A while back I read this post by Guy Kawasaki and was inspired to write down seven habits of highly successful documentary filmmakers based, in part, on his post:
1. Tell an engaging story. It all begins with story. And whether your goal is to entertain or persuade, you need first and foremost to tell a story. Telling a good story is why (regardless of what you think of them) a film like Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004) did spectacularly at the box office while Earthlings (Shaun Monson, 2003), in spite of its important, earnest message, struggled to find an wide, general, audience. The difference boils down not to right and wrong, or the facts, or even the message (both films are highly critical of Meat, Inc.), but storytelling. If you think documentaries don’t have to entertain, you’re sadly mistaken. Message is important, but without story, nobody will want to see it. Films, are, after all, entertainment, but it can be entertainment that inspires or persuades, if you tell a good story.
2. Do your homework. Research is critical for good documentary. Know your issue backwards and forwards, and try to understand to the best of your ability opposing positions if you’re doing an issue oriented film. Especially when you’re doing interviews, people will relate to you better if you converse with them from a position of understanding, they get it they have to explain things to the audience, but they should not be exasperated with having to explain the most basic things to you. The more of the territory you know, the better you can discover the special gems of knowledge along the way.
2. Give good pitch. When your fundraising, or seeking assistance, or promoting your film, be prepared to hook listeners with a short description of your film. Save the long proposal for funders that ask for it. If you can’t explain enough of what your film is about in thirty to sixty seconds to engage the listener’s interest, you’re never going to get an audience to take an hour or more of their lives to watch your film. Think ahead, know what you are going to say, rather than speak extemporaneously about your project.
3. Develop negotiation skills. In the course of making a film there is a long of negotiation along the way. Don’t believe what you see on television shows and in the movies. Good negotiation requires six components (five of which I’ve borrowed from Guy Kawasaki): (1) Prepare for the negotiation by knowing the facts of the situation; (2) always be forthright and honest in your dealings; (3) Figure out what you really want; (4) Figure out what you don’t care about; (5) Figure out what the other person or organization really wants; and (6) Create a win-win outcome to ensure that everyone is happy. This is the simple path to good negotiation. I and many of my students have gotten permission to shoot in places and situations other people have been told they can’t shoot and I would say negotiation skills played a part. It’s simple, but it requires doing your homework.
4. Run short, effective meetings (whether you’re in preproduction, production, post-production or in the distribution phase). The purpose of any meeting, wether it’s with a funder, crew, collaborators, distributor, etc. is to communicate outcomes and/or to make decisions. Meetings are not about sharing experiences, save that for a gathering at the bar or cafe. Always start on time, have the fewest number of people involved that’s possible (anything more than seven makes it impossible to have an efficient meeting). Set an agenda and stick with it. Maintain a parking lot for important issues that need to be addressed but are out of scope for a given meeting. Always document action items and follow up to make sure they are complete. Look into scrum techniques which are good for running short, efficient meetings to keep your production moving along with the least amount of overhead. Use an online collaboration tool like Google Docs to document agendas, action items, outcomes, and parking lot issues.
5. Be a good conversationalist. As a documentary filmmaker you are always interviewing in one form or another. A key component of good interviewing is active listening, which is critical to a two-way conversation. If you listen more than you talk, you will be a better conversationalist and you will also learn more. This applies to all situations. Active listening means you are really listening to what the person is saying, rather than thinking about what you are going to say next. Your participation in the conversation should be part of a communication process, and you learn more when you’re listening. Ask questions that will elicit responses. It’s a key component of observation, listening to what people say and how they say it. Practice getting people to talk with you and share their stories. You’ll have your moment when hundreds (maybe even thousands or millions) of people will listen to you when you screen your film.
6. Get along with almost anyone. Success in some industries is determined by individual knowledge and skill, however, filmmaking (even in today’s world where it’s easy to do many tasks yourself) is a collaborative art form. You may often find yourself talking with subjects you don’t agree with, but you have to get along with them in order to observe and learn. Your ability to work with others, through others, and sometimes even in spite of others, is among the most important skills of a documentary filmmaker. Share credit with others, and don’t give yourself too many credits, allow other people to share in the glow of your film. A rising tide floats all boats, as many people say. If you ever get stuck working with people who are a pain in the ass, tolerate them, move away from then as gracefully as you can, it’s a small world and it’s best to maintain good, professional relationships with everyone.
7. Be clear and concise in all communications, whether it’s e-mail, voicemail, or slides. But being concise does not mean to over-simplify, Ed Tufte’s classic essay, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” is required reading for anyone who uses PowerPoint (or the nicer and more elegant Keynote). When it comes to voicemail, don’t make people work to get your number message, slowly say your telephone number once at the beginning of the message and a second time again at the end of the message.Don’t leave voicemail like, “Call me back, and I’ll tell you what time the preview screening is,” Just say, “Preview screening is on Tuesday, 7:00 p.m., at the Brattle.” Document important information using an online collaboration tool like Google Docs. This can help you keep emails short, while important details are kept in one place that’s easy to get to, and people can read and collaborate at their leisure.
So there you have it, seven of the most important habits of successful documentary filmmakers as I see it. Are there others that are absolutely essential? Please comment.