The Basic Idea or Suggestion

The basic suggestion is the written definition of the idea that gets the film moving. It is the power and driving force behind the whole production. Ideas come from everywhere. They can come from childhood experiences, from something you saw on TV, from your newspaper reading, or from something a friend told you. And that idea, wherever it comes from, stirs something within you. Your intellectual or emotional curiosity has been aroused, and you feel ready to commit time and an immense amount of energy to transform that vague idea into a film.

Where do you go from there? You try and commit the idea to one simple statement, and the simpler, the better. If you can't do this and your definition of the idea turns into an essay, then you know something is wrong. So you jot down something like this:

Debbie and David: This is the story of a mother who is determined that through her inventions, her invalid child will learn to walk.

Because It's There: This film investigates the race to conquer Mount Everest.

Shaheed: This film looks at the life of Ahmed Salim, one of the first of the Islamic suicide bombers.

Two Wheels to Love: This film deals with love among the handicapped.

Once you've defined your idea, you have to get your act on the road. You can do this via a note, a letter, or a memo that raises someone's interest so that he or she will back the film. The key here is to raise interest. The note can be formal or informal, jocular or serious. Whatever format it takes, its purpose is to intrigue the reader, to stimulate his or her interest and imagination. The response you are looking for is, "What a great idea! Let's think more about this."

More often than not, the effective note or letter is short and to the point. If the idea is good, then its attractiveness will be seen immediately. The task of the suggestive note is to say briefly what the film is about, why the idea is attractive to you, and why it might be of interest to the sponsor. Here are a few examples.

Help Me

If hospitals scare adults, then what are the effects of the institution on children? We believe that the problems facing children going into the hospital have been neglected for too long.

We therefore propose to make a ten-minute film for children between the ages of four and ten that will help dispel their fears. There is a dire need to make such a film, and we believe that the Wellington Hospital, with its worldwide reputation for the care and welfare of children as well as its reputation for healing, is the ideal institution to make and back such a pioneering film.

We estimate the production cost to be in the region of $12,000.

The suggestion is brief but easily grasped. Such an idea would probably be accompanied by a letter suggesting a meeting to discuss the idea in more detail if there is any initial interest. The accompanying letter would also discuss why it would benefit the hospital to make such a film.

Another idea might be put this way:

Dear Dr. Courts:

Is it just coincidence, or is it the fashion of the times? In the last month, I have read at least three articles, in magazines ranging from Newsweek to The New Yorker, discussing the prevalence of student stress and teenage suicide.

This started me thinking about your department, which has received so much well-deserved publicity in regard to its research on student stress and your innovative methods for dealing with the same.

I would like to suggest doing a film with you on the whole subject of stress; it would serve to publicize your methods and approach around the world. We could do this either as a straightforward instructional film, or we could play around a little more imaginatively and focus on two or three student types. We could take a first-year student and a graduate student as typical cases and examine their problems and treatment.

I think—and I don't believe I'm wrong—that there is a tremendous demand for such a film (or videotape). I also think it would be fairly easy to get the university and the Science Research Council to fund us up to the tune of $20,000, which should be sufficient. What do you say? Can we get together to discuss the matter further?

In the above two examples, the writer-producer is the originator of the suggestions. However, it sometimes happens that a sponsor or a television documentary series solicits proposals on a general topic. It is then up to the writer to develop a specific approach. A recent memo from the British Home Office read as follows:

Request for Suggestions

We wish to make various short films showing the problems confronting new immigrants to England, and the successful integration of the immigrants. We welcome suggestions from producers, which should be less than three pages in length and turned in in triplicate. The films should be under twenty minutes in length and should be capable of being executed on a budget of $15,000. Proposals must be submitted to this office by July 31st.

An interested writer-producer might respond as follows:

The Orchestra

This is a film about a unique orchestra in Manchester composed of thirty Indians from New Delhi and Madras who have been in England five years. Some are fluent in English, but not all. Many were professional musicians in India, but they now have to support themselves in Manchester by learning new trades and professions.

Three years ago, under the leadership and inspiration of Asoke Badra, they decided to form a specialized Indian folk orchestra.

The orchestra rehearses three times a week and, in the last year, has given major concerts in Manchester and in London's Festival Hall. Next year the orchestra has been invited to appear at New York's Lincoln Center.

We believe that a look at the orchestra and its members will provide a different and fascinating way of approaching the problems of immigrant absorption.

Implicit in this suggestion is the idea that one will explore individual immigrant backgrounds, problems, and attitudes to the new country and emerge with a story of hope. Quite clearly, the orchestra motif is a neat frame for this exploration.

Though I thought about the orchestra idea, I never submitted it. I was therefore very interested when, a few years later, I saw that Jim Brown, a New York filmmaker and university professor, had just finished a documentary on the experiences of a Russian émigré orchestra in the United States.

When you write to a TV station, it is vital to know whether it has particular documentary strands—the arts or history or current events — into which your film will fit. For example, the BBC ran a series called Secret History. If you were writing to its commissioning editor, you might just drop a note as follows.

Dear Mr. Lawson:

I am a documentary producer who specializes in films on history and politics. Recently, I followed with great fascination your series States of Terror. Your analysis of the situation in Iran backed up everything I have seen there with my own eyes on my three visits last year.

They were not casual visits but were made in the course of my research on a new series my company is planning called The Masters of Murder. In this six-part series, we plan to profile major world terrorists such as Bin Laden, the Jackal, the Baider Meinhoff Group, and Ohlendorff, one of the leaders of the Waffen SS. Danny Setton, whose work you know from his films on Mengele and Bormann, will be the writer, I will direct, and Prof. Frankel, whose books on terror you know, will be our consultant.

I think the subject speaks for itself, as well as the quality of the production personnel. I think the idea is a dynamic one, well suited to Secret History, and I would very much appreciate your sparing some time for us to meet to see whether we can develop this idea in tandem.

If you know the local TV station or the BBC is doing a series on writers called Bookends, your introductory letter might go as follows:

Dear Mr. Monson:

I am a writer-producer of arts documentaries and would be obliged if you would consider the following idea for inclusion in Bookends:

As you know, Frank McCourt's book Angela's Ashes skyrocketed from nowhere to 120 weeks on the best-seller charts. As you also know, various films have already been made on Frank, but all concentrating on his childhood in Ireland. His contemporary life, however, is a closed book to us.

Frank is a very good friend of mine and has agreed to allow me an entry, denied to most other filmmakers, into his private life. What I would like to propose to you is The Price of Fame, an hour-long film that looks at how Frank's life has changed since fame and riches came his way. I think the film would secure a very wide audience and can be made on a very limited budget.

If you are intrigued with this idea, I would appreciate hearing from you. I can be reached at the above address or phone.

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