Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Behind-the-scenes docs on the making of unseen films generally have an audience of none.
If you (or a friend or colleague) have made a film that has not been seen by anyone outside of cast/crew and maybe family/friends, your doc about the making of that film is most likely a non-starter – at least as a standalone project. It’s not something you probably should be submitting to festivals or broadcasters.
After spending long months, if not years, toiling away at your films, it’s absolutely understandable that you should grow attached to your projects – if you weren’t to some extent, I’d wonder why you put forth the filmmaking effort in the first place. Let’s say you finish your film – let’s call it FILM A – and also made a behind-the-scenes doc on the making of FILM A, which we’ll call FILM B. If, for whatever reason, you don’t get much exposure for FILM A – festivals aren’t selecting it, you either can’t or don’t want to self-distribute, etc – and it’s basically been seen only by yourself, your crew, the subjects of the film, and maybe some friends and family, sometimes you just have to concede that FILM A is not resonating with outsiders, and it might be time to put it on the shelf. Once you do that, you’re essentially also shelving FILM B. FILM B needs FILM A to be a viable project. It requires not only familiarity with FILM A, but an interest and engagement with FILM A. Your core audience for FILM B is your audience for FILM A.
I should note that the idea of making a behind-the-scenes doc like FILM B is not a bad one. Content like this could be originally conceived as an extra on a DVD release of FILM A or could be used as teaser clips on FILM A’s website to drum up interest from a core fanbase as a lead up to FILM A’s release or festival run. In both these examples, however, the behind-the-scenes doc isn’t a standalone project. Instead, it’s at the service of the original film, and used as either bonus content for fans or as a promotional tool. If you are not going to be able to grant FILM A a festival run or a theatrical or DVD release of any kind, FILM B ends up just being an unseen filmmaking exercise.
In general terms, unless the source film (or filmmaker) is unique, or unless the backstory is ridiculously compelling, it’s going to be very difficult to engage an audience with a standard behind-the-scenes account of a project they haven’t seen (and are not likely to ever see). These are not the types of docs which should be submitted for festival programming or broadcasting consideration. If a fest or broadcaster has already passed on the original film, it’s probably going to pass on the film about the making of that rejected film. After all, how would you expect their audience to understand the context of your doc if they are not exposed to the film your doc is about? Why should the viewer invest his/her time in the minutia of a film to which they don’t have easy access?
You need to take a step back and honestly assess if this doc works as a standalone project – if it is interesting and compelling without having seen the original film. Ask someone for an impartial perspective to help combat the myopic perspective you might have as the film’s creator – not a friend or close family member, but someone who will honestly be able to point out the project’s shortcomings (or strengths) without risking consequences to your personal relationship. If the doc doesn’t work on its own, you can consider trying to find a way to edit it to make it work on its own, or you can conclude that it’s best to just shelve it. Bottom line: if it doesn’t work, you shouldn’t submit it as is.
Of course, there are behind-the-scenes docs which can be engaging or revelatory. Ones that explore the backgrounds of better-known films or eccentric directors can be fascinating, such as Les Blanks’ BURDEN OF DREAMS or Michael Paul Stephenson’s BEST WORST MOVIE. Others can work even when focusing on esoterica, such as Chris Smith’s AMERICAN MOVIE, or unfinished projects, like Alexander Olch’s THE WINDMILL MOVIE. In these cases, however, the docs are about films that have received some measure of exposure; feature compelling characters or situations which in some way transcend the original films; or contextualize the original films in such a way that they mitigate the audiences’s need to have seen the original films. They succeed in becoming standalone projects by finding a way to become independent from their source films. Audiences could seek out FITZCARRALDO, TROLL 2, or COVEN, and seeing these original films could further inform the viewer’s experience of the docs about them, but they could also thoroughly appreciate the docs without ever seeing the source films.