Advice for documentary films from John Battsek

Advice for documentary films from John Battsek

April 16, 2014
posted by sheric

I will be attending this year’s Sheffield DocFect, one of the biggest documentary festivals in Europe, to meet with documentary producers and generally get a feel for what is happening with independent films in Europe. I went last year as well and I attended this great masterclass with producer John Battsek of Passion Pictures (Searching for Sugarman, The Imposter, Manhunt). Luckily, Sheffield DocFest has uploaded the class to their Youtube channel [link below].

Passion pictures documentaries

I pulled out a few nuggets of advice for the documentarians because you may not have over an hour to devote to this video.

On what makes a documentary “theatrical”:

“Lots of archive, lots of music, all of it is expensive, but makes a difference…We bring cinematic ambition to the way we shoot, the way we cut, the music we put on the films. We gravitate toward projects that feel cinematic in scope….In doc making the editor is as important as anyone. You need an editor that can really realize a cinematic vision.” During the session, Joe Bini is singled out for editing praise, The Mill for graphics and Philip Sheppard for composing.

On finding the story that will have large audience appeal:

“The core story needs to be universal, something people can connect with, but ultimately it has to transcend that. It needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. Something people can identify with on many levels. Sugarman is about a failed musician, but not really. It is about love, family, ambition and lack of ambition, honesty and a philosophy on life that is admirable. It moves people in so many different ways. Fire in Babylon is about cricket, but it’s not. It’s about a culture rising up against their masters. It transcends the sporting story and becomes about guts, defiance, facing adversity and all sorts of things.”

On Sundance being the key marketplace launch for documentaries:

“Sundance is the key festival for launching feature documentaries. They offer great programming, but also it is the first major festival of the year and American buyers, in particular, go there aggressively wanting to outdo their rivals. Also, I think the high altitude messes with their heads! 5 years ago we had 3 films at Sundance; Crossing the Line, My Kid Could Paint That, In the Shadow of the Moon. We screened them and everyone went berserk. It was just before the bottom fell out of the world. We got into a bidding war, the kind you read about in the trades. The prices just kept going higher… For years, people blamed us for making the bottom drop out of the prices paid for docs because ultimately none of them performed as well as they should have.

In terms of getting into the festival, not sure what to say except that we’ve been incredibly lucky. We’ve been there for 7 consecutive years. I know the programmers really well, I get on with them, it is definitely a festival that looks out for its alumni. Not that producers are alumni, only directors are.  If you are trying to get into Sundance and you can work through someone they are familiar with and trust, it is very helpful.

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