If you ask commissioning editors, grants panelists and other lucky blokes who get to sift through countless funding proposals for the most common mistake they come across, this one would probably top them all:
Not having a high enough budget.
Producers, particularly first-time ones, consistently undermine themselves by asking for too little money. And usually far too little.
Why? Because they don't know what typical documentaries actually cost. They underestimate the time involved and tend to vastly underpay themselves. And because a high budget feels so scary to them, they assume it will surely scare off the funders.
In fact, the reverse is true. Nothing sends funders scurrying away faster than producers who under-budget. They see it as a sign that they have no experience and haven't done their homework. They look at a line item like $30,000 (or less!) for a director/producer and wonder how this person will live for a couple of years (yes, they know how long films take) on that little pay. They worry that the film will never get finished. And that, even if it does, it'll be crap.
Drawing up a fair and accurate budget can be a huge psychological barrier to leap across. But there are plenty of books and online resources to reference. And, if you can afford it, I highly recommend attending a pitching forum like the one at Hot Docs as an observer. Along with seeing a few dozen pitches by experienced producers, you get a booklet with a detailed synopsis and budget for each project. You'll see that it's not uncommon for documentary features with international broadcast ambitions to have budgets that range from $500,000 to $800,000. You'll come away with a far better grasp of the documentary marketplace.
And maybe, just maybe, you'll stop undervaluing the contribution you're making to the world with your film.
Thanks to the affordability of digital camcorders, along with the sad fact that it often takes years for documentary filmmakers to scrape together their funding and shoot their stories, most end up accumulating hundreds of hours of footage along the way. Which means you're inevitably in for a very long edit period.
Which all-too-often leads to mistake #2: Hiring your editor before you've raised enough money to pay him or her through the entire edit.
Let's say you've been relatively economical and shot only 150 hours. For argument sake, let's also say that the editor is screening it herself and can get through 5 hours of footage a day (personally, I screen all the footage with my editor and discuss it thoroughly as we go along, so we're lucky to get through 4 hours/day). That still comes to 25 hours/wk, or 6 weeks in total, to slog through the material.
Top NY and LA editors pretty much begin at $3,000/wk, but you have a fantastic project that will save the planet so you've managed to convince one to work at $2,500/wk. So, in this somewhat conservative scenario, you're paying your editor $15,000 just to look at your footage! (Let's not talk about the film I helped shoot and co-produce that dealt with well over 1,000 hours of tape.)
Here's where the mistake comes in. Many producers charge ahead with only partial funding in the blind faith that they'll raise the rest once they have a great rough cut to show. So they get to the cut, or maybe only a partial cut, run out of money, put things on hold and frantically go into fundraising mode.
Do you think the editor is waiting around while they do that? Nope. Will she be available again should the producer actually raise enough money? Possibly. But if she's in demand the far greater likelihood is she soon goes off on another feature.
Your options then are to wait until she's finished, which could be quite a while, or else hire another editor. Who'll likely want to screen most, if not all, of the footage. Which means you've not only lost your original editor and momentum, but you're unnecessarily spending another $15,000.
I'm not unsympathetic to the fact that it could take years to raise enough money to pay a top editor all the way through to the end. That's why so many doc filmmakers wind up editing themselves, at least to begin with. But if you have great ambitions for your film and want to work with the very best editor available, I highly recommend you wait before you leap.
Actually, there are dozens of mistakes I could label as “biggest” if I put my mind to it. I began drawing up a list and here are the first five that came to me. They’re certainly biggies.
1. Submitting your film to an A-list festival before it’s ready.
Every year at this time, producers scramble to finish their films for the Sundance deadline. I can’t begin to tell you how many consults I do with filmmakers that concludes with me telling them to take their time and urging them to wait.
Your world premiere is precious. No festival, no matter how prestigious, is worth sacrificing the potential of your film for. If you miss Sundance, there’s always Berlin, or SXSW, or Tribeca, or Toronto, or any number of other great festivals where new filmmakers get discovered or established directors get a career boost.
In the end, there’s only one thing that will sell your film and get you the kind of breakthrough results you’re hoping to achieve. Making a great film. Or, at the least, making the very best film you’re capable of.
And that comes from taking the time you need. It's one thing when circumstances require you to rush (pressure from investors, funders, broadcasters, etc.). It's another thing altogether when the pressure is self-induced.
I recently taught two classes for Thom Powers' Advanced Producing course at the School of Visual Arts. And while it's geared for documentaries, it forced me to collect my thoughts on various aspects of film producing, in general.
Since I feel guilty for blogging so infrequently during the distribution of The Kids Grow Up, I thought I'd partly make up for it by sharing some tips on producing that came up for me, in the process. Or that come to mind in the daily slog of producing. I'll try to put up an observation or bit of advice here every day or two (or three), and we'll see how long I can keep it up for.
My first observation is about how audiences, particularly young audiences, are viewing films these days. It's something I've known intellectually for a while now, but the class brought it home to me in a visceral way.
Part of my second class was to be a case study of 51 Birch Street, so I made seeing it a homework assignment. I didn't give the 20 class members (average age of about 25) any instructions on how to see the film, but said it's easily available on multiple platforms. When we next met, before I began the case study, I conducted a quick survey.
It turns out that 8 saw it on dvd via their laptops, 11 streamed it directly onto their laptops and 1 honest soul fessed up to not seeing it at all. So, no one saw it on anything as large as a monitor or normal tv screen. All but one who watched it streamed saw it for free on Hulu, and they reported there were commercials about every 20 minutes. Not counting these commercials, each person paused the film at some point in their viewing between 3 and 5 times, on average. Considerably more than half admitted to texting, chatting or answering emails at some point (if not constantly) while watching, as well.
Like I said, this doesn't come as a total shock. I have a 22-year old daughter who's spent her whole life half-watching movies while multi-tasking with laptop in hand. But it reinforces the big challenge traditional filmmakers, used to telling stories with character arcs and 3-act structures, are facing these days. It's a fact of life that most people under 30 (and many older, as well) will not be raptly watching your film on a big screen with their undivided attention. If they watch it at all, they'll do it on their small screens with their attention absolutely divided. Their experience will be more like reading a book that they put down and pick up again than how we think of as the immersive experience of watching a movie.
Whether to tailor your next 90-minute feature documentary to this new audience or not is a timely and compelling question. But whether you do or don't, it's absolutely something to keep in mind.