4 Facts of Documentary and Film Production

4 Facts of Documentary and Film Production

There are many myths about the filmmaking process that I hope to debunk as a practitioner. 

1. If you think you can be a filmmaker without being an organized person, you're nuts. You can be the most creative person in the world, but if you can't remember to bring the right lenses, the release forms with you, or the proper drives to your post-production house, you're not making a movie. If you're disorganized you'll drive so many people nuts during the filmmaking process that they'll never want to work with you again. As with many things, organization is the key to success. And it is also the key to being a successful filmmaker who can operate within a budget. 

2. You cannot possibly use every interview that you create in a documentary. In both AMANDA KNOX and EUROTRUMP, we interviewed far more people than we used in our final products. A pair of Dutch journalists recently complained publicly about not making the final cut of EUROTRUMP, but the reality is their English wasn't good enough for us to use and they offered more speculation than facts. (They were also the first people we interviewed so we didn't know we'd have far more relevant interviewees in our final cut.)  It might hurt your interviewees to learn that they don't make the final cut of the film, but because of time limits and other factors this is a reality. In fiction films, there are scenes that will be cut too. The key lesson here is to manage the expectations of interviewees and actors. 

3. When you are done shooting a project, that is only the beginning. So much of a film's creation takes place in the edit, and even more of it will take place in post-production. As fast as I like to make films, I also find myself having to slow down to let the experts in these departments do their work. These processes cannot happen overnight unless you want to sacrifice quality or lose undiscovered gems within your materials. 

4. You don't need a huge crew to make a high quality product. Technology has become so good that these days all you need is a Panasonic Lumix GH5, a couple of decent lenses, and a Zoom H6 recorder. If you have to shoot with these devices alone, you can do it. But I strongly recommend using a 2-person crew, especially in documentary. This enables one person, the Director of Photography, to focus on the shots, while the second person can manage the audio. How you divide up roles between director and producer is up to you and based on your core competencies. 

2016 and 2017: The Years When Politics Reigned King and How That Led Us To Geert Wilders

2016 and 2017: The Years When Politics Reigned King and How That Led Us To Geert Wilders

In late 2016, you didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to look around and sense that politics was the most important issue of the day: If you lived through Brexit in the United Kingdom (I did!) and the election of Donald Trump (yup, was there too!) you knew that every person you talked to had one thing on his or her mind: politics.

The reason for this was simple: though people seemed not to think about it previously, the politics of your leaders truly translates into what kind of a society you live in. Everything from climate change policies to immigration policies to whether to go to war has all to do with your elected political leaders. And with a New World Order leaning in on both the United Kingdom and the United States, the liberal democracies that we knew of since the end of the Cold War suddenly upended themselves.

You can argue for ages whether this is because of Vladimir Putin’s sly interventions or because Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate. It doesn’t matter: people care about politics now. And by simply looking at my Twitter feed, I garnered that what was once cat jokes and sports commentary had overnight become politically focused. The world was watching politics now.

I looked at Google Trends and typed in a few keywords and confirmed my suspicions. Politics was all anyone cared about in 2016. So, looking ahead into 2017, Maria, my business partner, and I decided we wanted to make this a year where we made political films.

Given that we are based in London (thanks to a prescient and precious visa sponsorship from the University of Oxford) we knew that to keep costs down we should make our next project in England or Europe.

Let's look to science when selecting a film to make

By this time, it was late November 2016, a few weeks post-Trump’s victory. We looked ahead at the election calendar for 2017 to see which European elections were coming up next. In 2017 there were due to be elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Norway, and Austria among others. The Netherlands was first. And upon closer inspection we saw that at that time Geert Wilders, the far right wing candidate was polling to win about 35 seats in parliament.

In this image, the grey line is how Wilders was polling (this is out of 150 not 100). If Wilders won 36 seats in parliament, he would have the option to build a coalition and form a government if he were able to attract an additional 40 parliamentarians to his team.

Wilders is the grey highlighted line on these polls. 

Wilders is the grey highlighted line on these polls. 


Thus, we decided we should reach out to Wilders and ask him if we could make a film about his campaign. When we started making our film, all of the numbers pointed to Wilders having great success in this election and he had a fighting chance of winning.

Even today, after placing 2nd in the Dutch elections (and taking the whole country to the right as our film EUROTRUMP shows), Wilders is still quite popular on Google Trends. Hence, I’m confident that we made a strong bet on politics.

Google Trends results when searching for Geert Wilders

Google Trends results when searching for Geert Wilders

As I mentioned in a previous post, we also invested in another excellent political documentary this year, FREEDOM FOR THE WOLF, that shows the global threats to “liberal” democracy, and explains how many of us really live in “illiberal” democracies. Yes, we chose to double down on investing in politics this year, because, quite simply, this is what the people wanted.

The origin story of our EUROTRUMP film: We can do it better, cheaper, and faster.

The origin story of our EUROTRUMP film: We can do it better, cheaper, and faster.

Origin stories of how films are birthed are inherently interesting and tend to be one of the first questions that people ask you when you meet with them or at film festivals on Q&A panels. But I want to take this origin story a bit further back. 

In autumn 2016, my business partner Maria Springer and I were actively looking to start our OBSERVATORY Finishing Fund. We wanted to get other people's movies over the finish line. But movies kept coming in with bigger and bigger budgets. One film in particular, about a Hollywood actor, needed $200,000 to finish off. And the director predicted it would be ready some time in mid-2018. From our perspective this was both too expensive and too slow. 

Maria turned to me and said, "Stephen, How much would it take you to make a documentary from start to finish?"

I ran some numbers and concluded I could make a viable film for $50,000. 

"So go do it," Maria replied. 

And that was the real start of our EUROTRUMP adventure: the confidence that we could make films on miniscule budgets, and that we would be able to sell such films. We decided to not just limit OBSERVATORY to our initial idea as a Finishing Fund, and we began taking on Start to Finish Productions too. 

Due diligence, our thesis about why films don't get finished, and why we won't invest in your project

Due diligence, our thesis about why films don't get finished, and why we won't invest in your project

One year ago, when we were launching OBSERVATORY, Maria and I formulated our thesis as follows: There are plenty of strong documentaries that don't get finished because they run out of money during the filmmaking process. Our goal was to help get these most worthy films get finished and purchased by large distributors while they are still relevant.

However, after a year of trying to prove our thesis, I now must admit that we simplified things way too much. There are a plethora of reasons why "good" films don't get finished. We learned quite a bit about these reasons while conducting due diligence on films that we were considering investing in. Here are the five biggest problems that we encountered that prevented us from investing in otherwise "good" projects: 

1. Egos and trust. Quite frequently, I meet people who call themselves "directors" or "producers" who have egos the size of small countries. Oftentimes, such people have little to no work to show for themselves. This isn't comforting for me. For nearly six years, while I was making AMANDA KNOX, many of my closest friends didn't even know I was working on the project, as I didn't want to over-promise and under-deliver. Modesty is important for me. I know that if I invest in you I will have to work with you and everyone on your team for six months to a year. If people act liked they are Gods, this always rubs me the wrong way. 

Furthermore, I need to be able to trust people before I invest in them. For example, we invested in a project this year called FREEDOM FOR THE WOLF. The people on this team had experience in both filmmaking but more importantly, in other relevant endeavors that gave us the social proof necessary to invest in them: Director Rupert Russell and Producer Patrick Hamm both have PhDs in sociology from Harvard (a relevant discipline for this film). And Producer Camilla Hall, who first approached me about working together, was a journalist at the Financial Times and had already directed a respectable film of her own, Copwatch. These are the kinds of track records that make me want to invest in a team.

The second test that I consider before investing in a team is the McKinsey Airport Test. If I were stuck in an airport with this person or this team for 6 hours, would I be happy, meh, or would I want to run away? Of course you should never invest in a person you wouldn't be happy to be with for a long period of time, because in reality you will have to spend long periods of time with these people. 

2. No financial brains. I need to know that at least one person on a project, ideally the producer of that project, understands how film finance works. I am frequently flabbergasted when at film festivals I meet with production teams and they have 0 financial knowledge. I'm not saying you should go out and get an MBA (but it would be quite helpful!), but when I ask you about debt vs. equity financing, a very simple concept, and you tell me you don't know what that means, I am not going to invest in you, even if your film looks amazing, because I would fear losing my money and/or my investors' money. We are investing in films to make profits, not to fund your lifestyle. Remember that. 

3. The project has already taken on too many investors. Working with other investors are the bane of any new investor's existence. Sometimes, a very worthy project will present itself to us but then we will conduct our due diligence and learn that, say,  the French-German TV channel ARTE gave the film $100,000 in exchange for the right to air the film in in France and Germany. This then means that two large territories are off the table in terms of sales. It also means that the likelihood of selling the project to Netflix, Amazon, VICE or another global distributor is going to be impossible. Furthermore, the deals you likely have already procured might impact how fast and in what order we can get our money out of the project. 

4. Budgets are out of whack. Quite frequently, a producer with an $850,000 budget will come to me and say "We are 40% of the way to being financed through the generosity for 10 different individuals and organizations." Such a high budget goes against my fundamental belief that you will ever be able to pay back your investors unless you're making a film about Lady Gaga or another A list celebrity. Even if you pay your team fairly and have to travel quite a bit to get your film made, it shouldn't cost $850,000. This is where I fundamentally disagree with other investors: I have worked on excellent films that have been made for $300,00 or less. 

5. Irrelevance. All too frequently I have seen projects that might have been relevant a few years ago, but aren't necessarily relevant today. For example, if someone wanted to talk about small town government corruption in the United States before Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, the film likely would have been quite interesting. But today, in an era where there are much bigger fish to fry, that film is no longer relevant. How would I ever be able to sell a film that is irrelevant when there are likely 20 films out there that are relevant? 

More often than not, the documentary projects we came across had more than one of the above problems. You can see how such things would be paired together: e.g. No financial brains and budgets that are out of whack would go together. So would the idea of coming in contact with egomaniacs who have created projects that are utterly irrelevant. If you can solve these problems, you will quite easily take yourself to a position in the top 2% of projects that we look at. 

More observations coming soon... 

A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

I cannot believe how quickly the past year has flown by. Just over a year ago, my business partner Maria Springer and I graduated from the University of Oxford with our MBAs. We felt that the staid, old, complex film industry, especially documentaries, needed further disruption, beyond what Netflix and Amazon were already doing.

Armed with the lean principles we were taught in our technology and operations course at Oxford, we set out to make films at record speeds on record low budgets. And, as we learned in business school, it gets faster to make a film every time you do it. You will learn tricks left and right.

It took over 5.5 years from the time I landed in Perugia, Italy to start doing research for AMANDA KNOX until the film was released on Netflix. For our first OBSERVATORY project, EUROTRUMP, it took 9 months from the time we conceived the project until it aired on television on VICELAND in the Netherlands and Belgium and on the Dutch national broadcaster. This is a substantial improvement but there is more work to be done. If not for minor mess-ups along the way, we could've had this film ready three months earlier. But we will live and we will learn. We will make process improvements, And we will help others along the way.

Here are the key lessons we learned from making EUROTRUMP in 9 months: 

1. Run simultaneous processes: At its simplest level, this means if you are shooting a film you should also be gearing up to sell that film at the same time. This means start making trailers for your film while you are shooting it. It might be a pain, but as they say, "Show don't tell." 

2 . No deal is a deal until it is a deal. The BBC gave us a contract for this project a few months in. We thought we were set. We thought all was good. Then, the executive we dealt with over there went on vacation and all hell seemingly broke loose inside their headquarters. Our project became too controversial for them. And ultimately it was dropped. This was BY FAR the most stressful month for us over the past year. We didn't know this rule at the time, so we started coasting, thinking the BBC was a done deal and all was good. It didn't happen that way. 

3. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. As an independent filmmaker, your job is to sell as much as it is to create. If you don't sell your project, nobody will see it. And then you'll have an audience of 1. 

4. If you make something for $100,000 and sell it for $200,000 you've made a profit. If you make something for $600,000 and sell it for $200,000 you're very deep in the hole. This sounds logical, but too often I see filmmakers who want to raise loads of money, especially for non-fiction projects. If I can make a film for well less than $100,000, then you can too.  

5. Hire slow, fire fast. During the past year, we've had hundreds of personnel working for us on different projects at OBSERVATORY. It's been a major ride. I'm grateful that so many of the people who have helped us out are super competent at their jobs. However, we have also had to get rid of a number of people throughout the year, including interns, producers, and edit staff. It is painful when a bad apple, intentionally or unintentionally, ruins the whole bunch. There were many moments when I blamed myself or other people for someone's incompetence. (For example, if you start fighting with someone you previously worked well with, you have to look around you.) I hate to say this because it lacks scientific proof, but at some point, you have to GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel that a person is hurting your team or your efforts to move your project forward, you've got to get rid of them. This is the most difficult but also the most necessary part of being a manager. Once you are rid of your burden, you will immediately feel free. Having nobody working for you is better than having someone work for you who is incompetent and will waste all of your time. 

More observations coming soon... 

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

If there is one film festival that I love going to, it is the Berlinale. Yes, Berlin is absolutely freezing in the winter, but it is also incredibly cozy. There is a je ne sais quoi about Berlin that I frequently try and fail to put my finger on. First off, it is incredibly less expensive than most other European cities. This means that you can live a bit of a high life for a few days while there. The films I saw, including The Lost City of Z and Viceroy's House, were of course among the best in the world. The film market, was also buzzing with people from all over the world who want to buy the world's best films. And, of course, the parties at night are unlike any other. From the BFI to various Polish parties I attended, a few days in Berlin is just as good as going to a warm, sunny place. 

camilla-bundgaard-55986.jpg

As IndieWire writes, "As ever, the annual fest is playing home to dozens of feature films and short offerings, with picks aplenty from both modern masters and fresh faces. The Berlinale often breeds some of indie film’s most unexpected and unique standouts, so if it’s at the fest, it’s likely worth a look."

My favorite documentary at the festival was For Ahkeem, about an African-American girl growing up in St. Louis. Shot over many years, the film highlights many of the struggles of growing up in America. The Berlin Film Journal writes, "For Ahkeem follows Daje Shelton, a young seventeen-year-old girl who is struggling to find her way in a social environment enriched by a feeling of cultural failure and the constant struggle that accompanies the process of dreaming for a better life. At the beginning of the film Daje makes a statement: “People been labelling me a bad kid all my life. You don’t have to really do nothing, people just expect it. So you start to expect it yourself.”

It continues, "By claiming this, Daje sets the tone for the documentary, making the audience aware that her story is unique but also part of a bigger picture of what being young and left behind means. The film begins at the moment Daje gets expelled from school and sent to a court-supervised high school, which is her last opportunity to graduate and get her degree. It’s painful to witness fight -or-flight survival mode Daje can’t seem to escape, however by following her in a conscientious, intimate way, the documentary makes an important point about the cultural trauma of what it means to grow up in a world where it is very likely that you will be shot before you reach adulthood."