January 13, 2010

Docs May Be Hot, But Going Pro Ain't Easy: A Guide to Nonfiction Training Programs in North America

In an article about documentary training programs that appeared in the September-October 2004 issue of Documentary, I wrote, "Ten feature-length documentaries released theatrically since 1991 have grossed over $15 million globally, Daily Variety reported on June 25, 2004. This does not include television/cable, home video/DVD sales of these films, and excludes music/performance works and IMAX films. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which grossed over $21 million in its first weekend, might be the first non-IMAX doc to gross over $100 million--and actually help defeat a sitting president up for election. Docs are the new feature film."

Five years later, although Bush was re-elected and DVD sales have declined, Fahrenheit 9/11 ended up grossing $222 million worldwide ($119 million in North America), becoming the highest grossing (non-IMAX) documentary of all time; in addition, five documentaries have grossed more than $15 million worldwide since 2004: March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, SiCKO, Shine a Light and Earth. More film schools than ever are now offering programs in documentary production, and festivals like Sundance continue to field submissions of hundreds of documentary features and shorts.

And with the economy in the weakest shape in a lifetime, and given the slow-motion collapse of the fiction film business, more and more filmmakers are making documentaries. Perhaps it's the coolness factor of filmmakers like Morton Spurlock, or the impact of such works as An Inconvenient Truth, but it feels like documentarians are the journalists (or the public interest lawyers) of today.

But despite these promising signs, the barriers to entry into the professional documentary-making community are huge:

  • There is a serious lack of funding for productions at all budget levels.
  • There is a huge disconnect between the kind of nonfiction films that filmmakers want to make and what is being funded.
  • The documentary training programs are even more out of sync with the industry.
  • The cost of graduate (and undergraduate) degrees make paying back loans difficult when the industry does hire graduates in a systematic way--like graduates of MBA programs, for example.
  • Students lack many skill sets that make them easy hires, and entry-level positions pay terrible wages, for the most part.
  • Few programs provide students with internship opportunities, which would allow real-life training experiences prior to graduation.
  • PBS and other nonprofits have been hurt by the current recession, making entry-level paying jobs even more difficult to obtain.
  • The same factors that have affected the newspaper, magazine, music and television industries are now impacting the film industry. The shifting economic models now call for cheaper productions and works-for-hire, which will push out the middle-level people.

 

Guide to Selecting and Evaluating Undergraduate, Graduate and Professional Documentary Training Programs

Before selecting a college, university or professional program, you might want to ask the following questions as a way of evaluating and comparing programs: 

1) Cost: What does the program cost? What does the tuition cover? How much financial aid is available? What kinds of loans--low-interest and high-interest bank loans--are available? What are the work-study programs? Beware of non-subsidized high-interest loans; they are really expensive and unforgiving.

2) Time: How many classes do you need, and how much time will it take to receive a degree or a certificate? Is it a two- or three-year program? How many students in the program are full time and part time?  

3) Courses and Degrees: On the undergraduate level, a BFA, BA and BS are all pretty much interchangeable; on the graduate level, an MFA has far more value than an MA or MS. The MFA is a terminal degree, and graduates with this degree can teach in college and university film programs. Many professional programs give a certificate or other piece of paper with the completion of course work. For the most part, these do not qualify the holder to teach at the college level. MFA degrees in film production can be earned in two years; however, three years is considered the normal time it takes to earn this degree. If the degree is awarded in less than three years, ask if graduates of the program are teaching. Contact one or more and talk about the program's perceived value within the academic community, if you are considering earning an MFA as a teaching credential. 

4) Film and Video Facilities: In considering a degree program, it's worth visiting the school to check out facilities. Some programs have state-of-the-art cameras, stages, audio and editing equipment and world-class physical facilities, while other programs don't have enough editing bays to handle student needs. Ask students about the amount and quality of the equipment, its maintenance, hours of operation for post facilities, screening rooms, graphics, etc.

5) Faculty: How many faculty members are full time? Part time? It's preferable if faculty members are available and participate in the program. Also, faculty should have teaching and film school experience. There is a need for the programs to balance professional academics with professional filmmakers. 

6) Faculty Working in the Industry: How many on the faculty are working in the documentary field? What kinds of films are they making? Who is producing them? Are there current award-winning (Oscars, Emmys, etc.) faculty teaching? Are they involved with professional media arts organizations, including the motion picture and television academies? Do faculty members attend markets like MIPDoc, Sunnyside of the Doc, RealScreen, etc.?  While great teaching is critical to a program's success, programs with faculty who are working in the field can offer paid entry level positions on their projects. More importantly, they know what is going on in the field and can mentor students and help students find jobs, sell projects and get meetings with potential funders.

7)  Internships  Internships are critical to help students move into the industry. Working at networks, studios, television stations or production companies is vital to finding full-time employment upon graduation. Ask about the nature and kinds of internships available to students. Do they pay? Are they with companies that specialize in the field you want to work in after you graduate? For programs not located in production centers like Los Angeles or New York, seek out internships in cities that have a documentary industry, or at least with filmmakers that have a strong reputation. For example, working in Walpole, New Hampshire on a Ken Burns project would be a great experience for any student. Internships need to provide training; being a gofer, digitizer or logger, or rolling calls, should not be the only work you do on an internship. You need to develop skill sets that make it possible for you to do a job.

8)  Nature of the Classes. Learning how to use a specific piece of gear is useful, but it does not make for a great program; the equipment is always changing. Classes need to teach the aesthetics of our field, not just the craft. While craft is important, knowing documentary film history and understanding what makes a great film are even more important--learning how to evaluate your work (and the work of others), structure and shoot scenes, select materials to document, etc.

Few programs provide students with the business skill sets to survive, let alone the artistic skill sets to make powerful works. Learning how to produce, write proposals and grant applications, prepare packages for pitching and funding, develop business plans, distribute and market is far more important than learning how to use a camera or an editing program.

Programs need a varied faculty to teach, mentor and provide professional training. Programs headed and run by professionals may be rich in classes on "how to," but weak in classes about the "art" of documentary. Programs run by academics and former pros may be totally disconnected from the industry. Academic and career diversity on a program's faculty is important for students to have a rich experience.

9) The Portfolio Work   Making a great final film-school film should be your goal if you want to be a director. Many of the portfolio films are out of sync with what the industry and nontheatrical markets are producing, acquiring and distributing, and what the film, television, cable and professional industries are honoring in terms of awards. It's not the budget or the technology that's important in a student film, but how compelling and moving it is. The Student Academy Awards and College Television Awards are dominated by a handful of schools. Clearly, these schools are doing something right, so focus on the programs where student work is winning major awards, and when you talk to the students, find out which faculty members are making a difference. It's not the program as much as the instruction. 

10) Location   There is much to be said about going to a film school located in a market where there are jobs. While this is optimal, it's really expensive to live in these cities and be a student at the same time. Consider going to the best school that accepts you, at a tuition level you can afford, that has a strong internship program in the city where you want to live after you graduate.

 

Documentary Training Program Directory and Moderated Blog

Go to www.documentary.org for a comprehensive documentary training program directory. Do let me know if I missed a program or made any factual errors, and please share your questions and comments.

 

Mitchell W. Block is an executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning Carrier, a 10-hour documentary series and companion feature he conceived and co-created. Financed by Icon Productions, the series aired on PBS in 2008 and has aired globally on National Geographic channels. His distribution company, Direct Cinema Limited, has handled many documentaries and shorts, including over 60 Oscar nominees and winners. He has been teaching independent producing in the Peter Stark Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1992, and he consults and teaches worldwide on a variety of documentary and fiction projects. Block can be reached at mwblock@aol.com, or visit his blog at http://docunomics.blogspot.com/.

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