Case Study: ‘BESA: A ‘Passion’ Theatrical Doc Project (2/2)

By Alex Watson,
Associate, DocumentaryTelevision.com.

Our 2-part Case Study continues: JWM Productions is a highly-regarded nonfiction producer that is dedicated to delivering programs to Discovery, Nat Geo and others.

At the same time, JWM works for seven years on a passion project: It’s an inspiring documentary about how a sacred, wartime promise is fulfilled across decades and faiths.

In last week’s post, we profiled JWM and explored their decision to produce BESA.  Today, we dig deeper into the production process and uncover reasons for their film’s success.

Concept

  • The never-before-told history of how Albanian Muslims sheltered Jewish refugees during WWII.
  • Astonishing Fact: “The only Muslim country in Europe was the only nation whose Jewish population increased in WWII.”

Map_of_Albania_during_WWII

BESA: THE PROMISE

Production: A Seven-Year Timeline

  • Began first email traffic with Norman H. Gershman in 2004
  • Got first proposal out of the door to the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation in 2005
  • Funded development started in 2005/6
  • This led to a further endorsement from the Righteous Persons’ Foundation which was a real “shot in the arm”
  • Pre-production
    • “It took a lot of research. We had to get our homework done to make sure what we showed would be approved by academics and other historical scholars.”
    • “We worked very closely with the Spielberg Foundation and the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, who provided very forward-looking support.”
  • We undertook 3 major trips to Albania
  • Short excerpts were revealed in a traveling exhibition beginning in 2007
  • Besa first appeared theatrically in a major festival in 2012

Budget / Funding

  • The closer: “Our project was underwritten by a generous ‘Bridging Culture Through Films’ grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.”
    • “Took us 3 months to write the proposal.”
    • “We applied for $620K & won $520K, the largest single grant given by NEH to any single film in that funding cycle.”
    • This enabled us to secure Philip Glass, services of graphics designers Percolate Digital, etc.
  • JWM has also made huge, uncompensated contributions to the film, about $50K / year over the past 7 years.”
  • “The Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation also generously gave us about $300K.”
  • All our spending was routed through a non-profit “The Eye Contact Foundation”
    • We worked closely with them from initiation
  • In total, “about $1-1.5 million was raised in support of the overall project, which included a book, a traveling exhibit of Norman’s photographs, and the film.”

Success

  • Special Jury Award – 13th Festival of Albanian Film
  • Best Documentary & Best Director – 2013 Beaufort International Film Festival
  • Best Documentary – Washington Jewish Film Festival
  • Best Documentary – 2013 Seattle Jewish Film Festival

JASON WILLIAMS’ TAKEAWAYS

  • Distribution
    • “When you make a film for television, channels have their own marketing and public relations. But when you make a film that does not have a built in broadcast window, none of that is there.”
    • Therefore, “it’s incredibly important when fundraising that you allocate at least 10% of budget to support theatrical distribution – just to getting it out there.”
    • “If you’ve got a million dollar film, you need $100K to market it effectively.  If you don’t have those resources, you’re essentially at the mercy of distributors.”
  • “Even if your film has been a real favorite in festivals, don’t think that you’re going to get a large television deal.”
    • “It’s hard to get Besa onto a network because, at 83 minutes long, cutting it down to a more broadcast-friendly length would necessitate that substantial elements of the film be written and narrated.”
    • We never regretted for a moment doing it the way we did.”

  POSTSCRIPT

“This film represents the reason I make documentaries. I could not have scripted anything remotely this moving and profound. The fact that Rexhep’s story not only really happened, but that we had the privilege to discover and document it is one of those rare gifts from the documentary gods for which I will be forever grateful.”

~ Rachel Goslins, Director