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Tips for Creating a Sustainable Doc Career

By KJ Relth

Our panel of filmmakers gathered at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center in San Francisco. Photo credit: Katharine Relth.

As part of a new initiative to highlight critical issues in the documentary field and enhance filmmakers' professional development opportunities, IDA is presenting a series of four Doc U's in the Bay Area over the next four months. The kickoff topic in mid-January was "Getting Real About the Doc Career” featuring esteemed filmmaker Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army) moderating an all-filmmaker panel, including Kelly Duane de la Vega (Better This World), Jennifer Maytorena Taylor (New Muslim Cool), Amanda Micheli (La Corona), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters), and Nicole Opper (Off and Running). The filmmakers weighed in on how to use a variety of strategies to support yourself and your filmmaking, how they stay sane when working on corporate jobs, the importance of community, and why being a snob won’t get you anywhere.


The importance of mentors – both having and being one.

“I didn’t plan on teaching or think that was a path that I would take,” admits Jesse Moss, who was not the only teacher on the panel—each of the five filmmakers teaches documentary at various programs throughout the Bay Area. “I started as an associate producer for independent filmmakers in New York…including Barbara Kopple and Liz Garbus and Christine Choy.”

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor initially dived in knowing nothing. “I thought I was a filmmaker, and I wasn’t. I realized, ‘I better start figuring out all the stuff I don’t know!’, that if I was going to [make docs], I needed to become an apprentice. I worked with some mentor filmmakers – Lourdes Portillo was one.” Now that Jennifer is a teacher herself, she tries to bring her students on journeys of discovery with her.

Nicole Opper had a slightly more traditional start. “I got the teaching bug early because I was studying with people like Sam Pollard and George Stoney, who all were as passionate about teaching as they were about making films. I loved that; I glommed on to that model. I knew one day I would want to become that.”


Build a community around you…

“What I love about the short form work that I’ve done and the teaching that I’ve done is that it does build community,” said Amanda Micheli. “I don’t mean that in a touchy-feely way; it’s actually quite practical. When I do short form work, I hire my favorite sound guys or my favorite grip/electric and I pay them well because I can, and I hope that they will come work on my documentaries for much less.”


…but know how to be a one-man band.

“Always keep learning,” Jennifer encouraged the audience. “At least be able to get yourself out of a jam. I ran a lot of production sound on the new film I’m making, which allowed us to go over budget on other items. For me, the trick has been to realize the things you don’t know, and to keep learning them.”

“It’s just a different model now,” said Nicole, who received discretionary funding from ITVS and a Fullbright to start on her second film, Buscamé. “That was all useful and got me all the way through production because I was a one-woman band. I taught myself how to shoot and did it on my own. I was filming in a boy’s orphanage, essentially, and knew I wasn’t going to get anyone to come live with me for a year, so it was all me.”


Form strategic partnerships.

Jesse Moss and Amanda Micheli share a camera. Jesse’s wife Amanda McBaine produces his films with him. Kelly Duane de la Vega and her business partner Katie Galloway together run Loteria Films, a multimedia production company known for having several projects going at once.

“I think a really important thing is to figure out how to cultivate philanthropy partners,” Kelly added. “I think at first it feels uncomfortable because you are asking and seeking out people who have real money to give it to you. There’s something for a lot of us that feels very uncomfortable about that.”


Be digitally savvy.

“Everybody knows that the digital space is huge and there is a lot of content out there,” Amanda Micheli said, “but no one has really quite figured out how to monetize it. You also have the problem that there are just so many more filmmakers now, and the cost of production has gotten lower. The democratization of media is a great thing, but it makes the competition and the marketplace much harder.”

“This is a different era, too,” Jesse Moss added. “Many more people come up doing their own shooting and their production, but the tools when I started were not quite always so accessible.”

“Social media has changed things a lot,” Amanda continued. “It doesn’t necessarily change who you are trying to sell your film to, but it changes what they are looking at as a matrix of how successful you are.”


“Dive to the level of the pool.”

“The only mistake that I’ve made [with corporate work] is that sometimes I just take it a little bit too seriously,” Amanda admitted. “I did get advice from a teacher who said, ‘Just make sure you dive to the level of the pool.’ I thought that was really good advice. I tend to put 110% into everything I do, and it kind of wasn’t that good for me or the people that I was working with. Sometimes, when you’re on a corporate job, it’s better to just go with the flow and do the best that you can rather than trying to make everything a masterpiece.”


Don’t be a snob.

“When I’m feeling healthy about [my work in] television," said Jesse Moss, “I think of it as the genre entertainment or the B-movie of our world. You can do really good work. You just have to understand that you are working within the constraints of that system. Often they have been very valuable, important projects that have lead me to other work. I have to always remind myself not to turn it down and be a snob. There’s something good in there.”


You can be an artist, but learn the business, too.

“Making films is also running a business,” Kelly said. “Whether it’s as big as what [Loteria Films] is doing or even if it’s a single person, you’re doing all the budgets. There’s so much nitty-gritty to that. If you don’t like the job, absorb the business part of it. There’s so much you can absorb from different jobs that can help you out later.”

“Even if you are doing some of the stuff that I think all of us have done, you are learning craft,” said Jennifer. “You’re learning good work habits. Every time I’ve had a job that’s been kind of a drag, I’ve still thought ‘this is what I’m learning, and this is how I can apply it to my own film.”