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I Won Best Documentary And I Still Blew It Big Time
I Won Best Documentary And I Still Blew It Big Time

By James Di Fiore

As a first-time documentary film producer, I had no idea what I was in for when post-production began.

First of all, I’m a writer. My job in a film is usually done when post begins. But our film – an edgy doc about the underbelly of the night club industry in Miami called We Run Sh*t – was a clusterfuck from the get-go.

Truth is, we did not even set out to make a movie. We were just trying to shoot behind-the-scenes footage at the Winter Music Conference to sell to other media outlets who couldn’t find a way to get well-known musicians and DJs on camera. We had unfettered access, and it wasn’t because we are stealthy videographers, it was because we were nightlife promoters tasked with throwing 6 events at the world’s largest music conference.

When our situation started to look less like club events and more like a reality show, we pivoted from interviewing DJs to documenting every step we could. We only had one camera, but luckily we had a secret weapon – our director was also an accomplished animator, and he agreed to fill in the blanks of our story using animated clips of our team and the people we encountered during our week from hell.

When that week was over, the real work began.

I had to chronologicalize the footage and write a treatment so that our editor could manage the final cut. It was weeks of painstakingly tough work. You’d think it would be easy to piece together a story that you literally just lived, but sifting through the footage and trying to decide which elements were usable while deciding which lost moments were intriguing enough to animate was one of the hardest creative tasks in my lifetime. I was working in tandem with our director who was not actually at the music conference but whose fresh eyes could lend a perspective that was invaluable in the end.

It took two months to organize the footage and complete the paper edit. The director lived in Los Angeles and I was in Toronto, so I would send him time codes as I worked. When he started on the first cut we were so organized that we only made a few changes before locking our final cut.

It took another 5 months for the animation to be complete, a process that took longer than expected for various reason. First, we all had day jobs, and we burned the midnight oil whenever we could. Second, we had neglected to obtain proper releases from various DJs and club owners, an oversight that would come back to haunt us.

When we were finally done we submitted the doc to dozens of film festivals, and we were accepted by 5 in total. One was the Phoenix Film Festival. Our director had a few films featured there in the past, and was a fixture for Q & A’s, as well as workshops and meet and greets. All of it was new for me, a guy who was mostly a freelance journalist covering politics in Toronto.

But, to my surprise, we won for Best Documentary. It was surreal, and we thought our little film had a shot at a digital distribution deal. But the mistakes we made while filming would come back to haunt us.

We couldn’t get a decent rate for our errors and omissions insurance, and since several celebrities had threaten to sue us, a digital distribution deal was impossible. But even with a deal in place, it’s not like we would have made any money. Call it a lesson learned, and an awesome experience.

A few lessons learned, actually. If I did it again I’d have a couple more cameras, obviously. I also would not have let my director’s friend score the film. Sure, he now composes music for Tom Cruise movies, but still…it was not a good fit. If I had to do it over, I’d go with a more practical solution, where we could still get a great composer, but choose from scores already completed. A site licensingmusic.com is a one-stop shop and would have trimmed our budget and still delivered.

But in the end, even though the film was well-received, I still blew it. Being creative isn’t enough as an indie film producer. You have to be organized. You have to think of the long term goals, and plant the right seeds in the short term. Eventually you can cultivate your creative vision while simultaneously ensuring your project has the organizational chops to be not just recognized, but monetized as well.


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