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How To: Documentary

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Documentaries are more popular than ever. Whether on big screens or small, for those with short attention spans or those who crave immersion, a documentary can provide a heightened viewing experience that presents stories in an entirely fresh and unique way.

A great documentary can inform, inspire, influence and entertain. And unlike other non-fiction programming in the digital age, a great documentary need not celebrate the worst qualities of human beings, but rather can be every bit as smart, gripping, powerful and passionate as the best feature films.

This workshop will cover general strategies for conceiving, pitching, selling and making a documentary. To be explored are such topics as:

  • When is an idea just an idea or the foundation for a compelling documentary
  • What is a sizzle reel and can it really be helpful
  • The value of a good treatment
  • The Knee Pad Tour or How to Raise Funds and Retain Some Semblance of Personal Dignity
  • The creative process from brain to big screen, including style, story structure (and the need for a road map), how to secure great interviews (just because you have a great subject doesn’t mean you’ll get a terrific interview)
  • Collaboration or How the Auteur Theory is Great if you’re Spielberg, but for the Rest of Us…
  • The Importance of attention to detail
  • How to be your own worst critic
  • What Do You Mean the Finished Picture Has to be Delivered Next Tuesday?
  • Navigating the jungle that is distribution

Expect to get your questions answered. While there will be some lecture, a large portion of the workshop will be devoted to Q&A and to hearing and critiquing your documentary ideas.

Who Should Attend: People wanting to understand what it takes to make a documentary film.

Requirements: Something to take notes.

By the end of this workshop, you will:

  1. Have more insight towards what it takes to initiate, make and get a documentary seen.
  2. Be able to understand the best way to finance your documentary.
  3. Be able to review some distribution options for your documentary.

About the Instructor:

John Scheinfeld is a documentary veteran. From pop culture to politics, sports to world religions, Venice and Toronto film festivals to PBS, Emmy®, Grammy® and Writers Guild Award nominee John Scheinfeld is a critically-acclaimed documentary filmmaker with a broad range of subjects and productions to his credit.

Scheinfeld is currently in production on the first authorized feature documentary about jazz legend John Coltrane.

Most recently, he directed, wrote and produced two high-profile documentaries for PBS: Dick Cavett’s Watergate and Dick Cavett’s Vietnam, intensely personal, intimate and entertaining explorations of critical events that helped shape American history in the 20th Century, each framed by guest interviews from the period and commentary by legendary talk show host Dick Cavett.

Scheinfeld is best known for two widely acclaimed feature documentaries: The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which tells the true story of the US government’s attempt to silence the beloved musician and iconic advocate for peace and Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, a compelling yet wildly entertaining documentary about one of the most talented and uncompromising singer-songwriters in pop music history.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon was an official selection of the Venice, Telluride, London and Toronto International film festivals and was released worldwide by Lionsgate. Born out of his love for the music of the Beatles and a keen interest in freedom of speech and personal courage in the face of significant obstacles, Scheinfeld earned the trust of Yoko Ono and was given access to her extraordinary archive.

For Who Is Harry Nilsson…? , Scheinfeld was nominated for the prestigious Writers Guild Award and USA Today named him one of the Top 100 People of 2010 in their pop culture poll. Lauded as “close to genius” by novelist Stephen King, the film was a true passion project for Scheinfeld and he skillfully balanced the tantalizing, dramatic, tragic and hilarious aspects of Nilsson’s life with the many challenges involved in clearing more than 60 Nilsson songs for inclusion in the film.

That same year saw the release of We Believe, an exuberant celebration of hope, loyalty, faith and the extraordinary love affair between a great city, Chicago, and its baseball team, the Cubs. Scheinfeld established a close working relationship with Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Chicago Cubs throughout production.

On the heels of a Grammy® nomination for producing Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE, Scheinfeld wrote, produced and directed Electric Youth: Teen Stars in the Music Business, a 2-hour special for A&E for which he received an Emmy® nomination as writer.

Previously, he directed, wrote and produced No Fighting in the War Room… or… Dr. Strangelove and The Nuclear Threat as well as critically-acclaimed documentaries for National Geographic, Tomb of Jesus and In The Name of Heaven.

During his career Scheinfeld has written, produced and/or directed numerous documentaries about show business legends such as the Bee Gees, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Bing Crosby, Norman Lear, Dean Martin, the Marx Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Peter Sellers, Frank Sinatra and Jonathan Winters.