How to Fix Your Documentary's Structural Problems, Part One

Karen Everett January 4, 2011

One of my story consulting clients recently held a disastrous rough cut screening. He had invited several filmmakers to watch his provocative work-in-progress. He asked for feedback "strictly about structure" and instead received feedback that viewers found his film's subject matter inspiring or alienating, depending on their political proclivities.

The problem is that this filmmaker expected guidance on his documentary’s structure and instead received opinions about the film's subject matter. This frequently happens. While opinionated comments are wonderful after a completed film's screening, such "feedback" generally clouds the goal of a rough cut screening: to pinpoint problems prior to fixing them.

This column, part one of a two-part series, will outline three ways to ensure that your rough-cut screening successfully identifies problem areas. Part two will reveal strategies for fixing those problems.

A carefully orchestrated rough-cut screening is an essential step in the post-production process. I've written a detailed guide that, in hindsight, I would have shared with my client had I known about his screening in advance.  You can email me (address below) to receive a free copy of this guide, "How to Hold a Successful Rough Cut Screening."

In this column, I offer three key ways to make the most of your screening and avoid the problem my client had.

You’ll recall that my client had asked his test audience to focus strictly on structure. You would think that a group of filmmakers could do that, but the truth is that most people who are not trained to analyze rough cuts on a daily basis are likely to get caught up in your documentary’s drama (for character-based films) or provocative thesis (for topic-based docs). The good news is that beneath these emotional reactions, most laypeople and filmmakers will be able to pinpoint your rough cuts problem areas.

As veteran filmmaker Jon Else says, test audiences are always right about what's wrong with your film. But they're rarely right about how to fix it.

Lesson: use the rough-cut screening as a tool to identify problems. Use a story consultant (and editor) to troubleshoot those problems and find solutions (see Part 2 next month).

1. Use A Questionnaire

Design a simple questionnaire to hand out immediately after the screening. This allows viewers to record their fresh impressions before they are swayed by the group discussion. Make the questionnaire anonymous so people feel free to tell you exactly what they think without fear of hurting your feelings. Pose seven to ten questions, starting with an open-ended query designed to get at their overall emotional take on the material and its point of view. You want to get viewers’ polemic reactions to the topic out the way, as well as get a preview of how your film will land when it's completed and the credits roll.

Try something simple like, “What did you think of the film?” Then progress to more specific issues (i.e., “what did you think of the music?”) that you and your post-production team are pondering. For more ideas about what to ask on the questionnaire, consult the guide (mentioned above).

2. Shut Up and Listen

During the discussion, you may be tempted to explain your choice of scenes or defend your ordering of the material. But trying to educate your test audience on what you were trying to accomplish is a waste of valuable feedback time.

Besides, if someone says they were bored in the middle of the film, you can't argue with them. Feedback such as "I was bored from the get-go," or "the film took forever to end" or “I was confused by such and such” is exactly the kind of structural information you need to identify and later fix problem areas. Try to elicit from your viewers precisely when they felt what they felt, and you'll be halfway toward improving your documentary.

Armed with this valuable feedback, you and your post-production team are ready to brainstorm and craft solutions to your films weak areas. See next month's column for troubleshooting and fixing specific structural problems.

For a free copy of "How to Hold a Successful Rough Cut Screening,” email me at

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