Not so long ago, when I was in film school one of my instructors asked our class what we thought the single most important piece of film equipment was. Some people insisted that the camera was essential, others were adamant that it was the editing system; one young woman was firm in her resolve that money was the most important piece of equipment because with enough of it everything else would fall into place. Well, we were all incredulous when our instructor told us that we were dead wrong. What we were told, and what I myself have come to believe, is that the single most important piece of equipment for any filmmaker is nothing more complicated than a pencil and a piece of paper.
So what does it take to use this crude bit of ancient technology and write a great proposal? How can you captivate and inspire the annual review panel at LPB to choose your project? Well there are no definitive answers, but there are a few things that each competitor who dares venture into this blood sport must bear in mind.
Gotta Know Your Audience.
This may seem self-evident but the truth is you have several audiences to consider. The first question to ask yourself is do you watch Public Television? Those who watch PBS and are familiar with its programming have a better chance at getting funded. I think it is vital to understand the landscape you are attempting to be a part of and eventually transform. In my mind, PBS in not so much a network of stations as it is a philosophy, a vision of the world. If you understand its mission then you will know if you are a good fit.
You should also know that part of LPB’s mandate is to bring Latino audiences to PBS. The people who watch Public Television tend to be well-educated upper class Anglo retirees. Therefore, you have to think about how your program will appeal to both older white people and younger brown ones.
Lastly, what kind of people are likely to be on the LPB panel? Chances are, on any given panel you might find a programmer from a PBS station (How will your show play in his or her local community?), someone from PBS or CPB (Will this reach a national audience?), someone from an ongoing PBS series (Could your program fit into an existing PBS venue?), someone from a granting organization that has some relationship to Public Television (Will other funders be interested in this project?) and perhaps a successful filmmaker or two (Can this producer really deliver the goods or is he trying to pull a fast tamale?).
What are the stakes?
Every good treatment I have read effectively focuses in on the aspects of conflict or struggle within the narrative that drive the story forward. For each character there needs to be something at stake and the stakes should be very high; as emotional as possible, as personal as possible, as gut wrenching as you can make them. This creates dramatic tension and provides the opportunity for character development. Everything in your story should build toward some moment of climax. Either our character triumphs over the lynch mob that hung his brother, or he dies trying; or perhaps he reaches an unsettling conclusion. He avenges his family but in the process he is forced to embrace the very cruelty and viciousness he had sought to defeat. In other words, how has each character changed from the beginning of the story to the end? And what does it all tell us about what it means to be mortal? About ambition, greed, power, love, sorrow, and the transformative powers of the human spirit?
In my mind it makes no difference whether you are making a fiction film or a documentary. A story is a story is a story. Using dramatic techniques in non-fiction film is (or should be) standard operating procedure for any producer seeking LPB support. The trick for the documentary filmmaker is to take the elements of reality and in them find a dramatic arc, with nuanced characters, elevated conflict and some sort of resolution. You have to do all of this without distorting or perverting or in any way misrepresenting the truth of a situation. Being honest and fair and true to the facts is the moral obligation of every documentary filmmaker. If people get the perception that you are somehow bias, or have a particular agenda, or are trying to manipulate reality to fit your own interests, you will have squandered your most precious resource: your own credibility. LPB wants to support projects that generate the light of understanding, not the darkness of distortion.
Remember this is PBS. The taxpayers still cover some of the bills. So it is important that you provide original intellectual content. Tell us something we don’t know and tell us in a way that will eschew easy conclusions, simplistic analysis, clichéd or predictable perspectives. Although PBS audiences do want to be informed, what they really want is to be captivated by the action that is unfolding before them. Chances are you will run into problems if you try to do broad historical surveys, treatises or feel good peeks at the Latino experience. The way to succeed is not to tell history or reality but to tell stories carved out of a historical period or contemporary culture. You have to tell a tale that not only offers an intellectual but a visceral understanding of events. In the end, we are – all of us – a little more than a contradictory bundle of raw emotions protected by a think veneer of reason. If you want to produce for PBS you will have to appeal to both the head and the heart.
I have already mentioned a little about the dramatic arc of the story but I think it is worth giving some practical advice. When you write your proposal start off with something that will get their attention. From the very beginning present us with a highly charged problem or question that introduces the central conflict of the film in a unique way. It can be subtle or sly, it can be something of an internal quandary or it can have something to do with the outside world, but it needs to set the emotional tone and psychic landscape for the rest of the film. One example is the documentary film “Streetwise”. It’s about homeless kids, runaways who seek out a precarious existence on the streets of my hometown Seattle, Washington. I knew one of the kids in the film when I was growing up, so I guess this documentary has always held a special place for me. It starts out with a great “hook,” one that let’s you know exactly what the film is going to be about without being too obvious or in any way didactic.
We see a close up of a young boy about thirteen years old and you hear his voice over, “I love to fly. It’s just your alone, peace and quiet, nothing around you but clear blue sky.” Then we see that he is standing on the edge of a bridge looming high above the turbulent waters below. His voice over continues, “No one to hassle you, to tell you where to go or what to do.” Then he jumps. He is falling and falling almost endlessly until he hits the water. “The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the f**kin’ world.”