"Industry Spotlight" is our series where we interview professionals from across the entertainment industry about their current jobs and career trajectories. Our hope is that you will learn more about the positions you're already interested in, discover new roles you may not have considered, and utilize the wisdom of those who've paved the way before you to forge your own path for success.
This month, we sat down with Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Sarah Moshman, whose credits include feature docs The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things, Losing Sight of Shore, and Nevertheless. She has also field produced 10 seasons of Dancing with the Stars as well as multiple series for NBC, MTV, Lifetime, Bravo, and Food Network, and directed branded content for clients like Mattel, Tastemade, and AT&T. Her book Empowered Filmmaking: How to Make a Documentary On Your Own Terms is available now on Amazon.
HOLLYWOOD RESUMES: What is the role of a documentary film producer?
SARAH: Being a documentary filmmaker means that you wear many hats. It’s a lot like being an entrepreneur, and in some ways they are one and the same. Especially for independent film projects, you are coming up with an idea, researching and developing that idea, and fundraising to make sure you have the money to make the film. You are in production for days, months, or years depending on the scope of the project; you see the film through the edit, and then you find the best avenue for distribution and marketing based on who your audience is and what your goals are. Each project can span years of your life, so you have to make sure it’s worth it to you to see it through to the end!
HR: How would you describe your day-to-day tasks throughout the lifecycle of your projects?
SARAH: My day-to-day depends on what phase of the project I’m in and whether I’m working from home, out traveling and shooting, or screening a film.
In pre-production, I might be doing pre-interviews with potential interview subjects over the phone or on Zoom, researching a topic or concept, creating a treatment, working on a budget, applying for grants, crowdfunding, giving notes on a sizzle reel, building a website or social media page for the project...so many things!
Production means I’m traveling, renting equipment, on set with a small crew interviewing someone, capturing b-roll, and typically finding myself in quite humbling or extraordinary scenarios where I feel lucky to be invited into that space.
Then, in post-production, I am sitting with my editor working on a cut of the film, or I’m giving notes, highlighting transcripts, thinking about the big picture of the film and what I want it to be, watching other films to get inspired or get out of a creative rut, running a test screening, pitching the film for more fundraising, seeking out distributors, designing a discussion guide to go with the film, and on and on.
In distribution, I am talking with potential partners and sponsors to find innovative ways to get the film out in the world. I might be planning a screening tour, traveling to a screening, taking part in a panel, keynote, or Q&A about the film, doing interviews for press, and finally seeing the impact and revenue for all of my hard work!
I really value each phase of the project, and I love how many hats I get to wear throughout.
HR: What do you like most about your job?
SARAH: I love how many different roles I get to take on when creating a documentary. I like that I get to use different parts of my brain to solve problems and be organized, but also to be an artist who creates the perfect shot, chooses what lens to use, and pieces it all together in edit, which is this enormous puzzle to put together, until one day, it fits. I also love all the incredible people I get to share space with and all the amazing places I get to travel to, all because I know how to use the camera and have films to share with the world. No two days are the same. I am constantly challenged, and I have learned so much about my own resilience and perseverance through creating my own opportunities.
HR: What are the skills someone would need to succeed in your position?
SARAH: As a documentary filmmaker, you need to be flexible, open to learning new skills (since you can’t always hire someone to help you), curious about the subject matter you are focusing on, and you need to have almost an unhealthy amount of belief in yourself that this will all work out and you will find a way to finish the film! You need to be organized, hard-working, a good multi-tasker, creative, empathetic and resilient.
HR: What’s something you do in your job that an outsider wouldn’t expect (and maybe you didn’t previously!)
SARAH: A LOT of what I do is fundraising, and I never knew I would have to spend so much time finding ways to raise money for projects. That’s something I was never taught in school! I also have developed quite a working knowledge for legal documents and know what to look out for in contracts throughout the life cycle of a film. Working with a lawyer is something I didn’t know would be such a big part of my job as well.
HR: You've worked on feature documentaries, hit reality shows, and branded content. Did you set out to work in so many areas, or did your career trajectory surprise you?
SARAH: I came out of film school wanting to direct and make films, but reality sets in pretty quickly that you have to pay bills, and no one is looking for a director fresh out of college, so you have to find your way. I am proud of the path I’ve taken and listened to my instincts in my 12 years in film and TV, which has served me well. I started in reality TV for about 5 years, learned a ton, but wanted to get back into filmmaking and creating my own work. I pivoted to documentaries and have been able to work in this field, as well as direct branded and docu-style content, teach and do speaking engagements, and now I’m an author too. But to me, it all tags back to the same core goal, which is to be a storyteller, to empower women with the work that I put out in the world, and to help other filmmakers along the way.
HR: How is producing a documentary different from or similar to producing reality TV content?
SARAH: I would say the pace in which you create the work is the biggest difference. Producing reality TV has to be efficient, and there are many deadlines and parameters to meet whether it’s for time, for story, or for budget. In documentaries, there are deadlines and parameters, but it takes much longer to create; it has to breathe, it can’t be forced, and the content evolves over time. There is a lot more room for creative expression, and you can take a lot more ownership over what you are putting out in the world. I have appreciated my time doing both, but making films is a bit more my speed.
HR: You recently wrote the book Empowered Filmmaking: How to Make a Documentary on Your Own Terms. Tell us more about the book -- what inspired you to write it, and what are the key takeaways you hope readers will find?
SARAH: I have been wanting to write this book for about four years, and after working with a literary agent and pitching to publishers with no success, 2020 happened: A global pandemic, and I’m pregnant with my second child, so I decided to write the book on my own and self-publish. It has been a wonderful creative outlet in a year that has stripped a lot of creativity from us, especially in the film industry. I have spent the last 7-8 years making three feature-length documentaries (The Empowerment Project, Losing Sight of Shore, and Nevertheless) and learning so much about how to get a project off the ground, how to distribute films in a grassroots way, and so much more. I want to share what I’ve learned to hopefully help inspire other filmmakers to get out there and tell the stories that matter to them.
I hope the key takeaway of the book is that this is all doable, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to get started making the project you’ve always wanted to make. I take the reader step-by-step through my journey to make my films and it’s all in a very accessible and empowering tone.
HR: Empowerment is a key theme of your work. We've found that many job seekers -- especially now -- are feeling less than empowered when it comes to their careers. What advice do you have for people who may be struggling?
SARAH: Focus on the gifts and strengths you bring to the world. Don’t try to be someone you’re not or compare yourself to others. You decide what success means for your life and for your projects, and the sooner you can embrace that, the sooner you will feel empowered and not caught up in other peoples’ expectations or definitions of success. We all have to get by and pay bills, so of course there will be times when you don’t love your job or you have to pick up work for the money, but if you also have a project you care deeply about that you’re working on in the background or when you can, it will make you feel more creatively fulfilled. And if it takes off, great!
HR: What was your first job in Hollywood?
SARAH: When I first moved out to Los Angeles, I worked as a Story Assistant and eventually Field Producer on the hit ABC show Dancing with the Stars for 10 seasons. I was really operating as a one-woman band most days, shooting and interviewing the celebrity/dancer couples as they rehearsed every day in preparation for the live show. I worked with hundreds of celebrities, athletes, musicians, Olympians, and more -- it was a wild time in life! My very first day of work on the show was in 2008. I was 21 years old and fresh to LA, fresh to the TV business, and my first shoot was with the entire Kardashian family, because Kim was a celebrity on the show that season. I remember being so nervous -- impostor syndrome almost overtook me. But I got through it that day and the days that followed, and had so many great experiences working on that show. And Kim was lovely.
HR: What's a mistake you made early on in your career?
SARAH: I would say comparing myself to others was a mistake early on, because each of us is truly on a different path in life based on our past experiences, our strengths, our talents, and our definitions of success. I now feel like I’m truly on my own path, putting work into the world I’m so proud of, but also doing it on my own terms. I try not to spend much time being envious of others. I’d rather cheer them on.
HR: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are grappling with the uncertainty/instability of a freelance career? How did you build a successful freelance career?
SARAH: The more you can diversify your portfolio of projects and skills, the more hirable you are. My streams of income and revenue come from multiple places -- from film projects, directing jobs, teaching, speaking engagements and more. I’m never tied to only one job or source, which has worked well for me, even in 2020 when there’s a pandemic and so much of the work that I do wasn’t possible this year. Consider: What is a job you can take on that’s short term, so you can fill in the blanks to pay bills? Work that you can pick up here and there is tremendously helpful while your bigger projects and dreams take time to cultivate. There are so many ups and downs in the freelance world, so for sure saving money is a huge part of making it work. Some months will be so busy, and other months you will worry about how you’re going to get by, so being smart with your finances and saving money as much as you can (while still living!) is ideal for a freelancer.
HR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break in/move up in the industry, what would it be?
SARAH: Be confident in what your goals are, and make them clear to those around you. If you are working in reality TV, and all you want to do is be in the scripted world, that won’t happen by accident. You have to place yourself in the world in which you want to work, even if it means taking a lesser title or step back professionally. If you stay in the reality TV world, the jobs you will continue to get will be in that same realm. Make it as easy as possible for people to help you advance to where you want to be, and be kind. So much of this business is not based on your resume, but based on you being a fun, easy person to work with that’s reliable and hard-working. Be a kind human, be clear about your goals, and don’t give up. If that role isn’t coming to you, create your own opportunity so people can start to see you the way you want to be seen.
HR: Thanks, Sarah! For more advice, check out Empowered Filmmaking: How to Make a Documentary on Your Own Terms.