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Yay! Someone Wants to Make a Movie About Our Nonprofit!

By on Thursday, March 24, 2011

It may sound exciting and amazing – a film maker has just called and wants to shadow your nonprofit organization’s employees and clients to make a film about your work. But how do you know if it’s the right fit for your organization?

Far too often, I’ve seen nonprofits leap into film projects without much planning or thought. But if often seems like some of the film makers haven’t thought through the project well up front either.

Sometimes you find a film maker who wants for the nonprofit to ask its donors to pay for the film. Others want the nonprofit to ask its partners or friends to pay for promotions in the film. The unwise and very naive film maker might even suggest the nonprofit go to Oprah and ask her to pay for it:?! None of us are going to smack ourselves on the head, upon hearing such advice, and say, of course, we should ask Oprah or Bill Gates to fund our wishes and all our problems will be solved and all our dreams will come true?! But I digress.

And there are some real charlatans out there who will use a compelling cause to raise funds for a film project that really only pay his or her costs (which are priced at or well above market rate if you just hired a video crew yourself), or worse, divert your donors. Other film makers create beautiful films but have no distribution plan, so few eyeballs ever see the masterpiece on screen.There are some critical issues to consider before signing on the dotted line to be involved with a film maker.

Unfortunately – a lot of these requests from “film makers” are not really documentaries. Some of them are for-profit companies who are out to sell a service to nonprofits. Some are simply young and very naive documentary film makers who are trying to get started. It seems film school is very good at teaching film making technique, but not the mechanics of production. The really good ones, the reliable film makers, the gems in the rough, are true artists who can create a thing of beauty that shares your nonprofit’s mission and strength.

But how do you sort out the good from the bad? Here’s a few factors to consider when evaluating a film project for involvement:

  • Concept – What is the rough idea of the film? Is the film about an issue your nonprofit works on? Is there an outline or concept paper you can see?
  • Commitment – Why is the film maker working on this film about this topic? Is it for a particular event or  project?
  • Biography – What other films has the film maker created? Where have they aired? What awards have the film maker or key partners received?
  • Funding – Who is funding this film? What expectation, if any, does the film maker have for the nonprofit’s involvement in fundraising for the film? Does the film maker intend to use the nonprofit’s name or logo in any fundraising for the film (a true and good documentarian won’t)?
  • Distribution – How will the film be shared and distributed? How will people see it? Has a channel, festival, or other venue commited to consider it? What relationships does the film maker have that can help facilitate viewing for the film?
  • Access – How much access is the film maker seeking? Will sensitive client situations be involved? How will organization policies about confidentiality and access be dealt with? How much work will your nonprofit staff have to do to support interviews or other needs for this project?
  • Subjects – How will people being interviewed be treated? What is the expectation for involvement? A few hours, a few days, a few weeks, months, years? What happens if someone no longer wants to be interviewed?
  • Credit/Editorial Control – While a good documentarian will retain editorial control of the film, will the nonprofit be able to offer feedback or commentary on the film?  Will the organization be able to get copies of the film easily, or show segments on its website or to potential donors after it is completed? Will the organization be credited in some way in the film?
  • Program Impact– Can your program clients and staff handle having a camera crew around 24-7 and for how long? How will they feel about being asked to be on camera? Will having a camera around change the dynamics of how people relate to each other? Is that something you are prepared for? Will it help people understand each other better?

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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