Do we wanna be in pictures?
December 17, 2017 11:46 AM   Subscribe

I work at a very small justice related non-profit. A documentarian (with some good films behind him) has approached our ED and asked if he could do a film about our organization. Sounds great at first, but then we start thinking about what could go wrong. Maybe he would edit it in such a way that our donors would be less likely to fund us. Maybe he would turn out to be trying to make us look bad. What questions should we ask and what actions should we take to make this possible endeavor a success, and what issues should we address to protect ourselves if we decide to do this?
posted by mmf to Human Relations (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you reviewed the other films by this person? (You mention that they are good.) I think that would tell you a lot about his approach to his film subjects.
posted by salvia at 2:01 PM on December 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would get references. Do you have mutual connections that can vouch for this person?
posted by shalom at 3:02 PM on December 17, 2017

You may already have this covered, but I'd want to make sure you're actually dealing with the documentarian whose work you know. I mention this because the ED of a previous employer was approached with the type of "pay to be on public TV scam" described in this Techdirt article and on PBS's website (at the time, the show was pitched as being hosted by Hugh Downs). I'd be wary if there are any expenses involved for the non-profit. My apologies if this is not relevant in your situation.
posted by adventitious at 3:04 PM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

You could ask to give notes on the rough cut and sign off on the final edit- so you could approve everything in the final cut. Filmmaker might say no, though- that's a lot of control to give up.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:27 PM on December 17, 2017

The first obvious thing I'm wondering is why they would want to do this? Why would he think your organization would make a good documentary and what's the angle? Then I would think about the risks and benefits.

You can ask as many questions as you want, but I think should do a deep dive on this person's background. Not just films they made but anything about their opinions, political affiliations, etc. and anything that at all relates to what your organization does. I worked at an organization where someone asked to interview people for a documentary, but they had made another film that focused mostly in arguing against a lot of the things my organization advocated for. We had every reason to believe they wanted to gain access to attack us. Maybe it's not you personally doing this research -- maybe if you have people who do prospect research or communications research who are good at this, you can assign them to vet this person and find all there is to know about him before you say yes.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:47 PM on December 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

It also consumes a lot of your time in staff work being interviewed and scheduled around filming and discussions, and the pay off to coverage and funding is uncertain and long. The film has to get made, aired and tied to fundraising directly to have an impact.

If you work with vulnerable people or in a health field, you also may have privacy concerns to consider.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:10 PM on December 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Can you talk to people who were interviewed for his other films? And not just ED to ED, but speak to a few operational people and see if what was promised or pitched ended up matching the final product.

Obviously you would run this idea by your Board. And they might cautiously reach out to major donors and see if they've heard of this director and if they have any concerns.
posted by vignettist at 6:33 PM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Good questions include: what led you to our organization? What do you hope to achieve by making this documentary? How is it being funded? What will your shooting schedule be? (You'll want to know how disruptive this will be for your employees on a day-to-day basis, and you'll also want some idea how long he plans to film you in general -- some documentarians follow their subjects for years.) How do you plan to market the final product, and how much will our organization be involved in that marketing? Will we be the sole subject of your film? (You specifically want to know if your organization will be compared or contrasted with other nonprofits in your niche.)

As a justice-related nonprofit you should have legal resources at your disposal, so you might run the filmmaker's proposal by them/the specialists they recommend. A contract can be created to address your concerns.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:10 PM on December 17, 2017

The thing you have to remember is that it's a documentary, not a marketing campaign for your organisation. The film maker is not obliged to put a positive spin on things and regardless of what he tells you in person, once you sign a release form, they can portray you in any light they want, edit things to make you look shocking and there's nothing you can do about it.

One would hope that's not his angle, but you don't know and it's completely out of your hands. Ask anyone who has been on reality tv, and at least those people get paid for it. For me the downside is far bigger than the possible upside, simply because you relinquish any power, but that's just me.

The question I would always ask is, what's in it for the film maker (and to answer that you need to know his angle) and what's in it for you (positive publicity maybe but only if you completely absolutely trust this person that it doesn't sound like you know at all.)
posted by Jubey at 9:24 PM on December 17, 2017

Also take seriously the potential for the unexpected to happen within your organisation during filming. I once worked for an organisation that was approached by documentary makers to make a film about the recruitment process for (an admittedly intrinsically really interesting) public post we were involved with. As it turned out, the process turned baaaad, was acrimonious, controversial, damaging, all the bad stuff. Fortunately we'd turned them down, because they would have landed a brilliant documentary, would have been terrible for us.

Unless there's a very clear and certain benefit to you, be very careful.
posted by penguin pie at 4:53 AM on December 18, 2017

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