How I Select Documentary Film Projects

Stating that documentary films take time — a lot of time — may be the biggest understatement that anyone has ever made. Docs are projects that are not often measured in days, weeks, or months, but years. Each feature film is a big chunk of life taken out of the people who made it all rolled up into a 60 to 120 minute package. No filmmaker can ever make all the films they endeavor to make — unless, of course, your name is Alex Gibney. So for the rest of us, we must use extreme discretion when selecting the film projects that we are going to pour relatively large portions of our careers into. We only get so many shots at this, so we have to make them count.

For this reason I use the following three pillars when selecting a potential film project:

  1. Do I love the subject matter? Is the topic of the film something that I’m really into? something that I’m really interested in? Will it take me to exciting places to meet fascinating people?
  2. Is the topic important? Will this film be about something that people really about? Could it impact the political, social, economic landscape? Could it, to some degree, change the world?
  3. Will this film make money / get accolades? Does this film have a potentially profitable topic? Some topics make money, most don’t. Does this film have the potential of being filmed at festivals and winning awards?

In order for me to accept a film idea it must meet at least two of these three criteria.

The White Elephant, for example, met pillar one and two: I loved the location (Melaka), the people (the Portuguese of Malaysia), and I felt that it was important, as it was about a small, disenfranchised community struggling against China, massive corporations, and their own government. It was like a version of David vs. Goliath where the giant falls dead and crushes David. I liked the story and felt it had to be told, so I didn’t really care too much that it was overtly unprofitable.

In the case of Dead Wind, a new film that I’m working on now, while I like the topic — a massive project to industrialize the sea with colossal wind farm projects — I’m not particularly in love with it. How can you love a windmill? And the filming locations — New England and the broader east coast of the US — are cool but not particularly exhilarating. But I feel as if the topic of this film is incredibly important. It’s basically about the need to have rational and science-based discussions about energy transitions without coloring them with politics. Entire livelihoods, maritime ecosystems, and local economies hang in the balance. I also feel as if I can be profitable — in as far as making enough money to cover costs and actually pay myself and an editor.

It’s easy as a filmmaker to get excited about every pitch that comes your way and to say yes before ever really thinking about it. But this exuberance can lead to years of unfulfilled ambitions, dead projects, and, ultimately, unrequited documentary dreams. Like most lessons, I’ve learned this the hard way. Now I have a framework for guiding me on the path from project to project … a checklist to either accept a new venture or to turn it down. With a little hope it will get me there.

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