The Real Deal

Fernanda Rossi July 21, 2009

Dear Doc Doctor: So many people offer all kinds of deals and services. How do I choose the right crew for my story?

Doc Doctor: In a business that is not regulated by bars or residencies or even degrees, your concern is very valid. It’s astonishing how some filmmakers would spend hours online checking customer reports to decide on a camera, yet they would hire the first person they find in some random way without checking references or track record. Quite a paradox considering it’s much easier to return equipment and get reimbursed the full amount than it is to severe a relationship that is not working and never see a penny back.

How is that possible? When you’re hiring or firing, you might feel regretfully more like a CEO than your true creative self. Yet if you think of interviewing potential crew the same way you approach seeking and interviewing characters for your film, you’ll find the task more engaging.

There are three levels of crew members to consider. The immediate long-term close-relationship collaborators are producer, director of photography and editor. The second tier of professionals with whom you’ll have less day-to-day contact, even though they are creative and significant in creating your story, are composers, graphic designers, sound designers, etc. And finally, the peripheral passing specialists range from advisors to consultants to distributors, whose input, though tangential, can be very meaningful; sometimes they make that essential comment or introduction that gives you and the film a much-awaited breakthrough.

In all cases, today’s searching and hiring is quite different from years past. There was a time of unions, guilds, and tight-knit businesses with a pyramidal structure. Someone had to be an assistant for years before attempting to take the front seat. Those hours of observation were not just for hands-on learning but also for absorbing business etiquette. Therefore hiring was straightforward: a limited pool of choice, a strong word-of-mouth, accountability by peer pressure and well-established rules and conventions.

Today three factors turned that status quo upside down, with some advantages and several challenges that leave you with a more complex landscape to navigate. The first was the democratization of equipment, a wonderful thing, but whoever could afford a camera could—technically speaking—say he or she was a cameraperson. Second was the Internet, which is great for research and communication, but the downside is that whoever has enough time to troll forums and bombard unsuspected filmmakers with emails can give the impression of being an established professional even though he/she has few or no credits. And finally, the financial times we’re going through added a layer of desperation to it all. With funding for films shrinking, many are taking side gigs in professions they’re not sufficiently prepared for.

What to do in this hall of mirrors where anybody can pretend to be someone she/he’s not? Where anybody can talk the talk but the walk is as hard as it used to be? For all tiers of professionals, a proven track record as a full-time dedicated professional is important—but it has to be backed up by third parties rather than a sleek marketing spiel. Before approaching the person of choice who you might have to call back to say "No, thanks," call people who have worked with this person and ask how things went. "Did she deliver in a timely fashion? How did you guys handle the rough spots? Did he go the extra mile when needed?"

For your first tier of collaborators (DP, editors) and your third tier (advisors, consultants) you might want to associate with people deeply embedded in the business, whose ongoing relationships with professionals in strategic places, such as networks or festivals, can bring some added benefits to your film at no extra cost. Beware the charlatan who quotes high to come across as valuable. A teacher that moonlights as a consultant of any sort can be theoretically informed and a great resource at some point, yet someone who, in addition to being knowledgeable, travels the circuit and is on a first-name basis with the big players will by sheer proximity bring to your film a very valuable advantage.

Finally, when all the above is considered, are they the right person for your story and are they good communicators? An enthusiastic shooter out of school will be affordable, and, if eager and enamored with the topic of your film, might add some spark that the seasoned DP might have lost along the way. The best way to gauge passion is to let the other person do the talking. Do they listen? Do they ask interesting questions or are they in autopilot applying a fixed formula to whatever you share as a concern? Are the promises too good? Is there room for counter offering? A good professional is confident and can adapt easily. And if magically you’re hearing everything you want to hear, it can be you found your match or it can be a carefully rehearsed pitch. Then, back to calling people who worked with this person and double checking if the talk is validated by real cases in the real world. You might find that one or two people might have not liked this person but a couple of questions can reveal if it was a personality clash or a hurt ego rather than the result of inexperience on the part of the person you’re considering to hire. As you probably noticed, money is last on the list, because ultimately the value you want is more important than the zeros behind the comma.

All in all, it might seem daunting, but as a documentarian, remember you love talking to real people—and the professionals in our business are people and they are quite real.

International speaker, author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world including two Academy Award Nominations. In addition to 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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