Think Like a Doc

I had the opportunity to see a film called “Make a Movie like Spike” at the 15th annual Urbanworld Film Festival this past September. Everything about this film is absolutely inspiring, from the plot about young Black men in Los Angeles documenting their last days before deploying to Afghanistan to the story of its creation by actor-turn-filmmaker, Jamil Smith. Whether you’re lucky enough to see this dynamic hit at a festival near you or just hear Smith himself speak so passionately about his love of film, you wanna go along for the ride. I even began to use one of the many gems of knowledge he stated at the festival luncheon as my own creative mantra —

“It’s God’s irony when it comes to film: the more personal we make it, the more universal it becomes.”

Lately, I’ve been repeating to anyone who will listen that the film game is changing at almost too fast a rate to document let alone break down/take notes. One area that emerging filmmakers can no longer afford to cry “I didn’t know” is audience building and funding. We hear it time and again but a film in the can is absolutely no good without an audience (of course, you can’t even get the thing finished without a whole lotta dollars too). So let’s break open that can and get personal!

“Make a Movie Like Spike” has some very interesting and relevant audience building strategies. While doing the traditional festival route, the film also hosts community and educational screenings. For example, the filmmakers brought the movie directly to its related audiences at the Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War National Convention last August, where over 300 military veterans came together for the annual anti-war event in Portland, Oregon. We’re talking about a debut docu-style NARRATIVE feature film featuring two Black male leads by a Black male actor/writer/director screening at a very important gathering of military men and women. How often does that happen? Has it ever happened?

Reflecting on the film’s message as a whole, this is of course a genius plan for matching a film possessing such a niche topic (men and women who face deployment to war) specifically with viewers who can actually relate to the events unfolding on the screen. That is getting pretty personal, folks!
Now one has to realize that this is not a one size fits all strategy for building audience awareness for a fiction film. However it is one used for almost every documentary film. Think about it. Docs are usually about niche topics/subcultures. Doc filmmakers look to match their film with audiences who are interested in those particular niche subculture/topics. So perhaps there is something for us fiction folk to consider. It might not be so hard to find our target audience if we stop using age-old strategies like only screening at major film festivals or waiting for a distribution company to pick the film up in order to get our projects directly to the people being affected by the very things that are happening in our films.
Docs also get more independent funding. Non-profit, reliable and credible monetary support from organizations like Ford, Rockefeller, National Endowment for Arts, Tribeca, Sundance and Cinereach who are genuinely invested in said issues of non-fiction pieces. This is nothing new.

However, when I read about the Iranian lesbian coming-of-age fiction feature called “Circumstance” that according to the producer Karin Chien received over $300,000 from 14 non-profit grants, I nearly fell out of my chair. Luckily, my laptop and I were unharmed but still I had to recover from the initial shock. Foreign plus gay youth plus narrative film suddenly equals nonprofits opening their doors with welcoming arms (and checkbooks)? Taking a cue from Liz Lemon – THAT’S A GAMECHANGER! Have you ever heard of this magical method for making movies called “nonprofit film financing”. Don’t worry, I hadn’t either. Go take your latest feature script or film and find these organizations that are looking to support the global meets individual stories like “Make a Movie Like Spike” and “Circumstance”. They are out there and the sooner you find them to find the funds, the sooner you can bring the masses the films about people living lives just like them that they’ve been waiting to for.

Here’s a link that breaks it all down right now:

Imagine again, how many more opportunities there could be for our fiction films if we started thinking like documentaries. Say it with me, SOCIAL ISSUES meets PERSONAL STORIES (repeat daily). Docs have been doing this for years. And as they say, if ain’t broke…

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