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Developing Factual Ideas

Tips for Producing Archive Programmes (and Developing New Ones)

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UK-based indie Testimony Films specializes in making documentaries about “people’s life stories. Our aim is to record them, preserve them and use them creatively in television programmes. We look for surprising, entertaining and deeply moving stories that have not been told before.  We look for new ways of telling stories that bring a fresh perspective to the past and the present.” They often do this by using rare archive film.

Earlier this year, Steve Humphries, executive producer at Testimony Films outlined his tips for using archive in factual programmes at the Broadcast Factual TV Forum:

  1. Factor in as long a production period as possible in order to find the best stories and archive.
  2. Form a good working relationship with the main archives you’re likely to use – go  to meet them to discuss your project. Archives are generally very flexible regarding rates and you should be able to negotiate a reasonable rate to match your budget.
  3. Use an experienced film researcher – it is a false economy to assign the job to an ordinary researcher or production manager. A specialist archive researcher will know which archives are likely to have the best footage, be able to negotiate a better rate and won’t get caught out by copyright issues. You can find a good archive researcher via Focal.
  4. Limit the number of archives you use on a single project – that way  you can drive costs down by negotiating bulk rates.
  5. Search Footage Farm for low cost, public domain footage.
  6. Visit the national archives yourself to search and transfer some of the footage yourself.
  7. Search for rarely seen footage rather than resorting to familiar images. The BBC archive is an underused resource.
  8. Whilst many archives have online search functions, they have much more footage than can be browsed online – get out of the office and go to the archive yourself to see what you can unearth.
  9. Get a copy of the The Researcher’s Guide: Film, Television, Radio and Related Documentation Collections in the UK by James Ballantyne or Film Researcher’s Handbook: A Guide to Sources in North America, Asia, Australasia and Africa by Jenny Morgan for a list of all the film archives.

All excellent advice if you are making an archive based documentary, but there’s also some sound principles to follow if you are still developing and pitching your idea:

  1. Make sure you’ve find the right story – not just a subject area you want to explore. Give your proposal some colour with real stories.
  2. Get out of the office and meet people when you are doing your research – there’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation to throw up information you could spend months trying to find on the internet. Even if nothing comes of  the first meeting with someone, you’ve started a relationship that could be useful later.
  3. Manage your time and resources – when you are developing and pitching ideas you just need to do enough research to reassure you – and your buyer – that there is enough of a story to make a compelling film. There is a temptation to keep researching, until you are buried under a mountain of books and papers, but this is just a form of procrastination. Once you’ve found enough material and a strong narrative stop: more detailed research can be done once the production gets underway.
  4. And try to find a new angle to your subject – there are no new subjects only new ways in which they can be told. Find a someone with a different viewpoint, never-before-seen archive or a new discovery that can make an old subject new again.

Need more factual TV development tips – including advice from top producers?

Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas from Concept to Pitch reveals how to get an idea for a documentary or nonfiction television series such as Touching the Void, The Apprentice or Supernanny from concept to commission and explains why having a great idea is not enough.

Step-by-step, it demystifies the TV development and commissioning process. You’ll learn how to:
• Generate ideas every day, not just in brainstorms;
• Write a compelling proposal that buyers will actually read;
• Talent spot new presenters and keep them onside;
• Exploit new opportunities offered by different platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook;
• Pitch your idea to the right people;
• Avoid common, embarrassing pitching mistakes;
• Find alternative sources of funding;
• Spot potential roadblocks and troubleshoot your proposal to make sure you get the greenlight.

Candid interviews with fifty top industry insiders – including international producers and buyers – reveal how globally successful shows were originally conceived and pitched; their war stories are salutary, entertaining and inspiring. Each chapter is stuffed with case studies, practical tips, resource lists, sample proposals and exercises designed to boost your skills and help you develop your own commission-winning ideas. Read it straight through for a master class in development and commissioning, or dip in to specific chapters when you need a refresher.

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What industry veterans say about the book:
“After 25 years in this crazy business, it’s the first time I have seen TV commissioning so comprehensively and entertainingly dissected.” Mike Slee: Independent Film & TV Producer/Director

“The most comprehensive, insightful and entertaining book on television commissioning you’ll ever read.” Christian Drobnyk, Director of Entertainment, UKTV.

“Spending a few hours reading this book now will save you months- even years – of blood, sweat and tears… Indispensable.” Lina Prestwood, Director of Content Current TV

“Blows the lid on so many TV secrets the industry may never be the same again” Tom Archer, Controller Factual Production, BBC

“More information than a year of film school. As soon as I’d read it, I read it again. I didn’t want to miss a single word. I only wish this book had been around when I started in the industry.” Fiona Tudor Price, Chairwoman, Women in Film and Television, South Africa


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