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“Filmmakers can broaden their audiences and create powerful learning experiences for hundreds of thousands of students who might not other­ wise see a particular film. This book helps to provide resources to film­ makers looking to impact both teaching and learning in the classroom.“

—Joanne Ashe, founding director

“We believe in the power of film to inspire social change. With this book, emerging filmmakers now have a resource to help them develop engaging stories and tools to help activate audiences around the world.“

—David Linde, CEO, Participant Media

“Films can have such a profound impact on how we view the world and they

can truly create everlasting, positive change. This book will help you create

a blueprint for empowering action.“

—Morgan Spurlock, Academy Award nominated filmmaker: Super Size Me; POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

“I have never seen anyone handle a wider variety of demands with more

grace and skill than Jon Fitzgerald. He has earned the respect and support of everyone involved with the film community. This book is a great tool for filmmakers to produce and distribute projects that can make a difference in the world.“

—Steven Soderbergh, Academy Award winning filmmaker:

Traffic; Erin Brockovich

“Filmmaking has become the most powerful weapon in the world, what I call ‘a weapon of mass construction.’ Filmmaking for Change is this new movement’s instruction manual.“

—Louie Psihoyos, Academy Award winning filmmaker:

The Cove; executive director, Oceanic Preservation Society

“Covers how to create a documentary from start to finish


aspects of filmmaking, such as developing ideas, applying narrative struc­ ture, production scheduling, marketing, distribution options, film festivals,

and more. A great book for filmmakers who want to create change.“

—Tom Farr, blogger: A Journey of Faith and Creativity

“This book reminds us that film schools should concentrate not just on the technique of filmmaking, but the content as well, and how these stories can inspire audiences to take action.“

—Tom Pollock, former chairman MCA/Universal, former chairman of the board AFI, executive producer: Up In the Air

“Jon Fitzgerald’s Filmmaking for Change is an invaluable guide to making and marketing movies that can make a difference. By critically examining case studies of five different movies and how they were developed, pro­ duced, and distributed, Jon has provided great insight into a process that confounds many filmmakers. This is an essential and practical guide for filmmakers wanting to make social issue movies.“

—Mark Litwak, attorney, producer’s rep, author: Risky Business — Financing & Distributing Independent Films; Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry

Filmmaking for Change is a marvel, a revelation, and a must­read for film buffs, indie filmmakers, film festival programmers, studio heads, film distributors, and screenwriters.“

—Elizabeth English, founder, executive director, artistic director — Moondance International Film Festival

“As a reviewer of documentary films, I have become passionate about the

power they have to inspire much­needed social and individual change—and

I have become intimate with the challenges documentary filmmakers face

in producing and distributing their films. Like a powerful documentary film, I have no doubt Filmmaking for Change will ‘change’ and expand the world of documentary filmmaking—as well as narrative films based on critical issues of our time.“

—Don Schwartz, CineSource magazine

“It’s hard to say exactly how to make a documentary, due to its unpredictable nature, but Filmmaking for Change manages to give useful tips, as well as touch on the very important aspect that should be focused on from day one:

How do I get my film actually seen once it is finished (distribution)? As someone currently filming a documentary, this was exactly the kind of book

I was looking for!“

—Erin Corrado,











Published by Michael Wiese Productions 12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111 Studio City, CA 91604 (818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (Fax) Manufactured in the United States of America

Copyright © 2017 Jon Fitzgerald

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

This book was set in Scala and Gotham

Cover design by Johnny Ink. Interior design by Debbie Berne Copyediting by Sherry Parnes

ISBN: 9781615932771


How to Use This Book Introduction 1




The Open Road — Calling all Storytellers

The Shift is On — Time for Transformation




The Call to Action — Real to Reel The Finances — Green to Green

The Call to Action — Real to Reel The Finances — Green to Green




The Stories — From Facts to Fiction


The Finances — Shaking the Money Tree




Words of Wisdom from Industry Professionals





The Crew — Get Set!


The Final Prep — Go!



The Non­Fiction Film — Documenting Reality


The Narrative — Filming Fiction




The Work Flow — Sculpting the Work


The Final Package — Delivering the Elements




Words of Wisdom from Industry Professionals




The Strategies — Marketing 101


The Sales Tools — Adding the Polish


The Internet — Window to the World



The Submission Strategy — How to Join the Party

The Process — Get Your Dance On



The Hybrid Strategy — A Paradigm Shift



The Execution — Putting the Plan into Action

The Impact — Measuring Change





Words of Wisdom from Industry Professionals

In Conclusion




Glossary of Terms

Sample Budget

Finishing Funds Campaign — Front the Back Nine

Fundraising Sample — The Back Nine Keynote

Sample Survey







Sample Press Kit — The Highest Pass


10 Keys to Playing the Festival Circuit


Host Your Own Screening Sample

Delivery Requirements

About the Author





With so many different levels of independent film production, film­ maker styles, and stages of the game, this book is structured to serve multiple functions. Whether you are an emerging or established film­ maker, film student or professor, industry professional or philanthro­ pist, these pages will speak to you. Presumably, you are interested in the core concept and purpose of this book, which is to demonstrate the power of film to make a difference in the world. While Planet Earth is seeing many changes, so too is the film business. As industry veteran Peter Broderick says, “Welcome to the New World of distribution,” where independent filmmakers chart their own path to audiences. With that in mind, I present the three primary stages of the life of a movie, from the seed of an idea (Development), to the making of the film (Production), through the final delivery to the audience (Distribution). Throughout these general sections, as you will see in the Table of Contents, there are subcategories, where you will discover information on specific topics. For this 2nd Edition, we have added Activation as a category under Distribution, which will cover they key bases for engaging and measuring change. At the end of each section, you will find Case Studies for five dif­ ferent films, presented as Question and Answer sessions from film­ makers on topics applicable to each respective category. And on the heels of the Case Studies, I have included Words of Wisdom, insights and important tips from industry professionals. I have had the opportunity to produce and direct five documen­ taries since 2010 (The Back Nine, The Highest Pass, The Milky Way, Warrior One, and Dance of Liberation). Each of these projects has had a profound impact on me, and based on audience feedback, has had a positive effect on many viewers. It was the cumulative effect of these experiences, combined with recognizing that we are living in a time


that calls for change, which led to the writing of this book. Therefore, whenever applicable, I have included examples from my work on these films. These Author’s Notes will be in italics for the purpose of simple identification. In addition, there are a number of industry terms used through­ out the book, and I have put them in bold to indicate that a definition can be found at the back of the book in the Resources section under Glossary of Terms. Finally, there are some terrific documents, articles and templates for you in the Resources section at the back of the book. These tools apply to various stages of the journey that is filmmaking. Some film­ makers may have been thinking about making a movie for some time and just need this extra push, or the right resource. Others may have already started the process, or have the film in the can but are seeking some final words of wisdom before they bring the film to the world. Wherever you are on this path, please see Filmmaking for Change as a support vehicle. Audiences are waiting with open eyes, looking to be engaged, and ready to take action.



I was in grade school by the time I got my first real taste of a socially relevant

movie. I saw To Kill a Mockingbird, with my class. This was heavy,

dealing with issues of rape, racial inequality and gender roles. As evi­ denced by the fact that this movie, and of course the book from which

it is based, is taught in classes all over the world, there must be some­

thing substantial between the lines. Then in college, the year I declared my major in Film Studies, I saw The Thin Blue Line (1988). There’s no denying that director Errol Morris’ acclaimed documentary made a difference. It’s the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man who was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer. Adams was eventually given a chance at a retrial, acquitted of the murder charge, and given back his freedom. Cut to 1999 and the movie that took the cause movie to another level, An Inconvenient Truth. Whether or not you agree with his prem­

ise, there’s no denying that former Vice President Al Gore’s film about the possible dangers of global warming became a cultural phenome­ non. In addition to being the fourth­highest grossing documentary in U.S. history, An Inconvenient Truth is credited with raising awareness of the issue around the world and helping to make climate change

a major subject of debate in subsequent political campaigns. What

participant media did with this film, and many others, was to really connect the dots between the issues and the causes they support,


Filmmaking for change

while creating opportunities to take action. And from an industry per­ spective, the film proved these projects could do more than just raise awareness, they could make money. The First edition of Filmmaking for Change was published in 2012, when the golden age of documentary was in full swing. I was thrilled that the book was so embraced by the social impact film commu­ nity. From film schools to film festivals, non­profits to impact orga­ nizations, we were all recognizing the groundswell in filmmaking for change. Thanks to the attention to the book, and by extension my com­ pany Cause Pictures, I had the pleasure of consulting on a number of high profile projects, including Landfill Harmonic and Sold, and was hired to produce and direct The Milky Way (a film about breastfeeding) and Warrior One (about female empowerment).




Given the remarkable evolution of film as a storytelling device, the current state of the world’s affairs, and our access to information, we can expect that a new wave of filmmakers will emerge feeling the call to create more meaningful, transformational and entertaining stories. Documentary film production is on the rise, and these projects con­

tinue to be all the rage at film festivals, before being featured promi­ nently in the Netflix cue. It may take some aspiring filmmakers longer than others, but many will eventually see movies as much more than

a form of entertainment or a way to get rich and famous. Independent

filmmakers will see the cause film as a new kind of opportunity; as a

vehicle to make a difference in the world. Many projects will be devel­ oped by accomplished filmmakers, with others being conceived by non professional citizens and groups, simply recognizing cinema as a powerful tool for change. Filmmakers, industry leaders and educators are coming to recog­ nize that the old model is broken. A new paradigm is taking shape, and

a new cause genre is being defined. Audiences want to be enlightened



through entertainment. More than welcome this, we need to nurture it. It may take some longer than others—for aspiring filmmakers to see movies as much more than a form of entertainment or a way to get rich and famous. This next generation of independent filmmakers should see the cause film as a road to opportunity, but they will have to learn to wear many hats. They will have to be more than visual artists, more than documentarians. They have to become entrepreneurs in their own right, and help in redefining the business model. Celebrities are joining the documentary ranks en masse, and docu­ mentarians become celebrities. Morgan Freeman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens have participated in leading documentaries; and studio director James Cameron formed Earthship Productions to make documentaries about ocean exploration and conservation. There continues to be an increase in social impact filmmaking, from indie to mainstream, in all categories and formats, documentary, narrative, VR and “premium” content. Yes, there are still a number of low­end realty shows, but their target audiences are not trying to change the world. Audiences are calling out for more films about the world we’re living in. And someone’s listening. We have more the­ atrical releases for cause movies, more diverse digital platforms pre­ senting documentaries and classes being offered in colleges across the country. Indeed, our filmmakers of tomorrow have a new calling, Filmmaking for Change. These projects are made with a goal in mind, a mission to share, and a movement to foster. With the information provided in the following pages, I hope to provide insights for this new model, filmmaking anchored by a cause, with engaging stories pro­ duced in an entertaining way. Like any art form, filmmaking has many styles, formats and tricks of the trade. Fortunately, in the documentary category, I’m proposing a structure that provides a roadmap, for the seasoned filmmaker and the emerging change maker. From the idea to production, distribution through audience engagement, the tools are here.


As the Cause Cinema genre becomes more defined, along with the expanding distribution platforms, it will become more import­ ant to mobilize impact campaigns. Inspired audiences want a clear path so they can join the movement. For this reason, I have added the “Activation” section to this 2nd Edition. Social impact films are made with a goal in mind. Our challenge is to share engaging stories that cause action, which then leads to measurable results. Let’s demon­ strate how these films can truly help transform the world.



“If you want to send a message, call Western Union” —Samuel Goldwyn, MGM





Throughout human history people have shared stories. Whether around a

campfire, at a theater or in a living room, storytelling has always been more than just a form of entertainment. It has been a vehicle to pass on important information about the human experience, trigger imag­ ination, and at its best, provide inspiration for future generations. We have always pondered our place in the world, with a few timeless ques­ tions. Why we are here? Where are we going? What is our purpose? The early tales eventually became myths, and as presented by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a deeper, met­ aphorical context to human storytelling evolved. Campbell applied significance to the connection between myth and the cultures of the world. The quest, a symbolic yearning for inner transformation that all heroes seem to share, became the anchor for his revered text, The Hero’s Journey. People identify with heroes, living through them, participating in their journey, and finding ways to integrate these stories into their own lives. From the dramatic excitement of the nickelodeons of the late 1900’s to the event pictures of today, audiences have always had a thirst for seeing stories on screen; for the “spectacle”. And yet, while


Filmmaking for change

the “escape” factor has always been a key part of the draw, and the psy­ chological effects of the communal theater experience is significant, motion pictures have demonstrated their ability to transcend pure entertainment. Many studio and independent pictures have inspired us to take a closer look at ourselves, the issues and other cultures in the world around us. Motion pictures produced in the early 20th Century were primar­ ily about real people, dealing with real issues. We didn’t have special effects as we know them today. Fiction or not, audiences connected

with the stories on a tangible, personal level. For the narratives to be compelling, they had to have engaging characters doing things that members of the target audience could connect with. They had to share emotions we could relate to in our own lives. One of the early film pioneers, DW Griffith, created Birth of a Nation (1915), demonstrating a remarkable emotional power. “It was the first film to be taken seri­ ously as a political statement and it has never failed to be regarded seriously as a ‘sociological document.’ People who had previously dis­ missed the movies as nothing more than crude entertainment sud­ denly realized that they had become the century’s most potent and

provocative medium of expression

entertainment and also the possibility of mass indoctrination,” said historian Harry Geduld. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, considered by many to be the late 1920s to the early 1960s, the studios churned out thousands of films, in numerous genres. They built a very profitable industry, with commerce winning out over art. Studio executives didn’t openly embrace the idea of producing movies with any social relevance, sto­ ries with purpose. Studio pioneer Sam Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” It is clear, however, a number of movies presented audiences with important issues of their day, sharing relatable themes and often a taste of their history. Whether this was a primary intention, or they refused to admit it, stu­ dios did give audiences a fair share of meaningful pictures.

mass communication, mass



As you will see in the pages that follow, in the golden age of Hollywood, many of the most successful films at the box office were also the most critically acclaimed. The filmmakers running the stu­ dios at the time had a pulse on the audiences of the day. Many of the films were based on books, but the storylines hinged on historical context, such as Gone with the Wind and All Quiet on the Western Front. And while the source material broadened, and the studio system con­ tinued to evolve, it wasn’t until the advent of the studio blockbuster that the industry started its downward spiral. The percentage of pres­ tige pictures gave way to formulaic studio fare. Good news, bad news. Always the bad news first. Once the stu­ dios began trying to find the next blockbuster, and produce the next remake or reboot, their efforts to support the more difficult, “mean­ ingful” movie was greatly reduced. The good news is that a number of independently produced films found their way into the multiplex. From An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to Precious (2009), a number of wonderful, meaningful pictures found their way to the screen, and thanks to Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, evolving VOD platforms and the growth of online exhibition, more of these cause­related pictures are finding audiences than ever before. With films produced by companies like Participant Media and released by distributors like Roadside Attractions, audiences have learned more about the cultural and social issues we now face. Equally important, a number of these films have had a direct impact on the world around us. When Morgan Spurlock made Super Size Me (2004), a public nutrition debate kicked into high gear and six weeks after the film premiered, McDonald’s announced that it was eliminating the Super Size option from its menu. How’s that for the power of film? In tracking this specific sub genre of food and nutrition, for exam­ ple, we had Food, Inc. (2008) from Participant Media and Food Matters (2008), followed by Forks Over Knives (2011), which spawned many ancillary business lines. More than a dozen popular food docs graced the digital platforms in the past few years, with Food Matters launching


Filmmaking for change

their own channel ( and Netflix creating a hit series with Chefs Table. Yes, a slight sidebar. But the point is, audiences are embracing stories about real people, with real issues, in a culture with a growing concern about our well being.


In terms of competition or economics, barriers to entry are typically considered obstacles to enter into an existing market, or those a person may face to enter a certain field or profession. Sometimes they involve official rules or high costs, making it difficult for a person or company to get into a particular type of business. One of the best things about the film business is this: there are no rules. And anytime it seems a rule or formula was being established, a rule breaker comes along. As distinguished screenwriter William Goldman once said, referring to Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” Films are not widgets. They’re stories. Some our greatest story­ tellers were playing with cameras at an early age (Steven Spielberg), while others learned their craft in film school programs (Francis Ford Coppola). Regardless of their path, one of the few constants in this industry is that the “discovery” of a good story can come from any­ where, and anybody. If you have the perseverance, there are low bar­ riers to entry. A few years ago, Brian Wendel was selling real estate. He had been conscious of the value of nutrition and how it can affect your life. A healthy diet makes you stronger, your mind sharper, and as he would come to learn, it can actually save your life. Wanting to share these ideas with the world, he explored the best avenues. Brian was not a filmmaker by trade, but he ultimately realized film was the best medium to share this information. A few calls and two meetings later, he had a producer, a director and the title for his movie. Forks Over Knives was born. (More on this film and the process from the seed of the idea to release on DVD can be found in the Case Studies section.)



This is just one of many inspirational examples, where the germ of an idea becomes a movie that can transform lives. Of Forks Over Knives, Roger Ebert said, “Here is a film that could save your life.” As you will see in the pages that follow, there are many different catego­ ries, issue­engaging stories that can make a difference. The trick is to discover that core concept, find the characters that can help shape the story, and surround yourself with the best team to bring the project to life. Anyone with an idea, passion to share it and a healthy dose of deter­ mination can get a movie made. The trick is to find the all­star team that will give you the best production value you can get for the money. Two lactation consultants wanted to use the power of film to share their insights on the significance of breastfeeding, and America’s failure to support the nursing phenomenon. They wanted to know why we had a 15 percent success rate of breastfeeding in America, as opposed to over 90 percent in several Scandinavian countries; and provide scientific data and expert analysis to support the importance of breastfeeding. Fortunately, one of them had worked with my fam­ ily, so it was an easy connection point, and The Milky Way (2014) was born. These nurses became filmmakers and started a movement to restore the nursing mother archetype. There was a similar revolution in the 1990’s. Several indie film­ makers made highly profitable movies, produced at a very low cost. Their success triggered an avalanche, and mountains of horrible indie films flooded festival directors around the world. I know, because I was one of those festival directors! It started with El Mariachi (1992), a little film shot for less than $7,000. The movie played to much success on the film festival cir­ cuit, was acquired by Columbia and went on to gross over two million dollars at the box office. More importantly, it launched the career of Robert Rodriguez; and his book (“Rebel Without a Crew”) and DVD extra “Ten Minute Film School” became popular with emerging film­ makers wanting to follow his example of making movies for a price. Then Kevin Smith burst onto the scene with Clerks (1994) at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was made for under $30,000, did


Filmmaking for change

over three million at the domestic box office, and demonstrated once again how you can make an entertaining film for very little money. The prize for the biggest success, in terms of cost to revenue ratio, belongs to the Blair Witch Project (1999). This little movie was shot for under $30,000. Of course, it ended up costing over $400,000 to fin­ ish, with another 25 million put into prints and advertising budgets, but the franchise has generated over 500 million in revenues. While these films don’t fall into the cause film bucket, they repre­ sented a significant movement for independent cinema and demon­ strated what can be done with very little money. These films spawned a new generation of filmmakers, as independent artists came out of nowhere to make movies. We saw a proliferation of film programs in colleges. And while some emerging filmmakers learned the hard way that this business was not for them, this low barrier of entry enabled many true artists to find their calling. Documentary filmmakers cer­ tainly took notice. As we moved into the new millennium, a number of quality non­fiction filmmakers came to the forefront, and one of the more unique talents was Morgan Spurlock. He had learned of two over­ weight kids suing McDonalds. In their suit, they argued that they had become obese as a result of eating McDonalds food. They ultimately lost the lawsuit, but Spurlock decided to make a movie on the subject, documenting the effects of eating only McDonalds for 30 days. The result was Super Size Me (2004). He wanted to explore the psycho­ logical and physiological effects this food would have on him person­ ally, as well as how the fast food industry continues to encourage poor nutrition for its own profit. Not only is this an entertaining and award­winning documen­ tary, but it was shot for less than $64,000, using a Sony DSR PD150 (which you can buy for less than $1,000). The movie went on to gross over 11 million dollars theatrically in the U.S., and over nine million in foreign markets. While the movie brings up some major issues, from corporate greed to America’s problem with obesity, it once again



demonstrates how a film, anchored by an important issue, can be made for modest amount of money, certainly by Hollywood standards. There will be more on this topic in the Production section of the book, and this is not meant to be an oversimplification on the subject, but for less than $5,000 you can acquire the minimum tools needed to make a powerful film. Of course, there are a lot of questions to be answered in terms of crew costs and final delivery, but consider these key ingredients:

1 Digital Camera: Canon, Nikon $300–$2,000

2 Sound: Seinheiser Microphone Package $1,500 or less

3 Editing Software: Final Cut Pro $300

4 Laptop Computer: MacBook Pro $1,500 or less

With a good idea, and the right team, you can develop a storyline and put the project into production. It will take a great deal of time and commitment, but it’s a small price to pay to make a difference in the world. With such low barriers to entry, the time is now to take that leap.


Now, more than ever before, audiences are seeking characters they can connect with, heroes they can relate to, cultural revelations. With obstacles that include the economy, a deteriorating environment, and issues of human rights just to name a few, filmmakers have captivat­ ing, important, and relevant subjects to explore. Audiences are also looking for correlations to the environment. They want to know what is happening in the world around them, and why. There is a reason why cause movies are in demand. People are looking for answers. And let’s face it, charities and causes are in vogue. There were over 250 billion dollars in charitable donations in 2011,


Filmmaking for change

and 373 billion in 2015. Studies show that more than 83 percent of con­ sumers polled want to contribute to companies who give back to char­ ities, or where a percentage of their purchases goes to worthy causes. Corporations are starting Cause Marketing divisions, and financing sweepstakes with money and prizes going to causes. People are finally getting altruism, and even more studies show that giving makes peo­ ple feel good. Imagine that! Charity is no longer an obstacle. It’s an opportunity. Whatever angle you want to play, it’s clear. People want to make a difference. From a filmmaking and storytelling perspective, reporters are talking about how news content is shifting more and more towards video content. Authors are writing about how business slogans and pitches need to be more like stories, and A­list producers are look­ ing for more meaningful movies. Finally, entrepreneurs like Jeff Skoll (Ebay) created Participant Media and Ted Leonsis (AOL) coined the term filmanthropy, launching online documentary site will be the cause portal, guiding audiences to the best in social impact cinema, connecting movies to related causes. Hell, if they can make dark crime dramas in the 1940’s and 50’s, from stories that emerged in the U.S. during the depression and call it Film Noir, why can’t we create a new subgenre for our time? Cause Cinema represents the socially relevant films of the day, with the stories being connected more directly the causes they support. If we’re living in the golden age of the documentary, now is the time to coin the term, as we all welcome the opportunity to use film to affect positive change.




· The quest, a symbolic yearning for inner transformation that all heroes seem to share, became the anchor for Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero’s Journey, a tool eventually used as a storytelling structure in filmmaking.

· People identify with heroes in movies, living through them, participating in their journey and finding ways to integrate these stories into their own lives.

· In independent filmmaking, the germ of an idea becomes a movie that can transform lives.

· For less than $5,000, you can acquire the minimum tools needed to make a powerful film.

· Audiences want to know what is happening in the world around them, for correlations in their environment; which is the reason why cause movies are in demand.


1 Watch one of your favorite films from the past and see if you can identify elements of the hero’s journey and how character traits or points made throughout the film relate to your life.

2 Consider any movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and see if you can articulate to a friend or on paper the “message” of the movie.

3 Visit your favorite online video store and review the documentary options. After selecting and watching a movie, take a few moments to identify the issues raised in the film.

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A few years after DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and the simultaneous

development of the Hollywood studios, a genre dubbed the “narrative documentary,” was taking shape. By their very nature, these non­fiction films provided a glimpse into other cultures and issues of the world. Robert Flaherty, for example, became interested in the harsh lives of the Eskimos of the Belcher Islands. After living with an Eskimo family for fifteen months and filming their daily lives, he edited the footage into a feature documentary entitled Nanook of the North (1922). The film achieved great critical and commercial success. Another documentary, Grass (1925), highlighted the extreme hardships faced by nomadic peoples, as well as the bravery and inge­ nuity of the Bakhtiari. At the same time, the film is also a reflection of the context out of which it emerged, that of Hollywood in the 1920s. The central concern of Grass is to present primordial human struggle with harsh environments, as in the Nanook of the North. Like Nanook, the filmmakers attempt to document “timeless” and “ancient” human struggles.



Both of these documentaries were deemed “culturally, historically,

or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United

States Library of Congress National Film Registry. These, however, were exceptions to the rule. While a few filmmakers sprinkled doc­ umentary works into the mix over the years, most struggled to find movie screens. Studio movies, driven by narrative storytelling and made with recognizable talent, dominated theaters. Over the years, it continued to be a struggle for documentaries to find screen time in theaters, but with the advent of television, they would find an audience at home. A few movies really stood out in this period. Michael Apted kicked off The Up Series (1964) with a sim­ ple hook: Fourteen British schoolchildren would be interviewed every seven years, well into adulthood. Seven installments later, this series

continues to provide powerful insight into the cycles of life. More rock doc than Cause picture was DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967). Tracing Bob Dylan’s England tour in 1964, the film became a land­ mark in both film and rock history. High School (1968) was Frederick Wiseman’s exploration of a Philadelphia school, deftly weaving in a social critique, as the authority figures feeding kids hollow values took on a new level of significance. Not only did this project strike a nerve with general audiences, it was one of the first to be presented in schools across the country, as an example of using film as a tool for discussion on the issues at hand. Documentary took another big step forward with Roger & Me in 1989, a film that was given a fairly wide theatrical release for a non­ fiction title. The film also presented the controversial Michael Moore to the world, who would go on to make a number of successful films, including Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, and Capitalism:

A Love Story. Love him or hate him, he really helped to establish the

documentary as a commercially viable medium. In 1994, one of the best films of the decade took the festival circuit by storm, in Hoop Dreams. In fact, Roger Ebert picked it as his number one film of the year, and later of the decade! The project tracks two


Filmmaking for change

young African America youths and their quest to play professional basketball. Filmmakers had originally intended for the film to cover a grade school transition and their personal struggles. Yet, as the story evolved, they chose to continue filming, ultimately taking nearly 10 years from start to finish. In the new millennium, the documentary genre really took off. They started to score at the theatrical box office like never before, with Fahrenheit/911 (2004) and March Of The Penguins (2005) both gross­ ing over 100 million dollars, with Moore’s film leading the charge. With his blue­collar persona, Michael Moore used a loud camera voice to inspire debate. His subjective documentary style of filmmak­ ing catered to a generation immersed in audio/visual stimulation. Fahrenheit 9/11 pushed the boundaries of politics and entertainment. With a mixture of popular music, humor, and documentary­style sto­ rytelling, Moore was able to involve audience members in ways that politics alone could not. With a release so close to an election, people did try to prohibit the film’s release. However, Moore used the sur­ rounding drama to fuel the promotion of his movie, stating, “I want to thank all the right­wing organizations out there that tried to stop this movie either through harassment campaigns, going to the FEC to get our ads removed from television, or the things they said on television. All they have done is given more publicity to the film.” Following in these footsteps, the popularity of the genre contin­ ued to grow, with twenty of the top twenty­five grossing documenta­ ries in history being made in between 2000­2010. At film festivals, largely considered a barometer for quality independent cinema, the documentary sections generated more buzz than the narratives time and time again. Here are 10 of the standouts:

1 Food Inc. (2008)

2 An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

3 Inside Job (2010)

4 March of the Penguins (2005)



5 Super Size Me (2004)

6 Born Into Brothels (2004)

7 Hoop Dreams (1994)

8 Citizenfour (2014)

9 Fog Of War (2003)

10 Waiting for Superman (2010)

The genre had evolved from being a primarily static, talking heads category, to a broader range of technical styles and structures, with more of a narrative flow and heightened sense of storytelling. Examples include: Man on Wire (2008), The Cove (2009), and Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). While there were some great biopics and slice of life docs over the years (Crumb (1994); Hearts Of Darkness (1991); Fast, Cheap and out of Control (1997); and Grizzly Man (2005)) and Rock Docs (The Last Waltz (1978); Gimme Shelter (1969); Stop Making Sense (1984); Don’t Look Back (1969); and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005)), playing the nostalgia card, it was this new chapter in the genre that really led to what many are indeed calling the Golden Age of Documentary. “Although dramatic films based on real life are in vogue, cinema’s most direct connection to the world at large remains the documentary film, and 2010 has seen a remarkable resurgence of the form,” says Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. Another contributing factor is simply the current landscape of the world. Clearly, we are living in difficult times. From the economic and political crises to global warming, and a full range of social and ecological issues in between, audiences seem to be turning to the doc­ umentary to get some answers. “I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. There is a frustration with traditional media and a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. People are looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting from Hollywood or the traditional media,” says filmmaker Lucy Walker. As the stories change, so do their platforms and values. We are now living in a time of uncertainty, and the need for more socially relevant stories has emerged.


Filmmaking for change


So you want to make an engaging film; tell a story that will make a difference in the world. Now what? If you already have a subject mat­ ter or an idea to explore, you are ahead of the game. If not, where do the ideas come from? There are a number of resources to help you find the idea you really connect with. Whether it’s surfing the net for compelling characters, stories or causes, or going a more traditional route of perusing publications (books, newspapers or magazines), the ideas are out there. Perhaps you know an issue you want to explore, such as education or the environment. If so, what’s the angle? Do you have someone in mind, a “hero” to anchor the story? It all comes down to telling an interesting story. One of the most successful television shows off all time is 60 Minutes. When the founder, Don Hewitt, was asked how they decided what segments to produce, he said it was pretty simple:

“Tell me a story”. Yes, they made good choices about their subjects and had the journalistic experience to present the stories in compelling way. This is just an example of just how important “story” is. Often times, news content presents the core idea for a good movie. They can even present a rich and detailed history that provides much more than just an idea. Is the story already connected to a “cause” or are there themes you can easily connect? Publisher GOOD is a great resource (, as is There are literally hundreds of categories that have subcategories; and many real people with real stories to tell that can inspire audi­ ences to take action. Here are some to consider:

• Education

• Environment (Ocean, Pollution, Nature Preservation)

• Human Rights

• Inspiration

• Animal Rights



• War

• Health (Cancer, Aids, Autism, TB, Depression, Obesity)

• Arts

• Political

• International Issues

• Children

• Homelessness

• Water Crisis

In 2007, I was ready to transition back into filmmaking. I had a couple of

investors and wanted to make a movie for a price. Something I could control.

I didn’t want to wait around for one of my bigger projects to get the ever-elu- sive ‘green light.’ I was walking down the fairway on a golf course in Palm Springs, doing what I love to do. Then the idea hit me. I wondered if it was possible to become a professional athlete after turning 40. Was it ever too late to chase a dream? I was sliding into 40 and was up for the challenge. I talked to some friends, and did some research about the number of golfers in the U.S., North America, and the world. In short order, I learned there were well over 50 million golfers in North America alone! I would call my film Be The Ball—after that famous line in Caddyshack. I would walk into a golf pro’s office and say “You have 10 years to make me good enough to qualify in

a professional tournament. Is it possible?” I developed a plan, a budget and

a tagline: ‘It’s never too late to become what you wanted to be.’ I had a cheap HD camera, and an assistant with camera experience. I was ready to move into production

Once you have a subject, category or idea, there are other key factors to consider, including:

• Goals for the movie

• Audience

• Time commitment


Filmmaking for change

Having a goal for the movie may seem obvious. You want to make

a movie that tells a great story. One that manages to raise awareness

of an issue. Bring attention to a subject. Get people to take action. These are all great ideals. I’ve talked to a few filmmakers who have been fortunate enough to work on some amazing documentaries; and when I asked about next steps, or their call to action, they say, “I’m a filmmaker, and am onto my next movie.” Surprising, yes, but it cer­ tainly helps to know your purpose, and your strengths. If making the film is a gig, the activation of a movement may not carry the same weight. This is where your goal for the project comes into play. Are there specific goals? Targets? Do you want to get a law passed? And who is paying for the project? Do they want their money back, or is it a donation for the greater good? These are all questions, many of which

will be addressed in the Activation section of Part III, but they key is to

start with the end in mind

right from the beginning.

When I started working with Jill Wheeler on Warrior One, she was already providing support for groups and individuals in the category of empowerment and leadership, primarily working young girls and women. She had dreamed of taking a team of girls into nature, incorporating what she calls ‘adventure therapy’. Jill also knew how the power of film could inspire other kids seeing the movie to think differently about themselves, find more positive influences, and find their path to become leaders in their own right. The intention was always to be able to show the movie to kids, to present it in schools and screen for organizations. By seeing these underprivileged kids go through a training program that culminates in a trek in Peru, to the peaks of Machu Picchu, viewers are inspired themselves.

If you are developing a movie to have an impact, reaching your target

audience is typically part of the goal. Of course, most filmmakers put­ ting time into the production of a movie would love to have the biggest audience possible. But many get sidetracked with visions of theatrical grandeur. They think that theatrical release is the Holy Grail. There are many reasons, detailed at length in Section III, that this may not



make the most sense for your movie; and it may prove counterpro­ ductive to your primary goal. Are you thinking National Geographic, Discovery Channel, or HBO? If your goal is to get the film on HBO, one of the more prestigious networks, you should know that as of this writing, they only buy 38 documentary features a year. And in 2011, there were over 2,000 documentaries made—that we know about! The point of this exercise is to consider the playing field. If you have an important story to share, a message to get out there, you can make it happen; but you have to be realistic. Dream big, but manage expectations. Are you content to play the festival circuit and sell your DVD on Amazon (which virtually anyone can do)? Or do you have higher aspirations for the film? For example, I would argue that film festivals have become a form of distribution for many documentaries (and narrative films, for that matter) that would not otherwise find them. Some films play dozens, or even hundreds, of festivals. Do the math. That’s a lot of people, seeing your movie, on the big­screen. And you won’t have to spend 30 million dollars (the current studio average) to put those cheeks in seats. BUT you don’t make any money. Then again, cause based movies aren’t about money. They are about creating awareness, sharing issues, with and for audiences, inspiring them to take action. Which brings us to the next point. Know your audience. Again, you just may be passionate about a person, cause or story and are committed to getting it made. But you have to know going in whether there is a legitimate core audience for it. Of course, you can buy your­ self a Canon 7D for a mere fifteen hundred bucks, use your iPhone, or hire a cameraman who will work for free for the credit and shoot your movie. But if you want more than your friends and family to see it, you need to do some research about the core audience you are trying to reach. There are many ways to target that core audience (see Section III), and if the story is truly compelling, you always have that chance of crossover to other, more general audiences. You are looking for viewers to champion your movie, and hopefully spread the word to the less obvious of audiences. Chances are if the story falls into one of


Filmmaking for change

the sub­categories listed above, you are well on your way; but you still have to do some more homework. This conveniently leads me to the next point. Commitment. If you have already worked in the business, on a movie or perhaps even made a film, you already know this idea is key to success. But for the emerging filmmaker, I can’t stress this enough. To do this right, to develop the subject fully, produce the best movie and get it out into the world, you’re looking at an average three­year commitment. Sure, you can interview your subject, put in some pretty pictures and slam

it together in Final Cut in a few weeks; but you will most likely never

fully realize your audience with that project. And let’s remember why you are reading this book in the first place. You want to make a movie that can transform the world. You can’t have an impact with your proj­ ect if nobody sees it. So let’s assume you are one of the filmmakers ready to develop an amazing story, produce it in an informative and creative way, en route to finding the widest audience possible. This takes time, but it’s worth it. You will enjoy the process, a journey you will never forget, AND you will make a difference in the lives of many. So make sure you are totally committed to the idea before you take the leap.


We’re going to assume you are firing on all cylinders if you’ve gotten this far. You have a general idea that it’s going to make a difference in the world, one that’s going to help us grow. You know there is an audience and are willing to make the commitment. The next thing

you have to consider is the money. If you are very well off and are will­ ing to risk putting money into an endeavor that may not fully recoup, that’s great. But if you are going to borrow from your family, take out

a second mortgage on the house, apply for some extra credit cards



and/or seek investors, there will be some sense of obligation to try and make the money back. Or are social returns going to outweigh financial returns? I have seen amazing documentaries that cost very little, and some cost well over a million dollars. Some ideas have a big core audience. Others are not as obvious. Again, do your homework. Research what projects with similar targets have done, what docs with similar struc­ ture have generated in revenues. This information is not always pub­ lished, but you would be surprised how open most documentary film­ makers are. More often than not, they will share information to help a fellow filmmaker. Of course, it comes back to the goals for the film and the story. We will go over these items in greater detail in the Production section of the book (and we have included several budgets, at different produc­ tions levels, in the Resources section of the book), but before you can lock into a budget, you have to be able to answer many questions that fall into these buckets:

Production Schedule

Like a traditional narrative film, will you establish a shooting sched­ ule? For example, can you schedule your shoot over a few days in three to four weeks? Will it be periodic filming over the course of a year or more? March of the Penguins was filmed over the course of a year. Hoop Dreams for nearly 10 years. It really depends on the story, subject and structure of your project. We shot The Back Nine over a three­ year period, but The Highest Pass was a scheduled three­week shoot, as we essentially filmed a planned motorcycle adventure, with a specific destination in mind. These are important questions because you will most likely have to pay and feed your crew, and you may have to rent gear, so the number of days/weeks is crucial to budgeting properly.


Filmmaking for change


Many docs are filmed by the director/producer, but given the oppor­ tunity, it’s always best to have a trained Director of Photography (DP). The same goes for sound. I’ve seen directors plugging wireless micro­ phones into the camera, and I’ve done it myself. But the sound comes out better with the right equipment and sound person. They know how to test the levels and adjust for changing environments; and sound is important to the overall production value of the project. Both cinematography and sound are often taken for granted on indepen­ dent film projects. And yes, with documentary, there are times when the realistic look, cinema verite, can work to your advantage; but make it a stylistic choice and not a bad result from lack of planning.


Will you be working out of an office, with the editorial team coming in daily for a period of months? Will they do it out of their home? Will you buy Final Cut and do it on your laptop? These decisions obviously can affect the budget and the timing of post­production process. To some extent, knowing what your intentions are with the final product, in terms of distribution, will help to dictate this. Again, you can do the home movie, post it on YouTube and share with friends model, but we’re trying to affect positive change, right? So let’s develop the best idea, hire the right team and bring it out to world. If with widest distribution platforms possible is the target, then there will most likely be lab costs (color correction, final mixing and tape/DVD) stock you cannot avoid (again, see budgets in Resources section).


Back to the goal for distribution. If you plan to consider any combina­ tion of the following, you will have a long list of different media types



and sound mixes to consider: Film festivals, DVD replication and duplication, VOD and SVOD, International territories, and perhaps even theatrical. What about extras? Some are easier and less expensive than others. The Case Studies and budgets in the Resources section will provide more info, but just wanted this on the radar. Making some decisions on these categories can help shape the direction, cost and ultimately the story structure. In many cases these past few years, a number of feature length social impact documentaries are given a slimmed down “educational” cut version, usually between 35­50 min. This can help with certain broadcast regions, as well as work for the classroom setting.

Unlike the golf movie mentioned above, my next documentary (The Highest Pass) had a set schedule and a set budget. The hero of the story, Adam Schomer, brought us this amazing project with the dates and “journey” already set. He pitched me the idea: A small team of riders followed Indian yogi Anand Mehrotra on a motorcycle adventure through the Himalayas, to the highest motorable road in the world (at 18,500 ft.). Oh, and the leader, Anand, was carrying a prophesy given to him at birth that he would die at the age of 27 in an accident. And yes, he was 27. The trip was already planned. We had to reduce the original budget and make some crew changes, but ultimately, we set the budget at $125,000 and booked our flights. Within a few weeks, Adam was in India working with Anand on logistics for the riders and finding some local crew to support, while I stayed in LA to finish prep. I found a great DP (Dean Mitchell) who had experience filming with motor- cycles. Dean and I pulled together the gear and headed for India for approxi- mately three weeks of shooting

Story Research

Before pulling the trigger on a project that will not only require major commitment but have an impact on the community, you need to do your homework. What films may have been made on the subject?


Filmmaking for change

Which documentaries have proven successful, with critics and/or audiences? Can you produce a film that will make a difference? Which

film(s) have certain structural elements you can model, yet allow for your own unique perspective and creativity?

I was fortunate in falling into the role of festival director; by

default, we started Slamdance to show our own films. I found myself in a position to have to watch literally thousands of movies over the years. I watched some in my living room and some in a theater with audiences. Either way, there was huge value and learning in my being able to see, experience, and compare films. There are a number of film lists worth considering. One is Kevin Kelly’s “200 Films You Must see Before you Die” ( books/tf3.pdf), and more recently Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, who worked with Current TV put out “50 Documentaries to see before You Die.” Google provides many more, from Roger Ebert to Paste Magazine. If you have a subject that will cost a pretty penny, you will also want to think of the distribution opportunities, looking at both conser­ vative and optimistic viewpoints. If you spend several hundred thou­ sand dollars or more, for example, you will need to find a combination of distribution platforms. You may not need theatrical, but you will have to achieve a certain level of storytelling and production value to secure a cable deal, and perhaps DVDD and SVOD. There are excep­

tions to the rule, where certain films did a special event release, or sold several hundred thousand DVD units out of their garage, but you have to manage expectations and build from there.

If the film has a direct cause, can you approach the related chari­

ties for feedback, support and leads? Are there special interest groups that can ensure some level of support for the release of the film? These are all considerations. Again, it’s great to have a noble cause, and tell a story that is important to you; but if you are going to tackle an issue that can really have an impact on our culture, the movie needs to have a certain level of storytelling, production value,



and audience penetration. To appeal even to your core audience, the movie needs a certain sense of storytelling. Long gone are the days of talking heads, snore fest documentaries. The reason this genre is thriving is because filmmakers have picked up on the idea that the structure can have more unique visuals and a more narrative flow; and connect with audiences in a similar way to traditional fictional films. Once you have your core idea, and feel there is an audience for it, it can help to think about a storyline. Yes, it will change in post; but what I learned is you have to start with a big ball of clay—your core idea—and then you sculpt from there. You go in with a core concept, an issue you want to present; and then you find the best story and ele­ ments to hang from it to best engage the audience. You need enough to seed the imagination, perhaps tug on the heartstrings, and then put in a framework that audiences can understand. At some point early in my career, I read an amazing book called The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I had heard about Hero with a Thousand Faces, but it was Vogler who fed these ideas of the hero’s journey into a screenplay structure. This was a game changer for me. Followed by Myth & the Movies: Discovering the Myth Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films by Stuart Voytilla, where he applied these concepts of the Hero’s Journey to 50 movies in varying genres. And it wasn’t just Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the list included Dances With Wolves and Boyz N the Hood. I was certain that this model could be applied to the documentary category, and what I hope we are defining as a subcategory, the Cause genre. Based on these concrete examples, audiences clearly embraced the idea of a hero who had to go through a certain number of “phases” in life. I could take a subject/hero and their fundamental purpose and feed it into this framework. They all start somewhere (Ordinary World), find themselves on a mission/journey (Call to Adventure) and have to go through a series of obstacles (Tests) to face their greatest challenge (Ordeal) and ultimately have to find their way back (Return Home). I can assure you that there is a very good chance you can work


Myth and the Movies, written by Stuart Voytilla. His books have been very influential in the development of many indie and Hollywood mov- ies, and in our three documentaries.

and Hollywood mov- ies, and in our three documentaries. The cover of the The Writer’s Journey
and Hollywood mov- ies, and in our three documentaries. The cover of the The Writer’s Journey

The cover of the The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

Filmmaking for change

your subject matter into such a structure. And by the way, you can lay this out on a dry erase board, on 3 X 5 cards or in Final Draft, just to give some structure to your shoot. However, know this throughout the develop­ ment process: After filming, your movie will not be what you expected it to be. The trick is to have a goal, and know your core idea has purpose. All you can do is prepare as much as possible. Do your homework and enjoy the process. Develop the key pieces of the story as much as pre­produc­ tion will allow. Make sure you can afford to shoot the movie you want and surround yourself with a team of all­stars to help you get the best footage. The production will take some twists and turns. The better, more flexible and creative producers welcome the curve balls and know how the story can evolve far beyond what they ever expected. Then in post­production, you will go forward with a great editor, an open mind, and hours and hours of great footage. Your movie will be made in the editing room. This is where the fun starts, and from there, it’s in the hands of the divine mother.

With all five documentaries, I used the books above

and the stages of the journey as structural guidelines. As a festival director, I had seen many documentaries, and had also done plenty of research on the growing demand for this film category. What became clear was that many of the more interesting, and successful, documentaries were actually structured more like narratives. They had a better flow than the more traditional ‘talking heads’ documentaries. Right or wrong, and there are many different styles and tastes, I embraced this idea and integrated into my docs. Here are some of these ideas put into practice:



DOCUMENTARY STORY STRUCTURE A graphic representation of the Stages of the Journey from Myth and the

A graphic representation of the Stages of the Journey from Myth and the Movies.

Early in The Back Nine, we established my background and my “ordi- nary world” story. We had the “call to adventure” and set out to find the team that would help me chase this dream. Then we had the obstacles, the adjust- ments and the resolution. Of course, there is a lot in between, but I don’t want to give too much of it away. Point is, the story had the elements that could give us a narrative flow. With The Highest Pass, we establish Adam as our hero and his “call to adventure” as his yogi teacher and “mentor” invites him on this incredibly dangerous adventure. Adam had never even ridden a motorcycle before, much less tackled such treacherous terrain. But he accepted this challenge to face any fear that would come up—one of the main themes of the film. Yes, there were plenty of obstacles en route to the ‘highest pass’ and a satisfying resolution. In Dance of Liberation, we establish Parashakti’s goal of becoming an accomplished spiritual leader and practitioner, anchored by her unique style of


Filmmaking for change

dance therapy. We learn her history, see her move to the U.S., and watch her struggle to face her demons. Parashakti learns that she ultimately has to settle the score with her past and her family in Israel before she can be liberated and truly move forward in her life (a theme also prominent in The Back Nine). In Warrior One, Jill mentored her heroes, providing the support and structure to a program that would change their lives. They were all from Florida and we would have an opportunity to work with the kids, and get to know them and their surroundings before we all got on a plane to “leave the ordinary world” and head to Peru. This helped establish the narrative struc- ture, as we clearly moved into Act II when we left the U.S There was a similar case for The Milky Way, as our heroes established a background of issues related to breastfeeding, and shared details about how Americans were statistically poor at making it to the six-month month target. To find out what was working better in other countries, many in Scandinavia for example, where they rank in the 90’s, the team boarded a plane and headed to Europe to find out why.