Getting Your Documentary Noticed…

signimagesLook, it’s tough out there in the world of getting your movie noticed.  Please don’t think that if you do make a pretty good DIY documentary that people will come running to see it and that distributors will be knocking on your door to sign a deal.  The problem with a movie is that it’s not tangible.  You can’t look at a DVD and measure the quality of the filmmaker’s story or its emotional impact and entertainment value.  In the film world, the receiver of the art (the viewer) needs to invest valuable time into the art project and in order to do that they need to know it exists as well as have a reason to believe it’s worth watching.

After completing my first feature documentary, I had a sold out film premiere at the 350 seat Twin River Theater in Red Bank, NJ.  The loud and long standing ovation was all I needed to know that my core belief in documentary filmmaking worked.  I told a story in a way that most people had never seen before and I found out that night that they were truly moved by the experience.  I couldn’t even get out of the theater to the after party because there were so many people in line who wanted to talk to me.  Most of them just wanted to let me know how much they enjoyed it and to make sure I knew that the film was special.  Nobody was more surprised by the reaction that night than me.

You have to understand, this raw cinema verite documentary didn’t have a host or even a narration.  The story unfolded on its own in real time before the viewer.  There weren’t even any lower thirds (a term used for titling people’s names and locations) or graphics and special effects used, nor was there any mood music dubbed in the background.  There weren’t any formal interviews or multiple cameras in the DIY doc either.  I never used a tripod or had any artificial lighting throughout the entire production.  Last, but not least, I made the film by myself with a next to nothing budget on a 5 year old camera that still used HD tapes.

I went into this film with the idea that if I broke through the barriers of traditional documentary filmmaking and focused on raw cinema verite, the viewer would feel like they were right there in the scene.  The camera work and editing was done in a way to resemble the views, sounds, thoughts and movements of the viewer as if they were there.  There wasn’t any research involved or any plans to follow in the making of the movie either.  Let me be clear about one thing…this approach wasn’t my idea.  Great filmmakers have been making cinema verite films for years, but for some reason we don’t see much of that film style around anymore.

While I was filming, I never wore headphones and I never used the viewfinder because I always wanted the subject to be conversing naturally.  Not with me, but with the viewer.  Sure, there was some observation filming as well but I never looked at any of the production as “fly on the wall” or any of the other names people freely use to describe verite.  Keeping eye contact, with an occasional nod, let people know that I was personally involved instead of them just talking to a camera.  I truly believe (and so do many other cinema verite filmmakers) that this type of filming makes the interaction with your subject as truthful and honest as possible.  The payoff is that the viewer unconsciously relates this natural and raw style of shooting to being authentic, resulting in an emotional connection to the story that is unfolding before them.

The sold out film premiere in Red Bank was followed by a 220 seat sold out screening at  Bow Tie Cinema in Ocean, NJ and then by another packed house at the AMC Loews Theater in Toms River where management had to move the film out of the sold out 200 seat auditorium to the 400 seater.  Truth be told, the film grossed $8,000 in the first three screenings.  Social media kicked in and people were telling their friends about it and some even came back to see it again.  My favorite compliment was an “older gentleman” walking out of the theater who saw me and yelled over “Great film…I wasn’t expecting that.”  For days after the premiere I was receiving emails from strangers who wanted to tell me how impressed they were by the movie. “Poetry” is how one person described it, another said it was “poignant and powerful.” There was something special about this film, but nobody could put their finger on it.

Film critic, Joan Ellis, from the local newspaper was at the premiere.  She sent me an email the next day. “I can’t tell you how moved I was by the way you won their trust” she said. (talking about the characters in the film).  Cal Schwartz from NJ Discover said “The film is beautiful because it makes you feel something inside,” he wrote on their website.  One attendee, April Hurley, wrote me saying “I feel that Destiny’s Bridge will be a classic, possibly a cult film among youth and disenfranchised, struggling people.”  Journalist Maureen Nevin tweeted “Filmmaker Jack Ballo’s flawless documentary, “Destiny’s Bridge”, belongs on everyone’s must-see list — and on PBS’s Frontline.”

So what’s the problem?  You ask…

A few days later Joan Ellis informed me that Red Bank’s Two River Times would not print a film review because it was’t an established film that was in distribution.  Stephen Whitty, the film critic from the Star-Ledger told me the same thing.  These were the first hints I would receive of many more to come that my DIY film didn’t count.  The next phase of “Your film doesn’t count” started with the biased questions on film festival applications.  What was the budget? Who were the key production people?  What other films have you made?  It makes you wonder…what do these questions have to do with whether or not a film is good or not?

This is how one side of a conversation about my film would go:

  • Oh this is your first feature documentary?
  • Oh I see…you did all the filming and editing yourself.
  • You produced and directed too?
  • OK, oh you also did the coloring and the 5.1 sound mix yourself.
  • Oh you made the film for $1500 huh.
  • Where did you say you went to film school?…oh you didn’t, oh OK I see.

I began to realize that it is possible that nobody in the film business who matters will ever see my film.  It seems to me that the documentary film industry is in the fix.  It’s who you know, who you’ve worked with and what you’ve done prior if you want your film to get a look.  If you want to make a DIY film…you are on your own and you will have to work hard to get it out.

I haven’t given up on my film’s future or the chance that it will break through and be accepted for its true entertainment value.  As a matter of fact, I am convinced that if I work hard enough, this movie will have a successful distribution.  Even if I distribute it myself.  This experience has taught me that documentaries have become too formal and too expensive to make.  Most docs you see today are over produced, just look at the credits of the next documentary you watch.  I don’t care what anyone tells you…if you have a vision and passion, you can tell a great story on a cell phone.


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