Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re on a crusade for or against something. Will others care enough about it to watch a doc?
Let’s say you have become so motivated by some injustice or state of affairs that you’ve become an activist of sorts. You decide that you want to share your cause with the world by making a documentary about it. Before you commit to such a course, however, you should really ask yourself: Is this issue widespread enough for others to care about it? Can this topic sustain a feature-length treatment?
I’ve already written at length about advocacy docs and some of the pitfalls to try to avoid, so I’m not going to dwell on that here. Instead, the focus of this DDF is much more basic: Is it worth making a film about your topic in the first place?
One answer is, of course, absolutely. If you are a filmmaker, and you enjoy making films about things happening in your life, you may feel that your pet cause is as worthy of being filmed as any other issue out there. More power to you. Make your film about why you think male dogs should be forced to wear pants, and enjoy watching the final product with your friends, family, and pets. However, if you think your two-hour long pantalooned dog advocacy project is likely to resonate with the masses, I’d wager you are probably wrong. I’d guess that it’s unlikely to make it into most (if not all) of the festivals you send it to for consideration, and I’d very much doubt that broadcasters or distributors would be quick to offer you a platform either.
If you are thinking more along the lines of reaching audiences rather than making a doc simply for yourself – you have aspirations to show the film publicly, whether at festivals, conferences, theatrically, broadcast, or ancillary markets in the hopes of convincing people to join your cause and make a difference – then the question of whether or not it makes sense to proceed with the project in the first place bears serious consideration.
Is your cause something major, or more of a pet peeve/cause? How important is this issue – to you personally, to your community, and to society at large? Are there a significant amount of people affected by it? Would an advocacy documentary help your cause? Realistically, is the cause complex/controversial/wide-reaching enough to engage audiences for 15 minutes? 30 minutes? 60 minutes? 90 minutes?
Let’s say you have become a staunch anti-double parking crusader, and you’ve been trying to get the fines increased for all the jerks who block your car. Before you run off and make your 180 minute opus, TRAPPED: FOUR WHEELS AND NO WAY TO GO, you should probably realize that it’s going to be tough going to get an audience to watch it. Many people are likely inconvenienced by double parking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to go out of their way to watch a film about it. They might support your political lobbying, but a doc is probably not the most effective way to get your message out. Frankly, unless you’ve got some amazing tricks up your sleeve, I would be surprised if you have enough interesting things to say about the subject to fill 5 minutes much less a feature-length version of this hypothetical doc.
I do want to add one caveat, however, though with caution. Sometimes, projects that initially seem focused on a pet cause that shouldn’t work end up becoming more about the individuals involved in the cause than on the cause itself. In the hypothetical dog pants advocacy doc above, for example, the filmmaker himself, or perhaps other advocates he finds, might be fascinating eccentrics who are more able to carry a film than the cause itself can – it still merits serious consideration if these quirky character portraits can sustain a viewer’s attention over time, of course. Even the double parking scenario could potentially result in a similar character find, if you as a filmmaker are open to possibilities, and able to be honest with yourself about whether or not your project is working. If you acknowledge that a doc on double parking just isn’t going to set the world on fire, but you chance upon a double parking activist who could give Jack Rebney a run for his money as the angriest man in the world, you may have found a different film altogether, and one that may be worth pursuing after all.