As I edit my new documentary, I’ve been thinking a lot about lessons I learned while making The Other Side of Immigration. The Other Side of Immigration was my first film, and I didn’t really know what I was doing when I set out to make it. I wasn’t a filmmaker; I was a grad student studying political science at the time. I didn’t have any funding. I didn’t have a crew. No knowledge of how the independent film business worked. All I had was a story that I wanted to tell and the determination to use video to tell it. After a lot of trial and error and 16-hour days, I figured some things out and ultimately made a film that won some awards, got some good press, was picked up by a great distributor, and is still screening publicly three years after it’s premiere. Here are some random things I learned along the way.
- Keep costs low. Documentaries don’t usually make a lot of money. Use modest equipment and wear as many hats as possible to keep your costs to a minimum. If you purchase equipment, consider selling it right after you’ve completed production—chances are it will be obsolete by the time you make your next film. If you have the right skills and good story to tell/perspective to offer, you can make a solid documentary for less than $5,000.
- Actively seek out critical feedback. Your family and friends don’t want to critique your work—they’re proud of you no matter what. Seek out honest feedback on rough cuts from people outside your immediate social circle. And make sure you’re your own harshest critic. Ask yourself, “Would I want to watch this?”
- Cut, cut, and cut some more. Most likely, your film is at least 15 minutes too long. Get comfortable cutting parts that aren’t essential—even if they’re clips you love. This is much easier said than done. I can’t emphasize this point enough: most documentaries are too long.
- Learn from failure. Over a dozen film festivals rejected what I thought was the final cut of The Other Side of Immigration. I almost abandoned the project, but decided to do two things instead: (1) I spent a couple months re-editing the film, making it more focused and reducing its run time by a half hour; (2) I revamped my film festival submission strategy. After that, the film was accepted to almost every festival I submitted it to.
- Get creative with your festival strategy. Dream big, but remember that very few films screen at Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes. Besides, no festival guarantees that lots of people will ultimately see your film. Submit to smaller, niche festivals that will attract your target audience. For me, this meant submitting to festivals oriented toward political, Latin American, and human rights issues.
- Don’t just put your film online for free. This is something you may want to do eventually, but I wouldn’t recommend it as your initial distribution strategy. Build some buzz around your project before releasing it to the public. You’ll reach more people in the long run.
- Organize a tour. Bands promote new songs and albums by going on tour. Filmmakers should do the same. Contact universities, community organizations, and other institutions that might be interested in your film’s message. Charge for your screenings when possible to help you recoup your investment and get the ball rolling on your next project—it’s okay to make a living from your work! Write up a booking contract to make your events official.
- Learn how to write a good press release. Then send it to every TV, radio station, alt weekly, blog, and newspaper in every town your film screens in. Tailor your press release to the news of the day if your film is about a current events issue.
- Use viral videos, social media, blogging, and outreach partnerships to get the word out. Maybe you can’t afford to advertise (I certainly couldn’t), but there are many free ways to spread the word about your film. Try making trailers and promo videos that people share online—who knows, maybe one will go viral. Definitely set up a website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and a blog to keep people posted. Contact groups, nonprofit organizations, and businesses that might be interested in your film’s content and ask them to help you spread the word and turn people out to screenings.
- Don’t jump into a distribution deal just because one is offered. There are a lot of distributors out there who take 75% of sales (or who even ask you to pay in) and offer very little to you in return. If a distributor offers to release your film, ask a few key questions: (1) how many copies of your five bestselling titles have you sold in the past year?; (2) is this deal exclusive?; (3) where will you place my film?; (4) how will you promote it? Short of a big distribution deal, consider self-distribution or working with a small distributor that loves your movie, will give you a fair split on sales, and will work hard to help you get people to see it.
- Prepare for the long haul. People spend years making their documentary and promoting the finished product. Pick a topic/story that you’re extremely passionate about and prepare yourself to be involved with it for a long time. I would have never been able to finish my film or spend the past three years promoting it if I wasn’t committed to the film’s message and perspective.
If you have any specific questions about my experiences with documentary film, feel free to ask in the comments section and I’ll do my best to respond.