Case Study:

Using Script Coverage to Get Name Talent.

Script to Screen

Fusion's Open Call For TV Projects is a Push for Diverse Voices.

Case Study

When To Say No To A Film Festival

Case Study

The Full Costs and Income of an Indie Film

The Production / Filmmakers Toolkit

Documents, Templates and Resources for Every Phase of Production.


CASE STUDIES: The Best 14 End-of-Year Film Industry Lists of 2014

Among the many traditions that befall us throughout the month of December, the end-of-year-lists can not be avoided. Whether we read them or write them, lists are everywhere. Film magazines and blogs partake in that tradition by putting out their best/worst list of films for the year. I have nothing against them, personally, but I wanted to go deeper and probe the news and trends in the film industry for my own list which would be of strategic use to filmmakers and producers. However, my trip to Cuba for the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano and the usual holiday fanfare put to sleep all that. Still, my Catholic guilt insists that I share something with you. Since I did read some really good lists that go beyond the fun but banal topic of what film was the best/worst in 2014, I have compiled them here.  The 14 lists below can either help you understand the industry better, give you a glimpse of where the industry is going, or deepen your love and knowledge for the art, history, technology and techniques of cinema. 

Oh yeah, and why 14? 
To honor the outgoing year, of course.
  1. Let's start off with the bad news for the film business with Ted Hope's the really bad things in film biz 2014.
  2. Now let's revisit Ted Hope and see why it's not all doom and gloom with the really good things in film biz 2014
  3. Moving on to the topic on every one's mind: distribution. Here are 5 distribution lessons the Film Collaborative has learned throughout out 2014
  4. As a lawyer, I take it as my sacred duty to counsel my clients on how to avoid legal disputes. But some disputes can't be avoided; hence, we have Hollywood's top 10 legal disputes of 2014.
  5. Filmmakers, your movie poster is usually the first thing someone will ever see of your film. Don't be generic and rely on overused colors and themes... instead be original and compelling like the best movie posters of 2014
  6. I said I wouldn't post the best/worst films of 2014 but I didn't say anything about posting the ten best films of 1924. Check it out: Bordwell goes back 90 years from 2014 to give us the best films of 1924 and through his analysis shows us why we should still appreciate the beauty and art of silent films. 
  7. 15 ways indie filmmaker's roles will change in 2015. 'Nuff said.
  8. Another Ted Hope article sneaks in (yeah, I like his work), the 10 best articles on the film business in 2014.
  9. The 3 best HD video cameras for filmmakers on a budget. 'Nuff said.
  10. If you can afford it, here are the top digital motion picture cameras of 2014 (essentially, an overview of the higher end stuff). 
  11. It's amazing how something so vital to the success of a film is so easily overlooked but if you're a filmmaker, you should be thinking about sound. Even if you don't know sound or find the thought of just listening to sounds overwhelming it's still a good idea to check out what sound designers considered their favorite sounds of 2014.
  12. The opening title sequence of a movie or a tv show sets the mood and tone, check out these top 10 title sequences of 2014. Then take notes.
  13. Keep taking notes on the best summer movie marketing campaigns of 2014: even a blockbuster can have lessons for low budget indie filmmakers. 
  14. Ok, so I did end up putting a list of best/worst films BUT only because this particular list serves a higher purpose. This list gives you, the filmmaker, a way to get inside the heads of decision makers and film buyers by perusing through the best films of 2014, according to indie studio execs and film festival programmers. At least if you run into one of these people in an elevator, you will have something to engage them with before you pitch your project.
HONORABLE MENTION: A collection of "top 10 list of films" by critically-acclaimed filmmakers, actors, editors and directors.

HONORABLE MENTION: The top 10 emerging technologies of 2014. Especially promising are the screenless display, quantified self (predictive analytics), brain-computer interfaces and the wearable electronics since I can foresee how each of these can impact how filmmakers create content and how audiences engage with them.

and finally...

SELF-PROMOTION PLUG: the ultimate list... THE FILM STRATEGY FILMMAKERS TOOLKIT for every stage of production from development to preproduction to production to post to distribution/marketing.


SCRIPT TO SCREEN: Andrei Tarkovsky - A Compendium

ANDREI TARKOVSKY: BAM Cinematek just wrapped up a 2-week run of The Sacrifice and I've been on a Tarkovsky bender watching his films on Hulu. But I'll be the first to admit that when I first started watching his films (Solaris), I was confused. I didn't understand what was going on and the pacing was not what I was used to for a sci-fi film. But the power of the film's sounds and imagery remained deep inside me and I couldn't stop wondering about what I saw and the hauntingly beautiful images that appeared throughout the film. As I watched more of his films, the more I realized that Tarkovsky's films are a rich meal of visual poetry for those willing to savor his cinematic flavors. It is no wonder why he is worth the time to listen to when it comes to creating art.

Even if you haven't watched all of his works, you have probably heard of him and his influence on cinema. To get a glimpse of his genius for creating visual poetry, watch this short collage of his works, Tarkovsky: Life as a Reflection.

VIDEO ESSAY - Tarkovsky: Life as a Reflection from Nelson Carvajal on Vimeo.

Advice on Directing (excerpt)

A Message to Young People (excerpt)

Lessons on Directing (short analysis)

Behind the scenes footage of "The Sacrifice"- directed by Michael Lesczczylowski (1988).

A Poet in the Cinema (1983)

A BBC Arena Production, broadcasted in 1987.

Tarkovsky's list of 10 favorite films (1972)
The fruit of his internal deliberations reads as follows:
  1. Le Journal d’un curé de campagne (Robert Bresson, 1951)
  2. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  3. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel, 1959)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
  6. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
  7. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
  8. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
  9. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
  10. Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)


PRODUCTION TIPS: 10 Film Questions That Will Make You a Better Director

How many times have you asked someone about a movie and they just said, "It was great!" or "It sucked!"? More times than you can count, I'm sure, in fact we all do it, even the person who writes a dissertation on the brutality in millenial horror films and French art cinema. There is nothing wrong with that per se since we don't always have the time or the interest to analyze a film. 

BUT as budding filmmakers and lovers of cinema, it is worth the time to dig deep into a film that moves you to love it or hate it. We have all heard the stories of film directors who never went to film school but just watched tons of movies and learned everything they needed to know about directing and storytelling from that. Legendary screenwriting teacher, Syd Field, always recommends watching movies as part of his way to teach screenwriting. Advising filmmakers to watch movies to become better directors is nothing groundbreaking but it bears repeating.

However, what is rarely taught is HOW to watch a movie.

While you never really had to go to film school to become successful in film, you did need to have storytelling talent, luck (or connections) and an ability to understand the language of film. Many directors learn that language intuitively and many others learn it in film school but any director worth their salt will admit that they are always watching movies to always stay learning.

Because the ultimate strengths of a film are its story and how it's told, I like to focus on the elements that build the story cinematically most of all when I study a film. It is a time-consuming process so I only recommend doing this on good or bad films you really wish to breakdown and learn from but trust me it is worth doing if you want to grow as a director.

10 Questions to Ask of A Film to Become a Better Director
  1. What are the main external conflicts and dilemmas of the film?
    • This is the stuff that loglines and trailers are made of. A protagonist after something or someone and blocked by an antagonist is the primordial template for many stories in film today. 
  2. What are the main internal conflicts and dilemmas of the film?
    • This is where the character's inner battles and motivations come into play and where we learn the deeper reasons why a character can or can not achieve what they want.
  3. Does the objective narrator of the film have a "personality?" If so, what kind is it? Is it an active or a passive one?
    • As director and teacher, Nicolas Proferes, states "the narrator is the camera" and there are 6 things you can do with it:
      • Cut to another angle.
      • Change the image size.
      • Depict a depth of field.
      • Put it into motion.
      • Change the focal length of the lens.
      • Change speeds, or stop the motion altogether with a freeze frame.
    • The camera as narrator can be objective and present scenes and shots in a third-person, "straightforward" way. Or the camera can be subjective and use its power to give the audience access to the interior life or perceptions of a character. Most films tend to mix objective and subjective narration.
    • The personality of the narrator/camera is imbued with a director's style and accomplished directors develop distinctive styles that we recognize immediately in their film's personality. The camera can be curious, omniscient, lyrical or playful. Think of how quickly we recognize Wes Anderson's whimsical style or Spielberg's humanist style or Bunuel's surrealist style in their films even when we don't know they directed it.
    • Finally, the narrator can be active or passive. If it's active, the camera constantly interprets the meaning or consequences of an action for us. If it's passive, the camera remains distant and is satisfied letting the audience merely watch and figure it out.
  4. If the main character's POV is used, how does the director use it? How often? When How?
  5. How are transitions used? Which of the following 6 types of transitions dominate? 
    • Cut.
    • Fade In/Out.
    • Dissolve.
    • Wipe. 
    • Masking
    • Real Time. 
      • Technically, this not a transition in the sense that one shot is replaced with another like the first 5 BUT it is a transition in time where the beginning shot changes over time and the actions within the frame, no matter how slight, replace the beginning shot with the end shot.
  6. Do main characters have a strong and memorable entrance? Are they comical, dramatic, suspenseful, sensual, etc?
  7. Does the art direction / production design do more than set the period and mood? Does it serve as a metaphor for the characters or the themes?
  8. Does the film possess the traditional dramatic structure found in most Hollywood and indie films or does it diverge and adopt a differing storytelling structure? If so, what is that structure?
    • Traditional dramatic storytelling structure in cinema is based on Aristotle's analysis in his Poetics and is composed of the following:
      • Exposition.
      • Rising action.
      • Conflict.
      • Falling action.
      • Denouement, resolution, revelation or catastrophe.
  9. What particular scenes or sequences stand out? Is it because of the staging, the music, the camera, the lighting, the acting, the sounds, the editing, or some combination of all or any of these?
  10. Can you breakdown how those particular scenes were done?
    • Put your thinking cap on, take a sheet of paper and draw a simple floor plan where you lay out the camera set-ups for that scene.
    • For extra credit, try to figure out what lenses, lighting, sounds, and acting methods went into creating that scene.
Unlike pencilling or guitar playing, the costly nature of filmmaking means it is difficult to constantly hone and improve your directing skills without having the money, equipment and people available to make films. However, you can use your time on the viewer's chair to improve your directing skills by actively engaging with the film and answering the questions above.


PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Chris Cooke's BBC Director Diary part 3

I am ill and tired as usual, as regular watchers of these video diaries will know already.
My flat has a small and unhealthy ergonomic triangle that is bad for me when I am writing at home. I sit typing only two feet from my refrigerator and two feet from my sofa, fags and remote control... my routine seems to be: Type and smoke; walk to fridge, make sandwich; walk to sofa; chill out and smoke and watch some film or other while eating, smoking, etc... lie down and think up new script-based idea. Er, that's it! It's all the exercise I ever get. And it's bad for me.
Anyway, that's what I've been up to. Every time I read some other director's diary they've just been to Hollywood for a meeting, or are in transit to New York for a meeting, or are crossing the Gobi Desert for research or are holidaying in Milan with a famous actor or something. Me? I am getting fat typing in Nottingham.
Well, I have met some famous people and been abroad as well you know! But not often and not that it matters: I make what are called 'small' films, the type that are diagnosed as "rough and ready", "personal", "regional", or "bleak"... but most often I am considered parochial and "British". I think people should write what they know, at least then they're being honest.
Anyway, the DVD of One For The Road has been released and I am interested to find out who is buying it. Steve and I are continuing to get on with the Wrestling film, World Of Pain (as it is called at the moment), and Helen and I are busy rushing out a new outline of our incredibly bleak comedy road movie about belief, nihilism, and grief. FilmFour are keen for a rewrite on that one and enthusiastic about our wrestling opus. So things are moving forward faster than ever.
This new video diary deals with the Americanisation of British cinema (sounds better than it is!) and writing what you know, writing for your friends... again it's all about collaboration and making things with the tools we have around us.
See you again next time.


PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Chris Cooke's BBC Director Diary part 2

For a moment I thought I was having writer's block. You sit down to solve your writing troubles and find that there's nothing going on in your head at all... but the great thing about developing these current projects is collaboration. While we are in development you can follow us on the early stages of that process. I am writing with two people: Helen Solomon is co-writing our bleak comic road movie; and Steve Sheil and I are developing our comedy of pain set in the world of regional wrestling. He appears in the two diaries so far because of this - plus the fact that he can edit and film them too!
Both projects are at the outline stage, then we head off into the deep water of first draft. At the moment the road movie needs all my attention, and I have never been so distracted: there is illness, money, short films, and work to do if I am going to make any money to pay off the mountain of debt I have built over the year since One For The Road (which is out on DVD/video on 22nd November from Tartan, by the way).
A couple of weeks ago I worked as second camera on a digital short set in Norfolk: a sinister ghost story about the legend of Black Shuck, the devil dog that haunts the beaches there. It was directed by Andy Brand and was a massive laugh to make. It was also one of those shorts where there is a crew-cold to catch and I think everyone has now had it.
Then I worked on another digital short, this time directed by talented animator Katy Milner. She's making her move into live action with Wig Sisters, a brilliantly acted film about aged theatre types stuck in a fantasy world. I got ill after that one too!
In this section of our ongoing video diary, Steve and I tackle the joint themes of collaboration and writing an outline. There is still a vagueness about what the difference between a treatment and an outline is, but I suppose if you are attempting to let people into the world and story you are trying to write, then it really doesn't matter which is which. Our outlines have sometimes been enormous and bulky - over 40 pages long - then streamlined down to something referred to as a 'beat sheet' - no, not a porn mag but a scene by scene, 'just the facts' version of the story. The film we are developing is also very visual and a mini-doc was shot alongside a very graphic design package.

Chris Cooke's BBC Director Diary


PRODUCTION TIPS: Elia Kazan on Writing for the Stage and Writing for the Screen

Before starting to direct a new play or movie, Elia Kazan would purchase a little school notebook and, as rehearsals and early performances proceeded, fill it with his thoughts. Taken together, these notebooks constitute a unique (and as far as I know unparalleled) record of an uncommonly passionate and acute directorial mind at work and, in edited form, they are the fascinating and unsparing core of "Kazan on Directing."
These notes are very writerly. They may sometimes have been scribbled in haste, after a hard day on set or stage, but they are not fragmentary. They are often written in the second person, with Kazan addressing himself as "you."
His main idea, restated in several ways, is that "Directing finally consists of turning Psychology into Behavior" and, in a sense, that's what happens in this book. Kazan consults his psyche and turns what he finds into insight by writing down his thoughts. His effort was always to find what he liked to call the "spine" of a play or a character that he could relate to in a direct and personal way. ~~Richard Schickel
Below are excerpts by Kazan from his book, Kazan on Directing, on writing for the stage and writing for the screen.
A director should know everything about playwriting and/or screenplay writing, even if he is unable to write, is incapable of producing anything worth putting before an audience. He must be able to see the merits but also anticipate the problems involved in producing a script. The director is responsible for the script. Its faults are his responsibility. There is no evading this. He is there to guide the playwright to correct whatever faults the script has. At the same time he must respect the merits of the playwright’s work during the tensions of production. He is responsible for the protection of the manuscript.

Note that the word is not ‘playwrite,’ it’s ‘playwright.’ A play for the theatre is made as much as it is written. A film is made, not written. They are both constructions. The construction tells the story more than the words.

In the movies, the director should be co-author (ideally) because that is what inevitably he is. He should work on the screenplay with the writer from the very beginning. The manner in which the story is developed tells more than the words do. The problems that arise during production are almost always problems of construction. Since so much of the story of a film is told by visual images, the director is the co-creator. A screenplay is not literature – a film is constructed of pieces of film joined together during the editing process. The most memorable films are not usually treasured for their literary values. But in film as well as in works for the stage, story construction is a major component.

A filmscript is more architecture than literature. This will get my friends who are writers mad, but it’s the truth: The director tells the movie story more than the man who writes the dialogue. The director is the final author, which is the reason so many writers now want to become directors. It’s all one piece. Many of the best films ever made can be seen without dialogue and be perfectly understood. The director tells the essential story with pictures. Dialogue, in most cases, is the gravy on the meat. It can be a tremendous ‘plus,’ but it rarely is. Acting, the art, helps; that too is the director’s work. He finds the experience within the actor that makes his or her face and body come alive and so creates the photographs he needs. Pictures, shots, angles, images, ‘cuts,’ poetic long shots – these are his vocabulary. Not talk. What speaks to the eye is the director’s vocabulary, his ‘tools,’ just as words are the author’s. Until Panic in the Streets, I’d directed actors moving in and out of dramatic arrangements just as I might have done on stage, with the camera photographing them mostly in medium shot. My stage experience, which I’d thought of as an asset, I now regarded as a handicap. I had to learn a new art.

A true artistic partnership between a writer and a filmmaker is an excellent solution, but it’s rarely arrived at. The dialogue remains an adjunct to the film rather than its central element. What can be told through images, through movement, through the expressiveness of the actor, what can be told without explicit and limiting dialogue, is best done that way. Reliance on the visual allows the ambiguity, the openness of life.

In the work of the best playwrights there is a mysterious, surprising quality. This play is unlike that of any other playwright. You may realize that the author is dealing with a strongly felt personal concern so important to him that it has been able to arouse the degree of energy necessary to produce a total manuscript. He has something to say; it is his message. The director of a screenplay has to appreciate what the writer is trying to say and stand up for it as surely as if he wrote the words himself. He is responsible for the writer’s theme and must ‘realize’ it, make it come to life for an audience. In film this consists of the choice and arrangement of images.

Most screenplays are adaptations of novels, stage plays, stories, news items, history. But the most interesting scripts verge on autobiography. The writer speaks to you, through the screen, using all the means of this form that are special to it, the succession of images as well as words. The best screen work has this element, even if the story appears to be objectively observed. The story is molded by the writer’s beliefs and feelings.

The subject of writing for the theatre or screen defies easily formulated rules. The best rule of screen and play writing was given to me by John Howard Lawson, a onetime friend. It’s simple: unity from climax. Everything should build to the climax. But all I know about script preparation urges me to make no rules, although there are some hints, tools of the trade, that have been useful for me.
One of these is ‘Have your central character in every scene.’ This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp. Another is: ‘Look for the contradictions in every character, especially in your heroes and villains. No one should be what they first seem to be. Surprise the audience.’

It is essential that the viewer be able to follow the flow of events. If you keep trying to figure out who is who and where it’s all happening and what is going on, you can’t emotionally respond to what’s being shown to you. But keep in mind that the greatest quality of a work of art may be its ability to surprise you, to make you wonder.

Another rule I have found useful is: Every time you make a cut, you improve a scene. Somerset Maugham, a wise old man, said that there are two important rules of playwriting. ‘One, stick to the subject. Two, cut wherever you can.’ Another wise man said: ‘If it occurs to you that something might be cut, it should be cut.’

Paul Osborn, an experienced and smart playwright and screenwriter, invited me to a screening of a movie made by the producer Sam Goldwyn. Sam asked Paul his opinion. ‘Needs cutting,’ said Paul. This made Sam frantic because he thought the same but didn’t know what to do about it. ‘But where?’ he asked. Paul answered, ‘Everywhere.’

There’s no such thing as realistic theatre. The very presence of the audience, the fact of selection of any kind, the very taking off of the fourth wall, makes it not realistic. I’m not interested in what’s called realism. I don’t believe I’ve worked ‘realistically’ or ‘naturalistically’ either. What our stage does is put a strong light on a person, on the inner life, the feelings of a person. These become monumental. You’re not seeing the characters in two dimensions. They’re out there living right in your midst. It puts a terrific emphasis on what’s said too. You can no longer pretend a character is talking only to the partner he’s playing with. He’s talking in the midst of eleven hundred people and they’re there to hear him. They can hear his breathing, so right off the bat, the theatrical exists. You can’t duck it.

Stage operates through illusion. There’s nothing between the actor and the audience. Only he – without help – can project the idea to the audience. In movies, the camera helps out – moves the idea along. Sometimes it can talk, as it closes in or backs up, helps express emotion, what a character is thinking; or it can anticipate action. The more words, usually the lousier a movie script. Movies must be the real thing. Camera gives the plot an assist, helps the story get there. 

~~ ‘The Pleasures of Directing’ in Kazan on Directing (Vintage Books, 2010) 


PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Chris Cooke's BBC Director Diary part 1

BBC has recently launched a series of diaries by directors. Reposted below is part 1 of 8 journal entries filmmaker Chris Cooke has written to give you a glimpse of the creative thought process and the practical obstacles filmmakers have to overcome during development.  Read and see how it relates to your life.
A few introductory words by Chris...
Chris Cooke has been based in Nottingham for the last ten years and has not just set films there, but drawn on local cast and crew to make the films. Previously a fine artist (terrible results), Cooke became a filmmaker when a friend took a filmmaking degree and Cooke tagged along, pretending to be a student until he had a vague grounding in film and video.
Later, after five years of unemployment, Cooke found himself on a ten-month training scheme run by Intermedia Film and Video, where he learned everything he could in linear and non-linear editing, film and shooting on video. And signed off.
Then he signed on again. Even more unemployment led to another course and his first short, Map Of The Scars. Set in Cooke's birthplace of Jersey, this was a twisted travelogue using the scars on a young street drinker's skull as a route map of the tiny tourist island.
A year later, Helen Solomon asked Cooke to write a short to be submitted to the BFI's prestigious New Directors' Scheme, funded by FilmFour. Together, Cooke and Solomon created Shifting Units, the story of an embittered and alcoholic salesman who manages to shift more units in the local boozer then he does cold calling. The short film received Special Mention at the following year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Shortly afterwards, Solomon and Cooke began work on a feature outline for FilmFour Lab. Joined in production by the award-winning Kate Ogborn (Under The Skin), the script that emerged was One For The Road. It tells the story of four men, with little in common, who meet on an Alcohol Management Course having lost their driving licences after convictions for drink-driving.
The film is a bleak and funny black comedy that premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and is released on DVD on 25th November. You can tell from the director's commentary that Chris Cooke needs to lose some weight and smokes too much.
Cooke is currently developing two new feature scripts with FilmFour, one a blackly comic road movie about returning to England from the French Alps for a funeral; the other a portrait of a world of pain and fakery set in the region's wrestling scene.
Cooke has taken to writing about himself in the third person for would-be dramatic effect... and he needs to lose weight.

Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon.


CASE STUDY: The Fidel Castro Tapes

I normally reach out to filmmakers and producers when I write a case study but it is a long and involved process of outreach and interviewing and then creating the case study for Film Strategy. Lately, I have been busy with my legal work but I am also developing a documentary based on archival footage and photography and so I have been doing my research on all fronts. Lo and behold, I ran across this case study on a PBS documentary about Fidel Castro based on archival footage, The Fidel Castro Tapes, at Peter Hamilton's great website: Because I found it so useful, I felt I had to share it. 

We wondered about the challenges of creating an archive-based film about an 88-year old Spanish-speaking personality who can be dangerously controversial, and who is the founding father of a government whose people are still blockaded by the US. 
Castros producer Tom Jennings earned a Peabody with the Smithsonian Channel for MLK: The Assassination Tapes. We covered in depth his ‘no narration, no interview approach at last year’s MIPDOC. 
Here is our Fidel Case Study in which we explore with Tom my favorite genre, archive-based History. 
  • The original concept came from Hamish Mykura at National Geographic Channel International.
  • “I met with Hamish at MIPCOM in Cannes to explore ideas.  It turned out that he liked my style of using archival footage to tell stories – shows that have no narration and no interviews, but that let the edited archives tell our stories. Hamish wanted to tell the life story of Fidel Castro in the same style.”
Pre-production Planning
  • Jennings did some basic checking to be sure there was enough footage, especially English-language clips that could tell the story.
  • There was a concern that telling Castro’s 70-year political career would be too much to realize in the ‘no narration’ approach.
  • “We considered adding interviews.  In the end, we decided to try the ‘no narration’ style, and if it didn’t work we would use a narrator. “
  • NGC International negotiated the U.S. rights with PBS.
  • NGCI would be the lead network.
  • “We then had to find a balance between how NGCI and PBS wanted the story told.”
Key Terms
  • PBS had U.S. broadcast rights, while NGCI had international rights.
  • “There were a few sticking points – mostly regarding rights in the Caribbean.  I’m told this is a common sticking point for copro’s these days.”
  • Jennings regains rights to the international program after 10 years.
Key Challenges 
We asked Tom to describe his ‘Big 5’ challenges:
  1. Fidel in English
    “Finding as much footage as possible where Castro speaks English. It’s out there, and we found it from NBC, CBS, Critical Past, Yale University Archives, CBC Canada, and other sources.”
  2. Partner Balance
    “Striking a balance between NGCI and PBS.  The PBS show is 56 minutes.  The NGCI program is just under 45’. This was one of our most difficult issues, especially regarding licensing footage.  The additional footage in the PBS version would be for U.S. rights only.”
  3. Editorial Approach
    “Halfway through the production, after the first rough cut, the networks agreed that narration would be needed – Fidel Castro’s story was too vast to rely solely on news reporting.  This required a fresh approach, which slowed us down a bit.  However, once we turned that corner and each network was happy with the narrative style, the process moved smoothly.”
  4. Cost…
    “Sometimes the cost of footage is prohibitive.  We found an amazing interview with Castro by the CBS talk show host Ed Sullivan—it was recorded just days after the revolution, and in Havana!  It was remarkable and I very much wanted it in the show.  However, not only was the CBS fee for the footage extremely high, but its use required clearance from Ed Sullivan’s estate and perhaps additional fees.  In the end, my team talked me out of the Sullivan footage.  We would have spent 20 percent of the footage budget on 30 seconds of the show!”
  5. … And More Cost
    “Cost again came into play as we finished the edit.  Rare archival footage can be expensive.  And even though we were using a lot of footage from Cuba, the U.S. network footage was adding up.  This led to awful moments when we had to decide – ‘do we keep this shot and cut something else?  Or do we cut it so we can use three times as many other shots in the show?’ It’s never an easy process, but to stay within budget it has to be done. “
Key Sources / Costs 
  • More than 40% of the footage came from Cuba.
  • “Their footage is inexpensive.  We paid $200 a minute from one archive in Cuba – compared with anywhere from $50-100 a second for similar US footage.”
  • “You must work with Cuban archivists to access their material since their logging system is not the best.  Everything was on three-quarter-inch tape.  We would pull the reels from which we wanted footage, and one of their editors would cue up the shots and then make 1-to-1 copies onto a Beta tape.  It took time, but it was worth it.”
  • “We used several other footage sources.  We believe NBC has the best archive of news material of the major US networks.  They have worked with us on several footage-only shows, and once again unearthed material in their vaults that no one knew existed. “
AP Archive
  • AP Archive was terrific in finding stills of Castro that had long been dormant.  They had hundreds of great images, many of which had not been seen in decades.
  • “Finally, one surprising source was the State of Florida archives.  Florida has collections from residents who gave their personal photographs to the archive.  A man from Key West donated hundreds of photos taken during the Mariel Boat Lift.”
  • “These photos were free, so long as we credited the State of Florida.  It was a great resource and the unpublished photos made the show feel that much more unique. “
Complete List of Sources
  • AP Images; 
  • The Associated Press Corporate Archives; 
  • George W. Bush Presidential Library; 
  • CBS Television Archive Sales; 
  • CNN ImageSource; 
  • Corbis; 
  • Critical Past; 
  • Cubavision Internacional; 
  • Getty Images; 
  • Historic Films; 
  • ITN Source; 
  • ICAIC; 
  • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; 
  • Los Angeles Times; 
  • National Archives and Records Administration; 
  • National Press Club; 
  • NBCUniversal Archives; 
  • NewsHour Productions LLC; 
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; 
  • Roberto Salas; 
  • Andrew St. George; 
  • State Archives of Florida; 
  • T3 Media; 
  • United Nations Photo Archive; 
  • University of Maryland Special Collections; 
  • Cuban Revolution Collection; 
  • Yale University; WAMU 88.5.
Getting There
  • “Going to Cuba as a journalist takes time.  The U.S. requires a visa, as does Cuba through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.  They need to know as much as possible about your project – concept, key points, materials needed in Cuba, etc.  Juan Jacomino is the helpful second secretary.”
Cash Only
  • “Once you’re in Cuba – as an American – everything has to be paid in cash.  American credit and debit cards do not work — hotels, meals, taxis AND the cost of the footage all had to be paid for in cash.  We took $15,000 in cash.  To make things more difficult, we could not pay in $U.S. for the footage.  We had to transfer our dollars to Cuban pesos.  The exchange rate varies wildly depending on your location, so we were constantly looking for places that had the best rate.”
Fixer / Translator
  • “Also, I highly recommend hiring a driver/ fixer for transportation and help with getting things done.  There are several who assist U.S. news organizations and one was available for our trip.  Our guy, Jaime Robles made life much easier.”
  • “One of my AP’s Elka Worner, had been to Cuba many times and is fluent in Spanish.  Bring your own Spanish-speaking translator to Cuba — and don’t rely on the Cuban translators, who may not understand American English.”
Total Cost
  • “I can’t share the budget: it was competitive for a one-hour cable doc.”
Footage Share
  • “When we do these footage-only shows, nearly half of the budget covers footage costs.”
  • “The footage drives the show, and since there is no shooting involved, every frame of footage has to come from an outside source.”
  • “Underneath a lot of that footage we had to put recordings of radio and TV reporters.  The images were rare, but we couldn’t use just VO underneath the entire time to tell the story.  Hence, the need for radio and TV reports, which we had to pay for.”
  • Travel & production: 10%
  • Post: 20%
  • Footage & production elements: 40%
  • Staff / overhead: 30%
The entire process from first meeting with NGCI to Delivery was 18+/- months. 
  • Six months to negotiate the contract between the two networks.
  • “This can take longer than just dealing with one network.  Producers are responsible for any discrepancies between the two contracts, so a good lawyer is needed to ensure that everything agreed upon is correct.”
  • A few weeks talking with image vendors to get screeners of what they had.
  • “It took a few months to work things out with the Cuban archivists.  Once we had all the footage in house, the rest was editing.  Our editor worked on the first rough cut for six weeks.”
  • “Once we decided to re-tool the show with narration, it took about another six weeks to get it up to speed.  The main difficulty with the edit was trying to keep as much of the NGCI version in the PBS version.  We didn’t want to wind up doing two separate shows for the price of one.  While we came close to keeping both versions the same, it was difficult.  Each network had their own preferences, so we did our best to deliver two “very similar” versions of the show.”
Key Contacts
  • PBS: Sumner Menchero was the assistant director for PBS providing day-to-day oversight and editorial notes, while Bill Gardner was VP of Programming and Development with ultimate oversight on the project.
  • NGCI: Hamish ‘got things going, and Carolyn Payne was our EP and who guided us through their end of the process.’
  • PBS:  The Fidel Castro Tapes
  • NGCI:  Fidel Castro:  The Lost Tapes
  • PBS broadcast their version on Sept. 2, 2014.
  • NGCI has not set a date.
  • Reviews for the program were very positive, including here by Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe.
Watch the episodes on PBS.
Visit The Fidel Castro Tapes website.