January 4, 2017

8 New Year's Resolutions Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Make

This is National Wake, directed by Mirissa Neff
Here are some industry expert tips for a more rewarding year of making films.

[Editor’s Note: No Film School asked Iyabo Boyd, founder of Feedback Loop, to contribute some of the advice she’s gathered in advising documentary filmmakers.]

Ahh, New Year’s Resolutions: they can be challenging to stick to but they present a worthwhile opportunity to give ourselves a little kick in the butt and make some improvements. The beginning of the year is a great time to evaluate how we have been going about making our work and getting it out there.

The creative process rules, but we all know how important (and stressful) other aspects of production can be: fundraising, making strategic decisions, ensuring that we’re getting the right input and that we’re positioning ourselves well. I suggest we take this time to pause briefly and map out a better way forward.

Be aware of the film landscape around you: what docs that are being made this year that relate to your project?

Here are eight resolutions from the perspective of Feedback Loop, the documentary consulting firm I founded, on how to make your filmmaking process less stressful and more rewarding this year:

1. Set yourself up for success

The industry mindset centers around recognition: Have they met you before? Have they read about the film in a market program book or press release? Are you on a colleague’s tracking list? Will they recognize your team or any affiliations you have, or your past work? It’s important that we prioritize time within our creative process for networking. The first step is to identify specifically who in the industry would be key for you to meet, and second is to work towards getting on their radar. Start laying the groundwork early in the networking process so you don’t have to be anxious about time, and so relationships and notoriety can grow organically.

Invisible Worlds, directed by Sara Dosa
Feedback Loop client 'Invisible Worlds,' directed by Sara Dosa

2. Get a producer

Many of us have spent months or years toiling away on a project by ourselves, often feeling incredibly isolated, which can negatively impact the creative process and eventual project success. I know what you’re thinking: if I got a producer, how would I pay them? I encourage you to think outside the box on what kind of arrangement with a producer could benefit you both. Feedback Loop works in a way that we call “pop-up producing” which involves giving filmmakers the specific feedback and strategy needed to take the next step, like a shot in the arm to help move you forward. Talk with the producers you like and see if this pop-up style of working could be a good way to sustainably build out your team.

3. Don’t work in a vacuum

When we spend years making something very interesting to us, it’s easy to work with blinders on and lose sight of why the story is interesting to other people. A couple tips: First, when you’re writing a synopsis, an application, or making a fundraising clip, the key element to keep in mind is “what is the greater meaning behind the film that people can hook into?” And second, be aware of the film landscape around you: what docs that are being made this year or have come out in the past that relate to your project? To make your film stand out, make sure you have a new approach to a story or issue, or perhaps a unique tone or refreshing take, or that it deepens the issue or shows it from an unconsidered perspective.

Island Soldier
Feedback Loop client 'Island Soldier,' directed by Nathan Fitch

4. Stop procrastinating and plan ahead

I would guess that 80% of filmmakers put together their grant applications and fundraising video samples less than a week before they’re due (I’m guilty of this myself). This lack of planning creates unnecessary stress and often leads to less than desireable results. Plus, it leaves no time for getting feedback before submitting. Remember, you usually only have one shot per year at these opportunities, so plan ahead, take your time, and get feedback from the right sources (see #5 below) to ensure you’re putting your best foot forward.

5. Get industry feedback

Getting feedback from our peers is fantastic for the creative process, but when we’re making something specifically for an industry gatekeeper to review—like a grant application or festival submission—it behooves us to get feedback from someone (or multiple someones) who is or has been one of those gatekeepers. The knowledge they’ve gained after reviewing hundreds or thousands of projects for many different institutions can offer valuable insight into what elements in your approach are working best for you and which parts might be holding you back.

Diversity in the kinds of stories being told has become paramount to funders, curators, and audiences in the last few years

6. Make diversity a priority

Though it might not seem like it sometimes, the world continues to progress forward and the film industry is doing its best to change with it. Diversity behind the camera, diversity on screen, and diversity in the kinds of stories being told has become paramount to funders, curators, and audiences in the last few years. It’s crucial as creators that we’re proactive in building our teams, in identifying our participants (when applicable), and in the scope and approach to our stories. The health of our world and industry depends on each of us to make these strides in progress, and the bonus is that our projects will stand out quite a bit more while doing so.

Sons and Daughters of the Incarcerated, directed by Denali Tiller
Feedback Loop client 'Sons and Daughters of the Incarcerated,' directed by Denali Tiller

7. Think about sustainability

Yes, it’s important to take chances and give our all to a project, but don’t forget that our goal is to build a career, not to just make one film. Be careful that your current way of working isn’t cannibalizing your ability or enthusiasm for doing further work. This applies to financial considerations (let’s all avoid credit card debt), but sustainability also applies to energy level and relationship building. Let’s pace ourselves so that we can make it in the long run. Sustainability is a hot topic for a reason: creative and financial burnout is real, so make work like it’s part one of four, and protect your resources accordingly.

8. Give yourself some slack

One thing I try to remind myself as a producer year round, and the final resolution that I’d like to pass on is: Give yourself some slack. What we do is really hard and can take a toll on us, but remember that we are incredibly privileged to be storytellers. There is a great big world out there that is dealing with much more difficult challenges than we are, so let’s be grateful for being able to make art and to represent both the hardship and the joy in the world through film. Yes, we bust our butts, and we’re broke, and rejection sucks, but we’re doing what we love and are getting somewhere. Even if it seems slow, it’s indeed happening.

For this next year, let’s resolve to keep reminding ourselves to have fun, be proud of our work, find a life/work balance that suits us individually, ask for help, be an advocate for ourselves, and try to stay positive!      

Feedback Loop is an indie consulting agency that provides dynamic feedback and strategy for documentary filmmakers from a circle of esteemed gatekeepers and advisors in film funding, editing, festivals, and distribution.

Founded in 2016 by producer Iyabo Boyd, its goal is to expand filmmakers' opportunities for success by giving them access to the viewpoints of gatekeepers in key industry areas, providing them with a sense of how their work fits into the greater documentary landscape, and offering strategies for navigating the next steps in their process.

Featured image from 'This is National Wake,' directed by Mirissa Neff

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1 Comment

The details of "getting a producer" always seems a bit vague. Assuming you're looking for an independent producer to help you make a film, are you supposed to pay the producer a salary or stipend to look for financing, agree upon a fee and defer this payment until the financing actually comes through, or does the producer forego a salary altogether (what the director/writer is probably doing) and hope for profits off the back end?

January 6, 2017 at 1:16PM, Edited January 6, 1:28PM

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