Getting Perspective on your Story

Fernanda Rossi August 24, 2010

Dear Doc Doctor: I think my story works, yet many funders and networks don’t think so. How do I know if I need to a change in the story or a change of network executives?

Doc Doctor: Generations collide! Lately in my consultations I have seen this conflict occur more than once, and, to my surprise, more often than not it wasn’t the rough cut that was lacking. It was, simply, a clash of ideologies at work. New media and the burst of new delivery technologies are changing story structure and not all of us older folks can catch up as fast as the young and bright. Or can we?

Granted you, like all of us when too close to something, must be stubbornly in love with the cut, or in deep denial, or dreading the work ahead. However it’s also possible that you’re one of the growing numbers of filmmakers who are at the edge of a new paradigm in storytelling and, like many pioneers, are suffering the consequences of being at the frontier.

The tell-tale signs of the first situation (you are too close to the project) are easy to spot and you should definitely clear them out before you proceed further. A few questions to consider are: Is this the second cut? First cuts can be depressing due to high expectations while second cuts are given too much kindness, because they are the result of the hard work put between to correct that first attempt. Funders and prospective buyers are not as emotionally attached and might be not only right in their assessment but also brutally honest and direct.

If you’re close to a robust third, or fine cut, it’s possible that the prospect of continuing working on the project much longer is draining whatever energy you have left. Therefore the dread of the work ahead can be avoided with a dose of denial. “It’s pretty good!” says the filmmaker who can’t bear another round of contradictory feedback and long hours in the cutting room.

Another possibility is that your niche audience is understandably very accepting and forgiving of any film that touches on issues that interest them, fueling your conviction that the cut is fine. Lay audiences and industry professionals, on the other hand, are not as sold on what you’re presenting because they don’t have that extra layer of emotional investment. If reaching and catering to a niche audience is your ultimate goal, then by all means, lock picture. If you aspire to a mass audience, once again, maybe it’s worth considering the above or the situation right below.

If you have tested that all story arcs are strong and, more importantly, they are what you wanted and set out to do. And if you see that the story is organic, whole, and well balanced, then it’s possible that you’re working with a story format that is not that easily grasped or accepted by the establishment.

The Millennial Generation, those now grown-up kids who don’t know humans had thumbs before the advent of text messaging, have a different way of communicating, and, therefore a different way of telling stories. If you belong to that generation, you probably came of age in an electronic social network. It’s also possible that if you’re older, you dove into the pond of digital media head-first and acquire the ideology by sheer immersion in it. In my experience filmmakers like yourself are likely to favor horizontal or spiral story structures as opposed to the more widely accepted linear and vertical organization of story.

Stories of the new generation tend to have apparently disconnected scenes, which add up to a total that only becomes evident as the film progresses. “Apparently” being the key word here; the connection or cause and effect between scenes is subtle, almost imperceptible for the easily distracted viewer. Main characters, when present at all, are explored not in their attempts to reach a goal but more in their interrelation with the whole. Again, it might seem a sloppy arc but when looking at it more closely, there is logic to their choices as storytellers. These forms of storytelling are not new per se, but definitely haven’t been so available and abundant in past years as they are now.

Funders and network executives get it. Novel story formats or reiterations of long forgotten ones come around once in a while with major paradigm changes. An experienced industry professional can see the difference between “faulty” and “too new to be understood”. But is that what fits their mission statements and programming? Almost as a knee jerk reaction, no matter how much they appreciate your novel approach, the film has to fit a slate, and their comments will want to bend the story format to fit their programming needs. And that’s a good thing! They’re trying to make it work for all involved. You should listen and find out what your own tolerance level is to implement the changes. They may help keep you ahead of the curve as opposed to completely out of sight.

International speaker, author, and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world including two Academy Award-nominated films. In addition to offering private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at

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