BOOK REVIEW: The Documentary Filmmaking Master Class by Betsy Chasse

The Documentary Filmmaking Master Class: Tell Your Story from Concept to DistributionThe Documentary Filmmaking Master Class: Tell Your Story from Concept to Distribution by Betsy Chasse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book focuses heavily on the business aspects of making a documentary – including legal, financial, and marketing issues [as opposed to the technical and creative aspects.] I suspect that makes it the perfect guide for many would-be filmmakers who learned the art and technique of filmmaking elsewhere, but who may be lacking insight into how to raise money, manage a team, and get the film seen by the right people – or just any people. On the other hand, if you’re expecting in-depth instruction on how to shoot or edit your film, this book doesn’t discuss those topics in great detail. [And would probably need many more graphics to do so. The author presents concepts like narrative arc and discusses interview questions, but that’s all conveyed readily by text.]

The book consists of 19 chapters arranged into seven sections. Section I is, quite logically, about what questions one should ask and answer before putting significant resources into a film. These are questions that one would logically expect a filmmaker to consider, but that could be overlooked in the heat of passion. For example, are there many films on the same subject (and, if so, did most of them flop?)

Section II discusses the business plan. Once one has preliminarily concluded it’s worth pursuing the project, the business plan involves outlining the project soup to nuts so that one isn’t making it up as one goes along, and running into the problems that improvising creates.

Section III explores various approaches to financing one’s project and what is required of each. There are chapters that compare and contrast investor funding, crowd funding, and grants and alternative funding, and which discuss what is needed for each. There is also a chapter about whether a sizzle reel is likely to be worthwhile. [A sizzle reel is somewhat similar to trailer, but cobbled together from existing footage.]

Section IV is about production. While I said this book is light on creative and technical material, it does address how to go about interviewing, and how to obtain b-roll, music, and other necessary material. Still, a lot of space is devoted to legal and human resources type issues. Section V is about post-production and is also a mix of technical and creative material related to assembling one’s film.

Like Section III, Section VI is one of the cornerstones of the book. It explains how to market one’s film and how to get it distributed. The pros and cons of being shown in a theater versus other platforms (e.g. streaming services, internet sites, etc.) is considered in detail. There is a lot of discussion of legalities and whether it is better to hire someone to handle these tasks or be involved with them oneself. The final section the conclusion.

There isn’t much in the way of ancillary matter in this book, though there are sample contracts and agreements where relevant, that – again – I imagine could be quite beneficial for those entering the field.

As a complete neophyte to the subject, I didn’t know what to expect. I did learn a lot of interesting information about the business and legal considerations involved in filmmaking. Chasse offers a great deal of insider insights. I don’t know how many surprises there would be for someone who’d gone to film school — or even for a dedicated autodidact, but there were certainly a lot of interesting tidbits for an outsider.

I’d highly recommend this book for someone who is interested in making a documentary, though if you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the technical and creative aspects (or at least making iPhone videos,) you’ll probably need to supplement this book with other information sources.

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