It’s not always easy for documentarians to learn all the ins and outs of their trade. Whether it’s securing access to financing, renting equipment, or approaching distributors, many processes can seem daunting, or even impenetrable. One Oscar-nominated documentarian is looking to make things easier, however.
With the launch of Westdoc Online, filmmaker Chuck Braverman has debuted an informative new video series featuring rotating panels of industry experts and filmmaking veterans. Each episode will focus on one of the myriad subjects that documentarians need to delve into to take their careers to the next level. We spoke with Braverman about Westdoc Online’s origins, and how he hopes to tackle some of the biggest challenges that modern documentarians face.
Westdoc Conference co-founders Richard Propper and Chuck Braverman in 2012. Photo: Danna Kinsky.
The idea that launched Westdoc
Westdoc Online didn’t begin online at all. From 2009 to 2013, Braverman co-organized Westdoc as an annual conference, held over three days in Los Angeles. It had one major goal that it realized with panels, Q&As, and pitch sessions: “We wanted to provide something that was reasonably priced, where filmmakers would have access to senior executives at the networks,” says Braverman. It was all with the intent to help documentarians further their careers with authoritative insights and direct exposure to decision makers.
The physical conference ended in 2013 because it became too time-consuming and costly to run, but Braverman never stopped believing in its purpose: to connect documentary filmmakers with those who could empower their work. Eventually, he realized how he could do that again, only in a simpler and less cost-prohibitive way. “I become enamored with YouTube, live video, and live streaming, and then the light bulb went off one day,” he says. “About six months ago, I thought, ‘Why can’t I put some of the best elements of Westdoc live on the internet and continue the Westdoc tradition?”
Attendees of the 2012 WESTDOC Conference
Meeting the need to match ambition with know-how
Thanks to the digital revolution, the ability to make documentaries has become more accessible than ever. “Everything has changed in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Braverman. Now anyone can (and should) make a movie if they want. “I’ve taught classes at the University of Southern California and other places, and the first thing I say to filmmakers is, ‘You have no excuse not to make a movie today, because you can get a very high quality camera for very little cost.’” But, he adds, “Just because you have a camera, doesn’t mean you have the talent or the skill or the knowledge you need.”
He’s seen that firsthand, sometimes in how filmmakers are uncertain about how to approach anything from using stock video to researching production insurance, and even what to do once a project is completed. “Some people just go out there and they make their film, and then they say, ‘Now what?’” In other words, while equipment may be more accessible, that doesn’t mean expertise is. And while there’s undoubtedly a wealth of online resources available, established expertise can be difficult to find, even on the internet. “Not everybody that’s on YouTube is necessarily an expert at what they’re espousing,” says Braverman, Which is one way Westdoc Online is looking to help.
A moment from Braverman’s 2015 documentary The Secret Tapes of the O.J. Case: The Untold Story. Photo credit: Lawrence Schiller.
Empowering documentarians for financial success
If there’s one challenge faced by documentarians that Braverman speaks about more than any other, it’s the question of money. “The really hard thing is how to make any money making films,” he says. As a member of the Motion Picture Academy in the documentary branch, he’s been watching many docs for voting purposes, and he finds himself wondering how many of the filmmakers are making a living with what they do. “Out of the 170 films that were submitted to the Academy, I would say probably more than 50% of them don’t break even on their costs.”
And it’s not that documentaries are lacking in interest or importance these days. “Documentarians are, to some degree, replacing the network news departments, because they’re going out and they’re covering subjects that the television networks aren’t doing,” he says. He cites the sold-out screenings at the Hot Docs Film Festival, the world’s largest documentary film fest, as proof that people want to see these films.
He also notes that there is money out there for documentaries. He points to the rise of distributors like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu as new (and lucrative) homes for good docs. “The best documentaries are getting picked up for substantial six-figure, sometimes seven-figure, advances. So it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make a documentary and that you can’t sell it to one of those people,” he says. But the chief struggle for documentarians can come down to access to those decision makers and executives. If you’re not an Alex Gibney, Joshua Oppenheimer, or a Brett Morgen, it can be discouraging.
Teaching filmmakers how to approach executives
Therein lies what Braverman especially wants to accomplish with Westdoc Online. “What we’re trying to do is tell people how to get access to these people and how to approach them. ‘Do I need an agent? Do I need a PR person? Which kinds of documentaries are making money today and which aren’t?’” He adds, “I think it’s a little better if you’re armed with some knowledge on what the networks are looking for, what they pay, how to approach them, and who the executives are at these places.”
Westdoc Online is also looking to improve filmmakers chances by exposing them to the insights of experts who can help them become better filmmakers. “If it’s something documentarians need to know about, WestDoc Online will cover it,” Braverman says, pointing to the first episode (below), which tackled how filmmakers can be better prepared and promote their film for Oscar consideration, as an example. “We’ll cover everything in nonfiction filmmaking, from pre-production to production, post-production, distribution, and marketing.”
Every new episode will feature an experienced group of panelists sharing their inside pointers and perspectives, along with an eventual opportunity for live viewers to not only listen to the moderated chats, but also engage in Q&As and get more direct access to the panelists and their expertise. Braverman is aiming for a new episode every two weeks for the next three episodes, with the next one going up this week after a live airing on Tuesday, this time focusing on distribution options.
Creating a new resource for documentary makers
Asked about his ultimate ambitions for Westdoc Online, Braverman says, “I’m hoping it might become easier once I’ve got a few episodes in the can and people will be familiar with the show, and they’ll be calling me to be getting on the show instead of me calling them. I hope this will become a standard resource for people, and that they’ll rely on it as a unique, stimulating, and informative show.” Because more than anything, Braverman just wants to help the documentary industry and those who share his passion for it. “I think it’s hard to make a living making documentaries today, unless you’re in that top tier and really know what you’re doing,” he concludes. “And that’s what we’re trying to help people with.”
To stay up to date with Westdoc Online and find out when new episodes are airing live, sign up at the Westdoc Online website.
Top image: Still from Cinematographer Filming a Documentary Film by Tomas Vynikal