What is the genesis, or backstory, of why you present documentary summits?
I am the author of a series of books called The Guerilla Film Makers Handbooks – one of which is The Documentary Filmmakers Handbook. The series is Q&A style that asks industry professionals the top questions one would need to know about that craft or portion of the industry. Many times we hear from our readers that they wish they could have been in the room during our interviews and so, as a way to extend the books, we decided to do a series of live events that does just that. And that is how and why The Documentary Summits were born – as a way for pros to interact with their community.
Who should attend the doc summit?
The Documentary Summit is for a wide array of experience levels and professions. Novices will get a good understanding of the various aspects of making non-fiction, while intermediates and veterans will have plenty of opportunity to delve deeper into the finer aspects of the craft/business via the discussions. Of course, documentary filmmakers and producers will get a lot of the Summit, but so will those working in new media, transmedia, non-profit advocacy and brand marketing. Documentary style techniques are used heavily in all of those platforms as a way to convey messages or raise awareness. And with the networking possibilities so high, those people, as well as crew members like DPs, editors and audio people might find some connections that lead to work.
What do you want doc summit attendees to walk away with at the end of the day?
That the Portland filmmaking community is incredibly vibrant and that the missing component to your project may only be a few miles away. And of course as is the motto of our books: to grab a camera, get some hard drives and go make a doc!
What qualities do you look for in the cities you choose for hosting your doc summits?
Perhaps the most important thing is that there is a rich creative community. That can be in obvious documentary hotspots like San Francisco, Toronto or London, but it can also be in smaller communities such as Raleigh and Detroit where social unrest or a shifting population means there are loads of stories ready to be highlighted.
How does Portland’s documentary industry compare to other cities?
Portland seems to be unique in one very specific way: the community is very independent minded. This cuts both ways. On the one hand, it means that the work is incredibly interesting and usually not sanitized. But the other aspect is that the sense of community appears, at least to me, fragmented. There seems to be a lot of pockets of people working but not with a greater sense of community.
What have you observed about the shifting landscape in documentary storytelling?
I’ve noticed two major things recently. The first is that culture oriented documentaries seem to be doing the best when it comes to distribution. What I mean by that is films like Searching for Sugarman or 20 Feet From Stardom which have a strong central character in the arts seem to do really well. These films start with the character and story and then put the social message as the obstacles they face, which is more like how fiction films do it. The second thing I’ve noticed is that those advocacy or message based films have been turning up more in the online distribution space where those that want to consume them can very easily. It might not be as glamourous, but you get more eyeballs.
What is the path forward to be successful in documentary film?
To diversify. You can make your indie feature doc, but know it is going to take a very long time to complete it. If you’ve got funding for it, great, but most people don’t and so I encourage you to use your non-fiction skills in other ways. Those can be to work on branded marketing campaigns or advocacy based projects for non-profits and NGOs. The transmedia space is becoming increasingly hot and in a few years, it will be where most docs go for distribution.
Past summits have discussed the idea to “Make Movements, Not Movies” what does that mean?
This came out of our Seattle Interactive Documentary Summit and speaks to the advocacy based space. It means that a good use of non-fiction is to move people to action in some way to better their community. So that could mean to sign petitions or to volunteer someplace or to actively recycle more. The struggle here is that many indie doc filmmakers want their films to be unbiased and to let their audience make up their minds about their subjects. That’s a fair position to take and it really comes down to the purpose of the work and the mindset of the filmmaker themselves.
At the heart of it, why should industry professionals attend the doc summit?
There is one immutable truth to our industry and most others as well. Networking and knowing the latest trends of an industry are the keys to working and being inspired. The Documentary Summit offers a relaxed, fun, informative way to do both of those things.