DEVELOPING A GREAT DISCUSSION GUIDE: Notes for Documentary Filmmakers

Preface
For two decades it has been my privilege to write discussion/facilitation guides for more than 270 independent documentaries. I’ve seen some amazing filmmaking, learned a lot about our planet and the people who inhabit it, and occasionally ended the day in frustration when the collaborative process made my job more difficult. Of course, that process nearly always resulted in a better guide, and it certainly made me a better writer.

In this post, I share my approach. No doubt some will use these insights to craft their own materials and save the costs of hiring me. That’s okay. If my work improves your efforts, even in a small way, that honors me. And I’m guessing that a few folks will still want to hire an old pro.

Many thanks to the organizations, projects, and independent filmmakers with whom I have worked over the years. You have been wonderful teachers and I am grateful to be your student.

GOALS

CONTENT
Discussion Prompts
The Rest of the Guide

WORKING WITH A GUIDE WRITER
What to Look for in a Guide Writer
Checklist: What to Provide
Do’s and Don’ts
Money

GOALS

Great guides begin with clarity of purpose. Everyone involved in the process should know the answers to these three questions:
1. Who will see this guide?
2. Who will participate in the discussion?
3. What are the expected outcomes?

Here’s how the answers influence content:

1. Who will see this guide?
Most people who attend a screening will never see the guide, so keep the content focused on meeting the needs of facilitators. Filling the guide with material for the general public (or students) makes it more difficult for facilitators (or teachers) to find what they need.

2. Who will participate in the discussion?
It’s common for single guides to encompass multiple audiences. That doesn’t change the fact that different audiences require different types of discussion questions, background information, and resources. For example, a festival audience is likely to pay much more attention to craft and aesthetics than, say, project partner affiliate chapters focused on using the film in professional development workshops for staff.

3. What are the expected outcomes?
Do you hope people will take action on a social or political cause? Achieve specific learning outcomes? Build lasting community ties? Publicize your work? Add their own stories to those in the film? Ignite imaginations and have fun? Each outcome requires different types of questions and, in some cases, different language choices. If, for example, you are hoping to provide a safe space where segments of communities in conflict can recognize common ground and build bridges, then choosing words that every side hears as neutral is exceptionally important. That same language could offend those intent on using the film to build support for a partisan political cause.

CONTENT

Guide writing isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t quite as simple as a great guide might make it seem. This section walks you through my approach to common features.

DISCUSSION PROMPTS

To state the obvious, discussion prompts are the heart of a guide. This section describes how to craft effective prompts that lead to dialogue, reflection, critical thinking and action.

How Many?
Typically it only takes a couple of questions to get a lively discussion going. You’d run out of time before getting through nine or ten questions. So why do guides generally have a couple dozen questions instead of just two or three?  Because…
• Including varying styles of questions gives a facilitator the flexibility and options they need to engage diverse audiences on the fly.
• Each major topic needs at least a couple of prompts, so the more complex the film, the more questions in the guide.
• Questions serve as a reminder to facilitators of the film’s content. Even questions that will never be asked help facilitators anticipate topics, frame issues, and recall pivotal moments in the narrative.

The Importance of Open-Ended Questions

You made the film because you have a story to tell and that means you have a stake in people leaving a screening saying “amen” to your gospel. But using questions to subtly tell people what to think is rarely effective. Open-ended wording leaves room for people to make their own meaning. Ultimately, the chance to come to one’s own conclusions results in much deeper engagement, and that increases the possibility that your film will have a powerful and lasting impact.

It also helps to be aware of the distinction between a discussion guide and a teacher’s guide. Teachers pre-determine what students will (at least in theory) take away from a lesson. In contrast, a facilitator’s job is to get and keep dialogue going without pre-determining what people might learn or think.
The only way to succeed as a facilitator is to use open-ended questions. They provide a springboard for dialogue (conversations designed to arrive at a deeper understanding of issues and one another) without slipping into debate (where people stake out a position and focus on convincing others to agree).
To nurture an atmosphere of learning, reflection, and respect, great facilitators avoid agree/disagree framing and instead use questions like “What were the strengths and weaknesses of their strategy?” or How is this similar to or different from your family? Instead of “Did you agree with…?” we ask, “What was your reaction to…?”
Even when a question is designed to elicit clarification, we don’t just ask whether someone agrees or disagrees, but why. And instead of inviting judgement of the people on screen (as if audiences are reality show judges or that their role is to give a simplistic thumbs up/down on a social media post), we ask what was convincing or lacking about an action. Probative, open-ended questions help viewers identify the factors that influenced a character’s – and their own – decisions.

There is one exception to open-ended prompts: comprehension questions. For some films, viewers need to have specific, factual knowledge in order to understand and explore events depicted on screen. Unlike open-ended probes, comprehension questions have verifiable, correct answers. In guides that include them, it is important that comprehension questions be clearly identified.

Opening Prompts
To get a discussion started we use general wording, i.e., questions that could be asked about any film. Opening questions typically use three types of prompts.
1. Ask for a content summary.
This isn’t just asking for a log line; asking people to recount what they just saw reveals a lot about their values, concerns and interests. But they may have trouble answering questions that are too general (e.g., “What was the film about?”), so it helps to ask in a form that makes the task concrete. For example, “If you were going to tweet a summary of the film’s main point, what would you write?” or “If you were going to tell a friend about the film, what would you say?”
2. Ask for reactions.
These are questions that increase awareness of emotions and impact. For example: “Was there a moment in the film that you found particularly inspiring or disturbing? What was it about that moment that moved you?” or “A month from now, what do you think you’ll remember about this film?” or even the simple, “In a word, how did the film make you feel?”
3. Invite connections.
These questions help viewers identify how the film relates to their own lives. They can lay the foundation for finding common ground. For example: “Did anything in the film surprise you? Was anything familiar?”

Closing Questions
It can be as hard to wrap up a discussion as it is to get things started. Questions designed specifically for the purpose of helping people synthesize what they’ve experienced and move them to action can help. There are dozens of possibilities. My favorite is: “What did you learn from the film that you wish everyone knew? What would change if everyone knew it?”

Content Questions
The best content questions develop organically from the film, reflecting its language and “feel.”
• As much as is possible, I frame questions using direct quotes from the film. Facilitators can use these quotes to help people recall how the film dealt with particular issues, clarify or invite reactions, or settle any disputes about what someone in the film actually said.
• For discussions, the film is the text. Unless something is common knowledge, if it’s not in the film, it probably shouldn’t be in the discussion prompts.

 

THE REST OF THE GUIDE

In addition to discussion prompts, here are the things I normally include in a discussion guide:

Title / Filmmaker / Length
In addition to the film’s full title and the name of the filmmaker(s), it is important for event organizers or teachers to know the length of the film. Depending on the content and perspective of the film, it might also be important to add the film’s location and language (including whether it is subtitled and/or has closed captioning available).

Synopsis
In contrast to grant applications or press kits, the synopsis in a guide doesn’t need to serve as an advertisement. Typically, a person looking at a discussion guide has already seen the film or committed to screening it. You’ve already succeeded in winning them over. So, a guide’s description can take excerpts from blurbs, but it will leave out glowing quotes from reviews or lists of awards. Instead it concentrates on explaining how the film can be a springboard for exploring particular issues.

This is also a good place to provide discussion leaders with a heads up of any red flags. Is there cursing or nudity? Graphic violence or other disturbing content that could trigger trauma reactions? Potentially offensive language?

Note: If the film’s content has the potential for triggering flashbacks in trauma survivors (or any other reactions that might require responses from experienced professionals), create a section with facilitation tips that includes ways to connect viewers with people who can help.

Key Characters
Not every film includes a set of key “players,” but if yours does, it will help a facilitator to have a quick reference to keep track of who is who. This allows them to assist discussion participants in identifying people by name, which is more respectful and also more clear than people trying to explain who they mean.

Provide a list that includes accurate names, titles, and spellings, along with a sentence that helps the facilitator identify who the person is (e.g., BJ Smith, the attorney who defended the group’s position in their court case). It doesn’t require full biographies – just enough information to identify who they are in the film. If your film tells the story of a particular person, event, group, or family, it would also be helpful to have a short blurb on what has happened to people since the film was finished. If it seems important to include additional information, consider posting longer biographies on the film’s website and linking to them from the guide.

Letter from the Filmmaker
Similar to a Director’s Statement, this is a letter from the people who made the film to the people who are about to use the film. The length should not exceed a single page (about 250 words) and should include:
• Why you made the film and what you learned along the way
• What you hope the lasting impact might be on the people who attend a screening, and
• A thank you to the facilitator and those who are hosting a screening.

Target Audience
If the guide’s audience is narrow, say so: e.g., “This guide is intended for high school teachers and coaches.” If appropriate, you can also add other relevant possibilities, e.g., “It may also be useful for youth leaders and social service providers or medical professionals who work with teens.”

If the guide’s audience is general, list 6-12 key words or phrases that would resonate with people’s varied interests. You might think of these as hashtags or useful search terms. For example, the list for a film about striking teachers might include “activism,” “education,” “labor history,” “labor unions,” “public schools,” and the strike’s location. Depending on the film’s focus, there might also be terms like “parenting,” “public policy,” “living wage,” “working conditions,” “negotiating tactics,” “grassroots organizing,” “privatization,” “institutionalized racism,” or “high stakes testing.”

Using This Guide
Describe anything about the design of the guide that may not be self-evident to a facilitator. For example if there is an icon that identifies questions specifically designed for people who are new to the issues, this is where you’d explain how facilitators can find content for both beginning and advanced levels of inquiry.

Background Information
A page (or sometimes two) of information won’t make a facilitator an expert on a film’s content, but the context it provides will help them anticipate issues that might arise. Appropriate information includes things like:
• Dates or statistics given in the film (so a facilitator can quickly cite them during a discussion)
• Statistics on how many people are effected by the issue(s) you are examining, and/or comparisons to similar events/trends in other places
• A basic history of key events that influenced your subject matter
• Brief timelines of key events
• Biographies of people who aren’t the subject of the film but are essential to the story (especially if they are public figures)
• Definitions of unusual or disputed terms.

Action Steps
Sometimes simply having a public conversation can be transformative, especially if the topic has been taboo or if a person has been closeted. In contrast, people who have been thinking about an issue for a long time (and because of their interest have been drawn to a screening of your film), may be frustrated if all they do is talk.
Planning next steps can help people leave the room feeling energized and optimistic, even in instances when conversations have been difficult. Taking action is the best way to counter cynicism.

The best way to get people to “buy in” and actually follow up is to have them suggest and plan their own ideas. In some guides, that means using this section to lay out a process for brainstorming and coming to consensus. In other guides, a few suggested actions can be used as prompts to help the group think about what they want to do.

Resources
Facilitators are busy people. They don’t have time to read dozens of sources. So rather than supply a full bibliography, ask yourself, “If I were leading a discussion and only had time to look at three things, which three things would be most important for me to look at?” Narrow the resource list accordingly, and provide a brief annotation for each source that explains how it will be helpful.
If the film covers several different topics, you may want to list 2-3 resources for each topic. You also may want to differentiate between resources for the discussion leader and resources that they can suggest to viewers for follow-up.

Acknowledgements and Credits
Provide credits for guide writer(s), and anyone with a project title (e.g., Director of Outreach). Thank readers, advisers, project partners, and funders. List the production company for the film.

Rights
Let people know what they are (and aren’t) permitted to do with the guide. If you are going to make a free downloadable version available, you may want to consider registering for a Creative Commons license. Also list the date that the guide was created and suggestion(s) for citation format.

Contact Information
In an easy-to-find place in the guide – at the very end works well – provide all applicable contact information. Minimally this should include the film’s website, social media pages or handles, and any hashtags that are being used for ongoing conversations. You also might want to give a phone number and/or email for specific people (e.g., who to contact for press queries or to schedule an event).

Facilitation and/or Event Planning Tips
This is optional, especially because the discussion leader might not be the same person organizing the event and because experienced facilitators won’t need tips on how to guide a conversation (though reminders can’t hurt). However, facilitation tips are highly recommended if the film’s subject matter might be a trigger for trauma survivors or if the content is highly contentious and you hope to bring together groups that are typically on opposing sides.

 

 

WORKING WITH A GUIDE WRITER

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A GUIDE WRITER

If you’re thinking about saving money by writing a guide yourself, consider these caveats:
• First time viewers will see very different things in a film than someone who has been immersed in the material for a long time. The questions and issues that you are thinking about at this stage are different than those who are new to the material.
• Audience members see only the parts of the story that end up on screen. You know much more of the story. Because it is impossible not to know what you know, it can be challenging to craft questions that avoid assuming knowledge that viewers don’t have.
• You made the film because you are passionate about the issues it raises. The closer you are to a subject and the more that you are personally invested in particular outcomes, the harder it is to write open-ended questions.

If you’re hiring a guide writer, look for someone who:
• Can write clearly and without resorting to jargon.
• Writes with an awareness of how language can subtly (or overtly) center or privilege one group while marginalizing others.
• Understands facilitation. It’s more important to be able to imagine the discussion that might flow from each prompt than it is to be a content expert.
• Is intellectually curious and well-versed in current events from a range of perspectives. A person who approaches the world as endlessly intriguing will naturally ask interesting questions that connect a film’s content to people’s diverse experiences.
• Can articulate the theories that describe the realities of daily life.
• Has research skills that go beyond looking at a page of Google search results. Writers need to know how to find and sort through the major debates in a field, not just how to find a few websites for the Resources section of the guide.
Note: You can often determine how well versed someone is by asking what search terms they would include in the Target Audience section of the guide.

 

CHECKLIST: WHAT TO PROVIDE A GUIDE WRITER

Before the guide writer starts in on the first draft, provide them with:

The film’s press kit
The guide’s film synopsis will be tailored to meet the needs of facilitators, but there is no need for the writer to completely reinvent the wheel if descriptions have already been written.

The letter from the filmmaker(s)

A list of key characters with brief bios
This might already be part of the press kit. If not, don’t force a guide writer to cobble together biographical information from the web when the production team already has that information in hand.

A transcript
Aside from a copy of the film itself, this is the single most helpful tool for a guide writer.

Language preferences
Let the writer know if there are important language or terminology preferences. For example, are you okay with using the term “LGBTQ” but not “queer,” or you think that everyone in the film should be identified by title and surname rather than by first name. Expect the guide writer to follow the usage in the film unless given a reason not to.

A list of key partners and/or resources
Do you already have a go-to resource for statistics? Does the film draw from the work of a particular scholar? Do you have project partners that should be featured in the Resources section of the guide? It’s fair to expect a guide writer to do their own research to find recommended Resources, but don’t make them read your mind. If there are people or organizations you know you want to include, say so.

Previous screening experiences
If you have already done events, please share what happened. Let the guide writer know about any issues that seem to come up consistently and also what the contexts were for the discussions. This second piece of information is important because context influences the make up of the audience and the kinds of issues they are interested in.

A contract
Put everything in writing. Detailed deliverables. Timeline. Payment. Rights ownership. Everything. If you don’t have a lawyer or business manager, or don’t want to pay them extra to draw up a contract, ask the guide writer if they have a standard contract or letter of agreement they can share.

 

DOs and DON’Ts

DON’T be afraid to tell me I didn’t get the job. I understand that bidding, including the time it takes to screen your film, is part of the process. All sorts of things lead to rejection of a bid: grants fall through; production cost overruns use up funds once designated for outreach; it’s just not a good match; life circumstances change.
It’s much easier for me to be told “no” than not to hear back at all. Because as soon as I submit a bid I am holding time for your project on my calendar. Eventually, if I don’t hear from you, I’ll release that time, but you could make it a lot easier for me to pursue other projects by simply dashing off a quick message saying that the bid wasn’t accepted. It’s business. It won’t hurt my feelings.

DO ask about turn around time and keep expectations realistic. Expect to pay more if I’m going to give up my weekend to help you make your deadline. For a basic discussion guide, plan for at least six weeks: 2-3 weeks to get you an initial draft, 2 weeks to get feedback from content specialists, partners, and other stakeholders, 2-3* days turn-around time for revisions based on that feedback, and time for your graphics person to layout the final guide, you to do final proofs, and get it posted online.
* First drafts from inexperienced writers may require significantly more revision (and, therefore, a longer turnaround time) than a draft from an experienced writer.

DON’T expect your guide writer to also do graphic layout. If you’re hiring an organization to design and implement outreach, they may provide graphics services. In other circumstances it will be cheaper and easier for you to do layout yourself. That way you can match layout design to your existing film graphics and website.

DO let the guide writer know if printing hard copies is part of the plan. If so, you’ll need to agree on maximum allowable page count (and what can realistically fit into the available space). The default is to assume that the guide should be designed to live online, incorporating digital features like live hyperlinks.

DON’T hesitate to make edits to meet your needs, but DO ask before making significant changes. You always have the final say, but the guide writer might have a reason you haven’t thought of for wording something in a particular way or including/excluding particular content. And keep in mind that guides created for a general audience will intentionally include questions at varying levels. Always let the guide writer know if a question is confusing, but DON’T eliminate a question just because it seems too hard or too easy. Groups that find a particular question too basic or too challenging will have plenty of other questions from which to choose.

DO invite content area or outreach specialists (who know your target audience) to review the first draft, but DON’T simply pass along every comment they provide. Filter the comments you share with the guide writer so they know which to ignore, which to take seriously enough to make changes, and which can be ignored as long as the writer provides a convincing explanation.

DON’T rely on a guide writer to obtain permissions to use copyrighted material. A writer should be providing original material that they can legally turn over to you free and clear. But sometimes there is a picture, chart, map, or written excerpt that you both agree should be included. Only the rights holder of the guide can request permission to use copyrighted material. In nearly all cases, that is the filmmaker or production company.

DO let the guide writer know if the guide will be used internationally. A guide written specifically for American audiences, for example, can make others feel invisible or slighted when used outside of the U.S. There is no quicker way to undermine your outreach efforts than to offend your target audience.

 

MONEY

Despite the taboos against talking about money in front of potential competitors here’s what I typically charge. I’m confident in the value of my time and skills, and the fairness of my pricing, so I’m not likely to stray far from these figures, no matter how compelling your cause or circumstance:

Guide Editing – $500-$750
If the guide that your team has developed would benefit from a set of experienced eyes, I can do that. Keep in mind that the task will likely necessitate my taking the time to watch your film.

4-16 page Discussion Guide $1,250-$2,500
The fee includes one draft and one revision. It does not include graphic layout, though I’m happy to make recommendations or review a design. Variables that affect cost:
• length of the film
• length of the guide
• whether I have a transcript to work from
• number of different target audiences
• amount of independent research needed for background info
• inclusion of facilitation tips (how to lead a discussion)
• inclusion of event planning tips
• addition of special sections (e.g., recommendations about how to handle especially sensitive material that might trigger PTSD-type reactions in trauma survivors)
• deadlines (the shorter, the more expensive)
• whether this is a one-off, or part of a series (bulk pricing discounts are available)

Lesson Plan/Curriculum: $750-$20,000
Variables that affect cost:
• needing to identifying clips from a larger work (because many high school classes are only 40-45 minutes long)
• working without a transcript of the film
• the need to research and write significant background information
• creating student handouts
• creating a bibliography
• providing education standards correlations
• a single lesson or a full curriculum package
• crafting a plan that works for multiple subject areas (e.g., something that simultaneously addresses civics, history, and science), and/or students at very different education levels

When you negotiate cost, be aware that you are paying for creativity. A lesson requires an original idea, but the filmmaker or production company, not the writer owns the rights. You’re also paying for knowledge of classroom practices, including how your film relates to existing curriculum, the limits of class time, and the typical capabilities and prior knowledge of students at various grade levels.

You may be able to find writers who charge less by hiring someone who writes lesson plans or guides as a side job. The fees charged by a writer who can count on an employer to cover all or part of their payroll taxes, pension plan, and health insurance, has the luxury of cutting you a break. At the same time, obligations to their full time job may mean that they can’t prioritize your project.
Independent writers (like me) must cover their own expenses (like payroll taxes, retirement savings, health insurance, and work space), so we are likely to charge more for our services. However, we’re often more experienced at developing guides and are more likely to prioritize your project. After all, we don’t get paid until we submit deliverables!

Be sure that your contract spells out the details of payment arrangements. I suggest payment on receipt of invoice, though in some circumstances, net 30 is unavoidable. Any longer than that is a burden (though it may be necessary for some government contracts). You can also help writers to avoid bank holds by making sure that no single payment is larger than $4,999. It’s okay to reserve payment of part of the fee until all deliverables are in your hands, but expect to pay something up front (and for a longer project, something along the way). And make clear whether payments will be via check, direct deposit, or some other mutually agreed upon arrangement.

As always, comments welcome!

Have a question that wasn’t answered here? Have a suggestion to share? Want a PDF version of the post? Need to hire a guide writer? Contact me via my website: InsightersEducation.com.

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2019. All other rights reserved.