THREE LESSONS I LEARNED FROM MY FIRST DOCUMENTARY FILM

STORY, FEEDBACK AND DISTRIBUTION ADVICE FROM MY EXPERIENCE WITH MY FIRST DOCUMENTARY, NEW ROOTS

This month marks three years since I released my first documentary, New Roots. This film kickstarted my love and passion for making documentaries.

Having grown in my filmmaking since then, I thought I would look back on the film to see how it holds up after three years, examine the lessons I learned from making it, and explore what I would do differently now.

Portrait of Mark Locki

New Roots Trailer

To view full film, click here

New Roots tells the story of a farming family in the Kootenays and their exploration into how farming connects them to the past, present, and future as they educate their children and their community about where their food comes from and how to grow it.

The film played a few festivals throughout its run, including the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, Toronto Short Film Festival, and Montreal Independent Film Festival. It also screened regionally on TV.

Going into the film, I had thought the film was going to be about food security on a regional/larger scale.  But as I got into the edit, I realized that there was a potentially more powerful theme. And that brings me to my first lesson:

1. Be open to new directions that appear in your story

I had read about this in various documentary filmmaking books and articles a few times before starting this film, but with the type of film I was doing, I didn’t really think I was going to experience this. Plus, I can be pretty stubborn and don’t really like changing my ideas or plans.

I had pictured this wide, sweeping idea of painting the importance of local and regional food production to counteract the growing industrialization and commercialization of one of our most important resources – food. I also wanted to talk about the effect of the pandemic on our local food systems and how local food production can help guard against disruptions to our food systems.

But as I was editing the film, I realized that my film participants’ story was really about something more personal and touching than what I had envisioned.

I had a choice to make—should I stick with my vision and try to force it, or change gears?

In the end, I tried to have it both ways, and included the new perspectives in my original concept.

Did it work out?  Well, not really. I’ll explore some further thoughts on this later…

2. Have a plan for how you're going to release your film

If you’re making your first film with minimal experience in video production (as I had at the time), maybe your plan to release the film doesn’t need to be super elaborate. But having an idea of what you want to do with your film, your goals for it, and potential routes to get there is very helpful.

Now, perhaps it’s important to clarify what a traditional release looks like:

First, a film will be shown at festivals for a period ranging from a few months to a year or two.

If it’s a feature film, it may have a theatrical release.

Sometimes, there will be a window for community screenings, educational, or semi-theatrical screenings.

Finally, there will be a public release, consisting of streaming (tvod, avod, svod, fast, etc) or linear TV.

Most short films don’t have a theatrical window, community screenings or semi-theatrical screenings. After a film festival run, they’ll typically go straight to streaming, whether or not they’re acquired or commissioned by a streamer, broadcaster or platform.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, these windows started shrinking.

During the pandemic, the traditional windowing system went right out the…. well, window, so to speak.

Film festivals went virtual, theatres were shut, and events were non-existent.

With this in mind, I needed to devise a plan to release the film.

For New Roots, I had no clue if it was going to make it into any film festivals, so I planned for a release without including festivals as a primary strategy.

I did, however, apply to 15 film festivals, ranging from little-known film festivals to some of the biggest in Canada (just to see if I’d get in 🙂)

We were accepted into four festivals in total, including one that specialized in first-time filmmakers (Lift-Off The First Time Filmmaker Showcase), Toronto Short Film Festival, Montreal Independent Film Festival, and the well-known Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

Rather than waiting for the film to get into more film festivals, we went ahead with a virtual release and screening pretty quickly, timing it to coincide with the start of Farmer’s Market Season in the Kootenays.

For the virtual release, we partnered with two local organizations (Wildsight Kimberley-Cranbrook and the Cranbrook History Centre) to host a free screening and Q&A with myself and the film participants.  We had about 75 people out to the premiere, which I was quite happy with.

Following the premiere, I made the film available on YouTube and Vimeo for free.  I chose to do this as I just wanted to get the film out into the world as quickly as possible. Of course, doing this limited how many film festivals would take the film, as many film festivals require some sort of premiere status (world premiere, regional premiere, local premiere), and a wide online release limits that option.

Shortly after our online premiere, one of our regional TV stations picked up the film for screening, and we worked with them to publicize its availability on their channel.

For our first film, I was relatively happy with how our film rolled out, and I definitely learned a lot from the experience.

3. Seek feedback early and often

After spending weeks in the edit, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture of the film.  As you re-watch the same footage continuously, it’s challenging to maintain an outsider’s perspective on what’s working and what’s not.

This is where it’s extremely helpful to have a trusted partner to go over the film with you.

Luckily for me, my fiance is very detail-oriented and has a good vision for story and art, having studied art history at University.  I was able to use her as a “screening audience” to help dissect what was working and what wasn’t.

Now, to be honest, I can be quite resistant to suggestions, and it took us some hard fights to come to an agreement.  However, her suggestions to go back and film a bit more to clarify part of the story and to create stronger key art for the film helped improve it.

This is not to say you have to take every suggestion, but it does help to keep an open mind to others’ ideas, especially if they have a background in storytelling or art.

But even an uneducated audience can help you with the story.  After all, most people have spent considerable time watching other movies, films and TV shows, and can provide their thoughts and opinions.

Now, one of the most common errors I see when people seek feedback is being way too general in what they want, leaving reviewers unsure of what would be helpful for the filmmaker.

That’s why I’ve created the guide to seeking feedback for your film.  Download it here today.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT RECEIVING FEEDBACK, INCLUDING MORE THAN 50 SPECIFIC QUESTIONS TO ASK?

Download my free 12-page Guide to Asking for – And Receiving – Feedback for your Film.

One of the most helpful pieces of feedback we received was from an online platform called Short of the Week (Shortverse). The platform is home to many Oscar-winning and nominated short films in all genres, and it offers the option to receive feedback on your film from its curators (for a price), which is very difficult to find these days.

WHAT WOULD I DO DIFFERENTLY NOW?

1. I would make it shorter.

I would start by cutting down or out the “explanatory” part of the film about food systems and food security. I would try to find some way to have my film participants show this through their work rather than talking head expert interviews.

It’s not that I think talking head expert interviews are “bad” or “wrong”, its just now I want my style to evolve past that.

2. I would try to create a few scenes without voiceover or interview footage for explanations.

Once again a bit of a stylistic decision based on how I want to grow and evolve my documentary storytelling. While I did have complete scenes in the film, now I would select a few scenes to leave without voiceover and let my participants actions and in the moment conversations do the talking.

3. I would emphasize the main themes more

I felt like I was a bit all over the place on the themes of the film. Focusing more closely on the “why” my participants are doing what they do would have created a tighter film.

4. I would have tried to bring the film to a few more regional organizations for screenings

Community screenings are one of the best ways to get your film out into the world. If I could go back in time, I would have tried to connect with more organizations working in the food security/sustainability space in my area to spread the message about the film.

Overall, my main purpose with this film was to prove to myself that I could make a film and, hopefully, get a few people to watch it and think about the farmers who help provide for our local food systems.  Overall, I feel I was ultimately successful with that goal (particularly the first one!), and I learned a lot along the way.

I hope this helps you think about things to consider as you make your next documentary!

WHAT LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR EARLY WORK?

Let me know in the comments below!

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