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Three Development Lessons From Cannes Film Festival

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Red Carpet @ Cannes Film Festival – Photo (C) TVMole 2013

Seduced and Abandoned was one of the documentary films shown at Cannes Film Festival 2013, a year noted for its jewel heists as much as its films. Documentaries have been only recently acknowledged at Cannes; the dedicated Doc Corner was only introduced in 2012. A year later, documentaries make up around 10% of the films being screened (although 300 were available in the Doc Corner video booths for buyers with Marché du Film passes).

Seduced and Abandoned offers a glimpse of what film producers get up to in the fancy hotel rooms lining La Croisette. It’s not sex (although by all accounts  2013 was a vintage year for high-end prostitutes if the ladies’ toilets in the Majestic Hotel were anything to go by), but the dirty business of separating rich men from their money on the vague and increasingly desperate promise of an ego-boosting association with the hottest acting talent of the day, 5-star reviews and a box office bonanza. None of which may come to fruition, particularly if, like the erotic-political film that writer/director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin were touting, the story is thin, the talent is faded and the budget unfeasible.

So what, if anything does this have to do with documentary film-making? While the budgets might be at opposite ends of the scale  -Toback and Baldwin were seeking $15-20 million for their feature film, whereas a budget for a theatrical documentary is more likely to be in the region of $500,000; or $150,000 for a TV documentary – the demands of potential investors and financiers are similar. Here are some of the most common stumbling blocks that need to be addressed during your development process:

  1. Not having a clear idea of the narrative – even in observational-style documentaries potential funders will want to know what the story angle is. They understand that you don’t know exactly what’s going to unfold during filming, but you should at least have thought about the different scenarios and have a clear focus of what you are trying to achieve. What is the question you are hoping to answer? From whose point of view is the story told? What do you anticipate to be the key narrative milestones? What themes are  underpinning your narrative? In Seduced and Abandoned, the narrative drive was whether Toback and Baldwin would be able to fund their film, but there was also an underlying theme of fast-approaching death and the human need to ensure one’s immortality through what one leaves behind, which makes the glitzy world of movie production more relatable to the ordinary person.
  2. Not having the right talent attached – some people are more bankable than others, and funders will always want the biggest names (to help with marketing), award-winning crew (to reduce the risk of funding  a dud) and the most recognizable characters (to help build their brand and create a buzz – think Here Comes Honey Boo Boo).
  3. Having an unreasonable budget – suggesting a budget level that is too high or too low can reveal your inexperience; it can also show that you haven’t researched your target market. All TV channels standard tariff range outside of which they won’t be able to fund; if you have a budget that requires more funding than they can offer you’ll have to find additional funders to make up the shortfall. The alternative is to develop your programme or documentary to match the budget of your target broadcasters – avoid international filming, abandon all thoughts of A-list celebrities etc. If you happen to raise more than your minimum ‘can-do’ budget you can splash out on the technical toys and exotic locations, but if you don’t you still have a viable film. The International Documentary Association has a handy guide to budgeting.

 

SEDUCED AND ABANDONED (2013) Excerpt from Richard Lormand on Vimeo.

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