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Should You Be Thinking about Markets in Documentary Filmmaking?

The article is written by Claude Kerven who is currently the Chair of the 1-Year Filmmaking Program at the New York Film Academy.

The nature of creating documentaries is that of truth-telling. The documentarist is a journalist, but actually one who goes further than researching and reporting on a story.

The sheer planning required to assemble most documentaries requires a great deal of research and all the resources go into reporting. Asking the right questions of sources can happen out of sequence to the way the actual story is told in the end, for example, so the filmmaker has to anticipate a story arc, then adapt his or her plan if something surprising turns up. It’s what makes producing documentaries exciting, exhilarating – and downright terrifying at times.

So should the documentary filmmaker be also focused on markets for the completed work? For better or worse, the answer is: absolutely! What good is a story if it has no place to be told? Certainly, there are online release options open to anyone with an iPhone, but the successful documentary will venture far beyond that.

According to the New York Film Academy, there are no less than 20 top tier cable channels (basic cable and others) that are dedicated to non-fiction programming. These are stations that run 24/7/365. This includes HBO, Sundance, Bravo and others, which are dedicating more time than ever before to doc-style series (unscripted reality series and specials) and full-out documentaries.

We can thank luminaries in the documentary fields such as Morgan Spurlock, Michael Moore and Marily Agrelo for redefining the form, format, function and possibilities. Each of these has reconsidered the commercial environment, making them more attractive to audiences and funders alike. Add to that the webisodes and cyber-docs and the markets open up even further.

In a single generation, television has turned upside- down from scripted to unscripted programming – the kind of filmmaking that requires the skills of a documentarist. Regardless of whether the focus is serious – NYFA graduate Franck Onouviet’s “The Rhythm of My Life” achieved honors at Cannes, for example – or something more pedestrian (“Real Housewives of…”), the fact is a market exists for those who know how to go out and create the documentary, then find a way to sell it.

Film schools around the world have identified this trend, as have filmmakers themselves. But at the core of the documentary is understanding the technical nature of storytelling – how to know what you want to say, and not standing in the way of a different story you might discover along the way. It takes patience, experience, some great ideas and a flexible mind.

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