Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Remember the key word “selects” in “scene selects” -put some thought into yr picks!
Like last week’s DDF, this one is aimed at helping filmmakers make the right first impression. In this case, rather than trailers, I’m focusing on what you should (and shouldn’t) provide when asked by a potential funder, broadcaster, or market to provide a sample of your work rather than an entire cut.
I’ll begin by saying that I recognize that it’s very difficult to try to give a rounded impression of your project through individual scenes versus a rough or fine cut. If given the option, and, importantly, if you have a cut you are comfortable with decision makers seeing, by all means always go with the rough cut – it should provide a fuller, more accurate sense of your storytelling ability, your character development, and your filmmaking skills in general. However, if a grant application, for example, limits you to only providing scene selects – probably due to limitations of the review process – then you will face the daunting task of determining which scenes best represent your overall project while being presented outside of the larger context in which they’re intended to screen.
It might be helpful to think about these scene selects as a calling card of sorts. If they pass muster with the decision makers considering them, you might move on to the next round of consideration and have the opportunity then to submit additional materials, and perhaps even a rough or fine cut. As with your trailers, your goal should be to make the viewers of your scene selects want to see more. This is your most direct way to provide essential information about your film that can help you gain the funding, resources, or exposure to realize the project to its fullest potential.
As I say in the DDF above, be incredibly selective when choosing what footage you are going to submit. Try to convey your filmmaking style, your approach to characters, and how you handle interviews. Determine which scenes best serve as an introduction to your main characters and most succinctly and accurately establish what is at stake for them – the overarching topic or issue that drives your protagonists and their stories forward. Select footage that is visually compelling, not static. Unless your doc consists entirely of talking heads, or unless it’s undeniably fascinating, it’s probably not the best idea to select long interview segments. If you’re not really planning on making the wild-eyed village idiot that you filmed for a couple of hours into a central character, you might want to rethink including that footage as representative of your overall project. As with your trailer, it should go without saying that you should take pains not to misrepresent your project – because these are scene selects, the viewer should reasonably expect that what s/he is seeing (or something similar to it, at least) has a good chance of being in the completed version of your film.
It’s important to note that, no matter what written or promotional materials you are also asked to submit alongside the scene selects – cover letters, narratives, etc – you will make the biggest impact with what is on your screener. You can have the most eloquently written scene-by-scene description in your application for funding, but if at least some of that is not borne out by the visual samples you provide, you’re likely to be out of luck. I’m not saying funders don’t take your written narrative seriously – if they ask for something, they consider it important and want to see what you have to say – but, borrowing from the old adage, a picture in this case might not only be worth a thousand words, but also the difference between thousands of dollars of funding support or nothing.