Let’s say your nonprofit group helps fight against homelessness, and you want donors, and the general public, to understand what homelessness is like. According to George McCollough, executive director of Princeton Community Television, there’s no better way to do that than by making your own film, interviewing actual homeless people, and telling people what homelessness is like.
Yes, there are people who could do this for a fee, but the truth is that camera equipment is getting cheaper all the time, and the skills of filmmaking are not terribly hard to learn, he says. “A lot of nonprofits will hold events, then they go scrambling around to see if they can find a videographer or something like that, when their staff is probably more than capable of doing it,” McCollough says. “They just have to get the equipment and set it up themselves.”
That’s why McCollough has launched a program to connect nonprofits with professional filmmakers for training in video production. For the first year of the program, Princeton Community Television selected two nonprofit groups — Princeton Community Housing and the Princeton Youth Ballet — to receive free training from professionals and make their own documentary-style films about the work they do, using borrowed Princeton Community Television equipment.
“We want to get more nonprofits coming in and using our services,” McCollough says. “I think there’s a little intimidation with using professional equipment, but with proper training and guidance, they get over their fear very quickly and they learn how to make a video.”
McCollough believes most nonprofits can benefit from the use of video, noting that visitors to websites have been observed to stay longer if there is video content for them to look at.
McCollough will speak at the Nonprofit “Best Practices” event, organized by Marriah Media, on Thursday, October 8, at 8 a.m. at the Palace at Somerset Park. Other speakers include Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, Leah Pontani, director of the Mercer Institute of Management and Technology Training, and Ellen Nardoni, chairman of the Paul R. Nardoni Foundation. Tickets are $125, $90 for nonprofit attendees. For more information, call 908-752-5179 or visit www.marriahmedia.com.
McCollough’s pilot program selected two nonprofits out of the eight that applied for the training process. Community Housing has finished principal filming, and the ballet is still in production, he says. When all is said and done, both organizations will have films that they can show that feature actual clients and can give the public a good sense of what each group does.
McCollough says the training is based on a similar program he worked with in Philadelphia: “Every nonprofit has a story to tell, so it’s a way of getting their message out. What a better way to tell your story than to make your own media?”
Princeton Community Television plans to announce guidelines for next year’s program at the beginning of 2016. The program pays for professional filmmakers, all equipment, and expendable equipment used in the production. “It’s a really good deal,” McCollough says. “They just have to put in the sweat equity and we provide everything else.”
McCollough, who has produced “hundreds” of documentaries and television programs over the years, has a few tips for anyone making video for the first time:
“Pictures are pretty easy,” McCollough says. “You tend to be able to see what you’re shooting. But audio, people tend to forget. They watch what they have filmed and say, ‘Hey, where’s my audio?’ You didn’t have the right settings on the camera. That usually happens the first time people take the equipment out.”
“Video does not convey a lot of complex information. So you want to keep it simple and you want to keep it emotional,” he says. He also advises sticking to a single story (even while putting as many voices as you can get into that story.) “Say you’re going to do a video about homelessness. I wouldn’t delve too much into the politics of it. I would just have people explain what it’s like to live in poverty. Show it. You want the viewer to have a real emotional attachment to the story.”
A group producing its own video has the power to tell its own story powerfully, McCollough says, and in a way, it can be more honest than a third party making a documentary or a news report. Filmmakers or journalists have ethical obligations to remain unbiased. “But when you do a story even as an observer, you can’t help but have biases,” McCollough says. “You might as well be honest about it. Here’s what the piece is about: I’m in favor of ridding the world of poverty, and I’m going to show that and make a case for that. In a way, it’s more honest.”
The son of a salesman and a bookstore manager, McCollough grew up in Virginia, Chicago, and Philadelphia. His father died when he was young, and he moved around a lot growing up. He says he studied film in school because he figured he wouldn’t have to do much homework.
“I was kind of wrong,” he admits, though he did earn a degree at Temple. He picked up a true love of film from the music scene. “At one time I wanted to be a musician, but then I got hold of a video camera, and it seemed like video cameras were more punk rock than a guitar. I’m mostly self taught. I started out at an access channel in Philadelphia for Drexel University, where they just ran a wire into the wall and said, ‘Go.’ I learned all this stuff by the seat of my pants.”
McCollough has been in charge of Princeton Community Television for 10 years, during which time he has produced many films and TV shows. He recently traveled to Virginia where he made documentary about fracking pipelines, which was shown at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. He is considering expanding the story to cover the ongoing controversy about local natural gas lines in the Princeton area.
McCollough hopes that he and other film professionals can put their skills to use in the nonprofit community. He is looking for more organizations to participate in next year’s program, although the number is still limited to two due to funding.
“They can do just about anything they want as long as the primary purpose is not fundraising,” he says.