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Amid a sharp rise in demand for documentary titles, a group of documentary editors is attempting to set standards for scheduling and work hours with a new document of suggested guidelines.
On Sunday The Alliance of Documentary Editors (ADE), an over 1,000-member grassroots organization that formed three years ago to support better working conditions, increased diversity and ethical standards in the field, is launching a “Guide for Documentary Edit Schedules” at an event at the DOC NYC festival. The Hollywood Reporter got an early look at the document, which offers recommendations for when to hire editors and assistant editors onto projects, appropriate amounts of time to allot to particular projects and what constitutes “humane working hours” for editors.
“Editors are rarely invited to participate in the scheduling of a documentary, but the results of an unrealistic schedule are felt most keenly in the edit room,” the document, which has been vetted and endorsed by the Sundance Institute, the Documentary Producers Alliance, the International Documentary Association and other organizations, notes. The guidelines, which the ADE says are intended to help “producers, directors, and distributors plan a realistic documentary schedule” will be distributed to streamers, distributors and others. The group says the guidelines are not intended to supplant union guidelines (the documentary space is largely nonunion, but some editors belong to the Motion Picture Editors Guild in IATSE).
Editor Christy Denes (The Sixties), who spearheaded the scheduling guidelines effort, says she was initially inspired by seeing the effects of “a poorly planned schedule” firsthand. “A well planned schedule is not only fundamental to the creative process, but it also has a direct impact on a lot of other issues in our industry,” she says in a statement. “Burnout is real, and making a codified document seemed like a logical place to start.”
Defining a documentary editor as a core creative and “also a writer,” ADE begins by noting that documentary’s edit schedules must be longer than those of fiction or reality TV content because editing is an “exploratory” process that ultimately discovers the project’s core story. The group suggests producers begin to look for their projects’ editors early to give editors the time to offer thoughts on schedules, shoots and organization in the edit room, and they recommend that assistant editors begin work a few months before the editor.
When it comes to scheduling documentary features, timelines depend on the project’s story, number of main characters and several other key factors, the group notes. However, as a general rule, ADE suggests that “for an average documentary, a good rough guideline for scheduling is: 1 month of editing per 10 minutes of finished content,” or six months for a 60-minute film and nine months for a 90-minute film.
Documentary TV series provide another set of scheduling challenges. ADE says the practice of distributors turning to reality TV production companies to produce docuseries as a result of high demand “is having unintended, negative consequences in the edit room as producers are pressured to create ever shorter schedules.” The group adds, “The ability of the editor to create high-quality programming is undermined when they attempt to follow a post-production formula and schedule that has worked for reality TV.” According to ADE, internal data shows that a documentary TV “hour” (typically 42-60 minutes) currently tends to allot 8 to 12 weeks for editing, a schedule that is not long enough and has led to long workdays, weekends spent working, the need to hire more editors and adding weeks to the production’s schedule when deadlines aren’t met.
To avoid cost overruns, attract editing talent and ensure a good-quality product, ADE suggests docuseries producers hire experienced editors with story-shaping experience and bring them into the core storytelling process; empower both editors and assistant editors creatively instead of hiring story producers; hire an editor early in the production process and hire more editors if there is an unavoidably tight deadline. And: “From the editor’s perspective, the ideal edit schedule for a series falls between 16-18 weeks for a TV-hour episode (42 min.) & 20-24 weeks for a full hour (60 min.),” the document reads. (Elements that might affect this schedule include documentary style, the number of seasons a series has had and the experience and organization levels of its director(s) and/or producer(s), the group adds.)
The ADE ends with a request for and reminder of “humane work hours.” While some reality TV, commercial and fiction editing jobs can expand the workday to 12 hours, the group says an ideal workday for a documentary editor is eight to nine hours with lunch breaks and other breaks as needed included. “Editors should not be asked to work weekends, except in extremely rare occasions where they should be compensated,” the group writes. Assistant editors should not be working long hours whenever possible and should be compensated for any necessary weekend work, the group maintains. “At ADE, we believe that humane work conditions are critical to creating great content as well as a healthy, diverse pool of editors and assistants,” the group writes.
The ADE is debuting their document after members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) have spent months speaking out about their work conditions, particularly lack of rest periods and long workdays, amid contract negotiations with employers. One of IATSE’s largest Locals, The Motion Picture Editors Guild, with over 8,000 members, has spent years speaking out about turnaround times — the rest period between work shifts — among others labor issues for their craft.
At DOC NYC, the ADE will also be bringing attention to their BIPOC Doc Editors website database, which launched in June and aims to increase diversity in a primarily white field and improve accessibility and opportunities for editors of color. In the near future, the ADE plans on producing guides to other hot-button topics for the craft, including crediting, documentary ethics, assistant editors and inclusion and access.
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