calm, to aid in transitions, to punctuate, to comment, to move plot along, to focus, to add sense of continuity, to add information, to define a character, to heighten tempo, add dramatic tension, to change mood, to add character, as well as to add dimension and give the film or scene a new or different meaning.
OK, we’ve just spent many dollars to make a movie! What do we do now? We spend even more money! We’ll now spend double or triple the cost of producing the movie to distribute this sucker, folks! For advertising and promotions on TV, in newspapers, magazines, internet, social media & radio advertising, for promos and publicity, for press kits, trailers and spots, for operating costs, plus 25% of the total spent for taxes, legal and insurance…and these are fixed costs, no matter what your production budget is.
“Wait! I’m just writing a low-to-mid-budget independent film!” you say. Well, in that case, you’re going to have to spend even more money! On what? On film festivals. Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto, AFM, the American Film market in Santa Monica, SXSW, Moondance, and etc.
So what happens at film festivals? You join crowds of people and mill around, giving each other air-kisses, shaking hands, sipping champagne, reading the Daily Variety, exchanging business cards, and talking on your cell-phone. There are famous movie stars, directors, producers, agents and distributors. All are being photographed and videotaped, while they smile and schmooze and give interviews to the various media.
And you try to sell your films or screenplays to distributors, buyers, producers, investors, acquisition execs, casting agents, literary agents, movie stars, and directors; you promote and pitch your stuff to people like the Big 5 studios, foreign buyers, indie film producers; you try to find a better agent; you try to get an agent; you meet foreign & US filmmakers, you get publicity; you make important contacts; you get options &/or financing with the real players, and make deals at film festivals…that’s all. And that’ll cost you! Plan those costs into your budget.
Say, do you happen to know anyone in L.A.? I mean even remotely connected to Hollywood film biz? A friend from high school who is the gardener for the shrink of the waiter who serves lunch to the assistant of the guy who sweeps the floors at the office of the personal trainer for George Clooney’s hairdresser’s boyfriend? Contacts are all.
And get yourself a good agent, manager, and/or an entertainment attorney, while you’re at it, and that ain’t cheap! Agents typically get 10-15% of whatever you make. Managers get 15%, and entertainment attorneys get 5-10%.
There are people out there who know people, and they can make those connections you need, to find production funding, get name actors and directors to sign an LOI (Letter of Intent or Interest), advise you about rewrites needed, and put a desirable package together to sell to the money. But they will cost you, too, as much as $25-50K.
But there’s still hope! “The Last Emperor”, “Derzu Uzala”, “Babette’s Feast”, “The Color Purple”, “The Virgin Spring”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Ryan’s Daughter”, “The Remains of the Day”, “Chocolat”, “East of Eden”, “The Piano”, “Shakespeare in Love”, “Sophie’s Choice”, …really wonderful films that got made. But then why are all those other so-called bad movies made? Why does the audience out there pay money to see them? Or any movie? What about art?
The spirit of the times. The latest thing. “Rebel Without a Cause”, “The Godfather”, “Caddyshack”, “Lion King”, “Rugrats”, “Casablanca”, “Scream II”, “Star Wars”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Dances With Wolves”, “Antz”, “Forrest Gump”, “The Black Knight”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”! Most screenwriters and filmmakers are just trying to keep one step ahead of whatever it is they think the audience is going to pay money to see. Nobody knows what the audience wants; even the audience hasn’t got a clue to what movies they themselves are going to like this weekend. It’s virtually impossible to predict what they’ll like or dislike. But they know when they like it, and then that film grows “legs” (word-of-mouth)! And then a lot of people get rich and famous, and get more work, including you, the originator of the story: the talented screenwriter.
Now. Here’s the Big Question: What makes a film successful? Uh….I dunno. “Then who does?” you ask?
William Goldman replies, (in an echoing, God-like voice) the three words that ultimately define Hollywood and the film business: “Nobody…knows…anything!”
“Creativity cannot be comfortably quantified in intellectual terms. By its very nature, creativity eschews such containment. You see, in Hollywood, where it’s everyone’s job to de-construct creative work, the act of creation, and the work itself, is often met with derision and is usually not appreciated. The great independent director, John Cassavetes, once told a young director, “In order to catch the ball, you have to really want to catch the ball!” This means stop complaining about the lousy curves you get thrown and stretch; reach for what you really want!” (from Julia Cameron, “The Artist’s Way”)
Elizabeth English lives in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She is the founder & executive director of the Moondance International Film Festival and competition. She is also executive producer and development executive for Mermaid7seas Productions. Elizabeth has written sections of four published books on creative careers, for McGraw Hill and has written screenwriting articles for MovieBytes.com, EuroScreenwriter.com, and was a ScreenTalk Magazine staff writer on women in the film industry, and the Moondance E-zine. She was invited to present a forum on the impact of women in film at the World Peace Conference in Barcelona, Spain in 2004.
Elizabeth’s short screenplay, APRIL FOOL’S DAY, was a finalist at the 2001 AFI Women Director’s Workshops. Her short screenplay, WILDERNESS WITHIN, was produced and has won many US and international film festival awards for the film, and was screened at Cannes. She has completed 35 feature screenplays, plus several short animation screenplays based on Native American legends, several TV pilots, and two feature animation screenplays. Her stageplay, THE MYTHICAL JOURNEY, was a 2001 finalist in the prestigious Alexander Onassis competition. Her feature screenplay, LUST DESSERTS! is currently in pre-production with a well-known Hollywood producer. She has also written, directed and produced three short indie films.
Other Screenwriting articles by Elizabeth English:
• First Impressions: Titles & Loglineshttps://moondancefilmfestival.com/titles-loglines-25-words-open-the-door/
• Two Brads or Three?Adventures in Judging Screenplay Entries in a Film Festival https://moondancefilmfestival.com/two-brads-or-three/
• Creating Character & Characterization in Screenplays https://moondancefilmfestival.com/character-characterization-in-screenplays/
• The Field of Dreams – Conflict as Metaphor https://moondancefilmfestival.com/conflict-as-metaphor/
How to Get an Agent: What Agents Want, (and Don’t Want), to See. https://moondancefilmfestival.com/how-to-get-an-agent/
Contact Elizabeth by email
303-545-0202 • 303-818-5771
BOULDER, COLORADO USA