James Boo - AMA about documentary filmmaking, social impact, work-work balance, how to start anything


(James Boo) #21

#1: Surround yourself with a diverse group of friends (i.e. not all in entertainment, not all the same cultural background or race) that you trust and love, and who trust and love you. There’s an important step where you actually do show your work to the brutal internet, but you can start with people who are really going to take care in viewing your work and giving you constructive criticism, not what they think you need to hear.

#2: Let’s say you want to make a short film. Once you’ve set your vision on what the final product could be, start to work backwards from there and identify every possible benchmark where you could conceivably stop and show someone the work in progress. You might end up with something like:

  • Share the first outline of a script
  • Share the rough draft of a script
  • Have a table read with the near-final draft of a script
  • Shoot a single scene from the script, give it complete edit as if it were a final cut, and share that with everyone on the team as well as trusted friends and advisors

The two approaches in play here are sharing increments of something that’s obviously not done, while also finishing something (one scene) from start to finish, but isn’t the entire product. You get lots of chances for feedback without spending a lot of valuable resources, and you get to make lots of mistakes by exercising the whole process but at a very small scale. I hope this makes sense, even coming from a documentary person!


(Jane) #22

How were you able to quit your day job? What is your filmmaking ROI secret??


(Meg Carroway) #23

Do you have any experience pitching work, to distributors or investors or anything like that? What’s their “minimum viable product”?


(Bri Castellini) #24

signal boost on this… got lost in the mad dash to ask you more questions :slight_smile:


(James Boo) #25

Definitely lead with your vision: Not what you want from the person, but why you’re calling them and why they’re an important part of that. When cold calling for 1 Minute Meal, I make sure in the first 2 minutes to let the person know that I make a series whose goal is to create a more inclusive portrait of life in New York. Then I always tell them that I am not reviewing their restaurant or even talking about their food; I’m interested in their life and their community. Once you get someone on board with your “why,” then the “what” of the conversation is just a matter of what’s convenient for both of you. People like having a purpose!

Likewise, once you’re on the same page with this person, then you want to give them very concrete things to say yes or no to, e.g. “Do you have 30 minutes to tell me about your work as a cook?” “Could I please stop by your church on Sunday to see how the picnic works?” A lot of times I visit people in person to have initial conversations, because it’s just more satisfying for me (and usually for them) than talking to a disembodied voice. So in this principle, the sooner you can steer the conversation to a method that you know you’ll do better with, the less awkward things will be. Does this help?


(Bri Castellini) #26

This one might have gotten lost too.


(Ollie R) #27

So I’m from a pretty homogeneous area in the middle of the USA and most of my friends and classmates are white, so they’re who I source from when making no-budget projects, but I know that’s not a good excuse for a lack of diversity (especially in front of the camera). It’s just hard going outside your usual circle when there’s no money, but I really want to do better. Any advice on improving media representation when your area/network is really white?


(James Boo) #28

Nope! And when it comes to documentary, almost nobody does – even people with really prestigious films, if they’re not independently wealthy, anchor their income with teaching jobs or corporate/marketing video work.

I wanted to quit my day job in February of 2016, then I took a few days off and did all the maths and realized I would only be able to support myself for 3 months. So I set a plan to save enough to give myself 9 months of runway, and since I quit I’ve been living off those savings and managed to stretch them to a year. Now I’m gearing up with an old friend of mine who runs a GMAT tutoring business to help him develop a video product and also help him with remote tutoring to keep myself afloat, while I apply for grants that likely won’t deliver cash until 8-9 months out, if at all.

I feel good enough about my projects that one of the big ones will bring in enough cash to support me in a year or two, but the reality is that I mostly pay the rent through freelance work, and am just trying to manage down how much time it takes away from my workweek.


(Bri Castellini) #29

@emilyaweeks, @ghettonerdgirl, @RDRICCI, any questions? I see y’all lurkin’ :slight_smile:


(James Boo) #30

Hey Jane! I just answered this question partially re. @JCaster, so please check that out and lmk if I should go more in-depth.


(Bri Castellini) #31

Given that you’re the planning type (kindred spirits :heart:) what is your long term plan in terms of filmmaking work/ freelancing on the side? What are things you’re hoping to do in order to make filmmaking more sustainable full time?


(Jane) #32

Just saw that- thanks! My follow up would be about you saying some of your projects bring in cash… how? Sponsorships/product placement? Or something else?


(Rodrigo Diaz Ricci) #33

Hello James, thank you very much for sharing your experiences.
My question is about the distribution:
What distribution media do you use and how did you get to them?


(Emily Weeks) #34

Hi James. I know we worked together for season 3 of 1 Minute Meal, but I’m going to ask a question too if you’ve got a second. My question would be how do you find people to help extend the one-man-band? Is it mostly just luck within your network or do you have other methods of finding help?


(James Boo) #35

Yes! I’ve successfully pitched for fellowships (I’m on my second now), several media partnerships to distribute 1 Minute Meal, and one grant board. Pitching is quite different from building in that your MVP is often 3-5 slides that get presented in 10-15 minutes, with a bunch of follow-up questions. Instead of showing a small version of your film to a sample viewer, you’re presenting a big-picture argument for why people should ask you to shut up and take their money:

  • The vision (always) for how this story will attract and impact audiences
  • A convincing case that audiences actually exist and will show up for the work
  • A convincing picture that this is definitely going to happen, and the only thing standing in your way is the money (or other resources) you don’t have
  • Why you, specifically, are absolutely the best person to be in charge of this, and why right now is absolutely the best time to support you instead of someone else

(Meg Carroway) #36

For non-documentary work, like college-aged narrative comedies for instance, how do you do the first one? I would worry that “vision” is weak when you compare a coming of age comedy to a documentary, for instance…


(Ghetto Nerd Girl) #37

Hi James! I notice that a lot of grants are available for documentaries. How much time do you set aside per week to research grants and/or applying for them? Is it worth the time? Do you end up getting most of the ones you apply for?


(Jane) #38

Also, I just clicked on your upcoming feature link- that sounds so interesting! You’re only crowdfunding 15k, though… if you don’t mind me asking, is that enough? For a whole movie? If so… I would like that secret too!! :slight_smile:


(James Boo) #39

This is a great question because it shows that relationships are everything. The first person besides myself to believe in 1 Minute Meal was a former fellow freelancer who wrote alongside me at Serious Eats. He eventually became the NYC editor of Serious Eats, and when I pitched him on a phone call he encouraged me to replace my columns with this idea, and that’s why the series ever got an audience to begin with.

Over the years I think I’ve been pretty good about maintaining friendships with people, not because they always have some help to offer me, but because I love and respect them and their work. So when building out distribution and publicity for the series, I’ve been able to come back to various relationships with writers who are now editors, people I once wrote about, and friends who just love food – to make my way and get the show in front of more people. And I’ve shed off lots of other relationships that weren’t driven by this shared passion and camaraderie, and things have mostly worked out pretty well.

The most recent season of 1 Minute Meal was a 6-way partnership with 4 magazines, a museum, and a local newspaper. It secured distribution and marketing across all five boroughs of the city, a standing visual exhibit at a really cool museum space, and lots of press around the season premiere + exhibit opening. All of this was possible because for the previous three years, I was checking in with the people who are in the trenches making these organizations successful, and doing my best to show that I shared their values.


(James Boo) #40

Time budget! Exactly. Time is literally the only resource that disappears forever once it’s spent. And while we share the same system of time, minutes and hours pass very differently for every individual, depending on our emotional state and context.

I think that measuring out how you spend time and creating that distance, where you’re just playing around with numbers instead of FEELING the pressure of time, is my best strategy. It lets you ask “why do I spend __ hours doing ____?” over and over again, and the challenge is to come up with answers you really feel great about committing to. In terms of trimming, I think if you can’t justify any given time expense in the immediate term or in the big picture (hint: maintaining your sanity is a very worthy justification), then you can just start trying to drop certain things and see how it feels from week to week.