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Book review: Get Your Documentary Funded and Distributed


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 25 July 2005

There's nothing like the fund-raising process to dampen a filmmaker's spirit. Yes, you could just grab a video camera and shoot that doc that's been percolating away all this time, but wouldn't it be nice to be paid to do what you love?

Get Your Documentary Funded and Distributed edited by Jess Search and Melissa McCarthy of the UK filmmaking network Shooting People, is designed to help newcomers navigate the labyrinth of documentary financing and distribution.

The 300-page paperback manual sets out to be to British documentary makers what the Writers and Artists Yearbook is to print journalists. At its heart is a directory of data: industry contacts, names, addresses (snail mail, email, and web) and short descriptions about individual schemes or organisations.

Interspersed throughout are accounts from filmmakers about their own often arduous experience of raising funds for their films, which if nothing else should help you get over the inevitable rejections that await you.

Not surprisingly, the DIY funding stories offer the greatest drama. Morgan Spurlock talks (incongruously in the UK Public Financing chapter) about how he funded doc hit Super Size Me when he was on the verge of going bankrupt and then created a big buzz at Sundance. UK-based Alex Cooke talks memorably about how the BBC blew hot and cold over her credit-card-funded Arnold Schwarzenegger doc as she was actually filming. Activist filmmaker Franny Armstrong, who made Drowned Out (see earlier column on this), explains how timidity on the part of commissioning editors was initially the big obstacle to selling a broadcast licence in the UK for McLibel.

Introductory articles in each chapter offer further insights into the process with a sprinkling of Q&A interviews with industry insiders, like Himesh Kar, Senior Executive of the New Cinema Fund at the UK Film Council, or Edward Fletcher, founder-director or UK distribution company Soda Pictures.

The handbook would probably most benefit someone with little experience of this area of filmmaking and few contacts to draw on. Veterans may glean some useful information, or plug some gaps in their knowledge.

The book splits into two parts. First the funding part and then the distribution, although the spheres are related. Television, public and private financing avenues are covered thoroughly, with whole chapters devoted to regional funding (three chapters for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Scotland), and other chapters foray into Europe and North America to reveal both funding sources and potential distribution channels. As you flick through the pages you begin to realise that there is actually quite of bit of funding out there. Unfortunately, you also realise that each source of funding has very specific criteria, and that criteria often doesn't fit your project.

Short-form documentaries are well-catered to throughout with a whole chapter devoted to the specific issues surrounding distribution of short docs. The other five chapters on distribution look at film festivals and markets, competitions and awards, theatrical release, and DIY distribution.

Thankfully this is not just a web database transferred to dead trees, rather it offers an exhaustible list of leads and through the first-person accounts from filmmakers shows why it is important to be creative, resourceful, and determined when developing your plan. So your project has been rejected or doesn't fit any funding criteria. "Is there a way you could tweak your film to be eligible for something else?" it asks. Or perhaps you don't have enough experience to get your idea looked at by a television commissioning editor? The manual offers a list of ways in which you can find an established production company that will pitch your idea to television for you, and offers tips on negotiating a partnership deal with that company.

The authors point out that part of the problem with creating a book on this subject is that there are so many different models for financing and distributing your film, but you do get a sense that they know the lay of the land. Jess Search is an ex-commissing editor at Channel 4 and talks in the book about her new venture the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation (providing "modest bursaries" to filmmakers to complete "passion projects"). Melissa McCarthy is editor of the Shooting People documentary network and curates film festivals in London and beyond. They realise that there is a limit to how prescriptive they can be for all scenarios and so stick to focussing on new trends and providing contact tips and information. So, for example, even though the information on DVD, online distribution, and special screenings is necessarily brief, there are plenty of leads to follow.

On a more critical note, although the anecodotal evidence and information from filmmakers offers useful insights, the format also leads to wordiness and repetition of some points. How many times do you need to be told to "think outside the box" before you get it? More distillation of some of the filmmaker comment would have been welcome, especially if the authors had looked more closely at these "case studies" from a different perspective than just that of filmmakers themselves.

Also, for a book with a £25 (£15 for Shooting People members) price tag, there seems to be a surprising number of typos. There was something strange going on with the dates for the chart detailing the top documentaries by UK box office takings, and I just looked up the web site for DocSpace, part of the new digital distribution network for independent documentaries, to discover that it is docspace.org.uk not docspace.org.

These glitches don't instill confidence, but generally there is plenty of good information, encouragement and good ideas. In spite of its growing popularity, this is still a specialised area so new UK documentary makers should be thankful that such a book exists at all.

You can buy Get Your Documentary Funded and Distributed and view the index and preface online as PDF files at Shooting People

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