The Doc Doctor's Anatomy of a Film: "51 Birch Street"

Doug Block talks about the making of his hit documentary about his parents' marriage


Doug Block and his mom
Doug Block and his mom

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About this new column: Many filmmakers ponder in anguish, How do other people—celebrated people—do it? Am I taking too long to make this documentary? Does everybody spend as much money as I am spending, or am I spending too little? And when filmmakers share their lessons learned in interviews in the glossy trade magazines, their tales seem to follow the arc of otherworldy heroes rather than real documentary makers, i.e. human beings like you and me. So starting this month, the Doc Doctor decided to go out into the world (this real world) of filmmakers who are successful and find out how they made it. Each month, her "anatomy" will be a chance to learn from their hits and misses in real life examples. —Fernanda Rossi, story consultant a.k.a. the Documentary Doctor

Case Study No. 4

51 Birch Street directed by Doug Block, and produced by Doug Block and Lori Cheatle

Running time: 88 minutes

Film Vitals

Logline: Documentary filmmaker Doug Block had every reason to believe his parents' 54-year marriage was a good one. But when his mother died unexpectedly and his father swiftly married his former secretary, Block discovered that his parents led lives that were far more complex and troubled than he ever imagined.

Location: Block shot mostly at his family house in Port Washington, N.Y., and edited the film in New York City.

Length of shoot: Main shooting was completed in three weeks, with some pick-up interviews shot afterwards. Block also relied on an archive of family footage that was shot over 20 years.

Length of editing: 14 months—as long as giraffe’s pregnancy

Length of time from first day of shooting through the film's festival premiere: 2 years, virtually to the day.

Time in distribution: 2 years.

Money talk:

Total budget: $320,000, raised through presales to HBO and ZDF-Arte, plus private contributions. Most money was spent on post-production and music.

Distribution costs: $65,000, including the cost of an initial five-city theatrical release via Truly Indie. That money was raised through 51 Birch Street’s exec producers, the Priddy brothers, who came on board for the film's distribution effort.

Filmmaker’s History:

Where the idea came from:

In 1996, Block began writing one of the very first filmmaker blogs, The D-Word, about the making of his documentary, Home Page. Soon after the film’s release in 1999, The D-Word evolved into an acclaimed online forum for documentary professionals worldwide.

Film school: No.

Other studies: Block has a degree in communication arts from Cornell. “They didn’t really have a film program,” says Block, “but Cornell Cinema is one of the country’s best repertory cinemas and I went to the movies almost every night. Seeing all the classic foreign and Hollywood films on a big screen with appreciative audiences, in effect, was my film school.”

Beyond academia: Block started out doing every kind of production job imaginable, before turning to editing and camerawork. He was freelancing as a documentary cameraman when he began making his first film, and still shoots both for himself and for other documentaries.

Survival strategy: Block shoots about a dozen classy weddings a year—editing in-the-camera to save time—for which he charges “an arm and a leg,” he adds.

Previous films:

As director/producer: The Heck With Hollywood!; Home Page.

As producer and/or cameraman: A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory; Silverlake Life; Jupiter's Wife; A Perfect Candidate; Love and Diane; and Paternal Instinct.

Smart Moves:

For the first ten months, Block kept the editing week down to four days, instead of the regular five or even six day-week. This decision not only allowed him to keep costs down, but it also gave him time to fully review the material — both edited scenes and unedited footage — and have the chance to think through his choices in a much less pressured environment.

When it came to distribution, Block and producing partner Lori Cheatle decided not to work with a smaller distributor. Instead, they did a service deal with Marc Cuban’s Truly Indie to launch their theatrical release, then followed up with an extensive DIY distribution effort. The producers have held onto all future ancillary rights.

Never again

The director, who shoots his personal films as a one-person crew (with sound credited to one Otto Gain), says he will never again “film outside without a mic windscreen."

Film’s Successes So Far

The list is long. The festival highlights included Toronto, IDFA, SXSW, Full Frame, Moscow, Jerusalem, and BritDoc. After that, 51 Birch Street enjoyed a nine-month theatrical release in 60 cities in the U.S. and abroad), and it was held over for 11 weeks in New York City.

For TV, international sales were handled by Films Transit and included both Israeli TV and Al Jazeera (yes, you heard it right!).

The press was not short on praise for the film. 51 Birch Street was ranked on numerous ten best films of the years list, including those compiled by reviewers of the New York Times and Ebert & Roeper. The documentary also garnered a 97 percent "freshness" rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 33 reviews.

Most memorable moments

“Bringing my entire family up onstage after the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival was a highlight,” says Block. Over the film’s theatrical life, he thoroughly enjoyed seeing the lines to many screenings going down the block and around the corner. And he adds, “Even now, almost every day I get at least one long, personal, heartfelt e-mail from someone thanking me for the film.”

Will the patient relapse?

“Yep, already have,” Block says without skipping a beat. Currently he’s working on two feature docs, including another “family epic” that is in post-production. Another of his projects is in development with HBO. And as if that weren’t enough, he continues to develop and co-host The D-Word. “It’s not a great time for theatrical distribution, particularly for documentaries,” he acknowledges. “And finding funding is never easy. But I just try to go where great stories lead me and not let that other stuff stop me. I’ve found if you quit worrying about results and just focus on making the best film you possibly can, good things generally fall into place.”

Doctor’s Credentials:

Story consultant Fernanda Rossi has helped filmmakers craft the story structure of their films. She has doctored over 150 documentaries, fiction scripts and fundraising trailers including them the 2007 Academy Award-nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars, she has served as a festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi also writes the bimonthly column Ask the Doc Doctor published by Film Arts magazine, and is the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.

Related Links:

The Doc's previous "Anatomy" columns revealed the stories behind the successful documentaries Divan, Rock in a Heart Place, and Kiran over Mongolia.

Visit the official 51 Birch Street website.

Read Doug Block's popular blog The D-Word.

Finally, for a schedule of the Doc's forthcoming workshops on structure and trailers, please visit her website Documentarydoctor.com.


re: rustinthompson's comment on 51 Birch Street

OK, I haven't actually seen 51 Birch Street, and therefore ought not to be judging, but based upon the trailer, the description, and the points raised by rustinthompson, I can't say that I see the appeal, either. Perhaps there is some ineluctable element woven into the film that descriptions and trailers can't convey, which all those audiences in all those countries did appreciate. The only thing which I could possibly criticize safely is the casual, cavalier way that Mr. Block mentions the deals he struck for distribution (as if anybody could just waltz-in and do that) and the "presales to HBO and ZDF-Arte"; these are the sorts of achievements that carry mystery for a good many would-be documentary producers, and which the doc doctor leaves woefully under-explored. As far as the "artistry" of the genre goes, well, I'd normally be in the corner of any ultra-low budget filmmaker who places heart and mind (i.e. content and style) above "cinematic sensibility" or "broadcast quality", but in this instance, based once again upon the brief, "you have one minute to make your case" trailer presented here, the sound in particular is so uneven and poorly crafted that I have to wonder myself where that money went. My apologies if I am wrong, but the guy himself admitted that he didn't even use a wind screen on his mic for externals.

Doug Block's 51 Birch Street

I may be alone in saying this, but I am quite perplexed by the success of Doug Block's film, and I'm also a bit shocked at some of the things he revealed in his interview. I am not a fan of the film. I found the camerawork distracting, the close-up interviews visually unflattering, the sound and the music pedestrian, and the story structure conventional. I was not moved by the movie, nor did I find it particularly unique in its treatment of a fairly common subject matter. Of course, my opinion means very little, since obviously the movie somehow connected with audiences and critics and people willing to throw money at it. But I wonder, based on Block's interview, where that $320,000 budget went? It certainly didn't pay for what was on the screen or what went on in the field, since Block admits to being a one man band. And how could Block have taken 14 months to edit what was a conventional establishing shot/medium shot/close-up movie? There are so many excellent documentaries being made, documentaries with a cinematic sensibility and unique vision, that never get admitted to festivals or distributed, whether due to a lack of funding, lack of connections, or lack of admittance to the critics' insider clubs. My wish, and hope, is that the next time Block has this kind of money and insider connection at his disposal (HBO, ARTE), he will work on elevating the artistry of the genre rather than going for a deliberately unpolished, home movie, wedding video look.