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Collaborating on Documentaries

By Sheila Curran Bernard

Our reader David Moepeng (from Botswana, Africa) asks: I am an upcoming documentary producer - currently working on a history documentary. [I've] identified someone very good [who] has knowledge of the issue I am covering to help write the script. We have agreed to work together and he is demanding a percentage of the rights to [the] proceeds of the documentary. I need advice as to how much percentage [I] should award him. The documentary is being produced on no-budget and therefore it is difficult for me to just buy his script as I don't know how much it will make and how much I should pay him. Do you think [the] route we want to take is the best? Please advise.

Sheila Curran Bernard responds: First, congratulations! That you are able to get a scholar and writer to share your vision for a documentary - and to donate his time and expertise - says good things about both you and your subject. Second, a clarification: The collaboration between producer and writer in documentary filmmaking is different from that between feature film producer and screenwriter. Where a feature script is often bought and then produced, a documentary script evolves over the course of production and editing.

A writer may be asked to write a shooting treatment, a sort of preliminary script that can be used to 1) ensure that a baseline story and structure are present before shooting begins, 2) budget the project, and 3) communicate the project to others, including potential sponsors and crew people.

Once the filming is underway or completed, the writer returns to the project. He or she helps the film editor to structure the documentary, and revises the original treatment into a script that incorporates research, filmed footage, and interviews. He also writes narration as needed to seam the film together, ensure accuracy, and give the documentary its "voice."

Often, the writer's hat is worn by the producer. In cases where a producer is collaborating with a writer, the terms of that agreement should be written into a contract (it's best if each side consults an attorney). Both parties should agree on the work the writer will perform, deadlines for submission, and deadlines for the producer to respond to the work. And they should agree upon payment and other compensation, such as on-screen credit, for this work. (For an idea of current professional rates in the U.S., go to the website of the Writers Guild of America, www.wga.org, and find the "Schedule of Minimums.")

On a project with no funding, a producer should be upfront about his or her ideas for getting the film made and released. How does he anticipate raising money? (Many filmmakers ask foundations or corporations for support, and they hope that the sale of certain rights to the finished film - broadcast or theatrical release, foreign release, etc. - will bring in income.) Are there people or expenses that will need to be paid before the writer can be compensated?

In truth, documentaries rarely make money. What this means in this case is that the writer is taking a considerable risk in agreeing to lend his time and expertise now in hopes of earning money in the future. The payment that you offer should reward that risk: Be sure your expenses are covered, but don't be afraid to share with the writer some of the income you hope to gain for yourself. As an emerging filmmaker, you stand to benefit considerably from his involvement, and a stronger film now will hopefully open the door to more projects and bigger budgets down the line.

Hope this helps.

Meet the Author: Sheila Curran Bernard