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Arts & Entertainment

Sharing Your Film

Ken Burns

Lesson time 06:30 min

Part of the thrill of making a film is sharing it with others. Learn how to reach your audience and the importance of opening your film up to interpretation and conversation.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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You've made your film, but now what are you going to do with it? Where is it going to be seen, distribution. This is what we want to do. I mean, we can convince ourselves that we're creating art for its own sake, and we're happy if it's seen by our friends and a festival. But nobody wants that for real. Everybody wants the most amount of people to see it. And we often sell our souls to achieve that, to happen, to participate in what Hollywood refers to itself as not the art but the industry. And fair warning-- I mean, they tell you that. It may be, you know, superimposed silhouettes of palm trees on the stationery. But there's really smokestacks there. That's a big question. So early on, I realized-- accidentally, because I was told that if I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities or one of its state agencies-- in this case, for the Brooklyn Bridge film, the New York State Council on the Humanities-- I had to give the film to PBS. And I thought, give the film to PBS? Don't you sell your films when they're done? But I have given the films to PBS, every film that I've made. And everybody's going to find their own way. And that's what's both terrifying, but also, I think, in some ways, the thrill of it, is how-- how are you going to do it? It requires the education of all of your parts. Perhaps you can navigate on your own, at least initially, the festival world, which will get it in front of other people. And you'll get some pretty good feedback. But then it becomes how you then position it for an even greater audience. And you essentially go from the smallest audience to the biggest. You're in your editing room with your comrades. You are then in a festival with, you know, 200 or 300 people in that auditorium, or that theater. And then you're suddenly in limited theatrical, so you're seen by thousands and thousands of people aggregated across the number of theaters you're in. And then maybe there's a television deal. And that's probably where people will make the most money, or recoup, more than likely, the money that they've invested in their film. My films make money in distribution. And that helps us fund the stuff that the particular budgets don't fund, and the development of new projects, and to reward those people who've worked at less than sort of industry standards-- reward them the points that they get in the film. So mine feels to be like a different kind of model. But I think all of those decisions are made. And you can actually make a good living following the commercial route. And you can make a good living, I think-- much harder-- following the noncommercial route. And you've just got to decide. And art is possible in both places. [MUSIC PLAYING] I like three things the most about filmmaking. I like being out filming an old archive and saying, this is going to be in the film, or conducting an interview and knowing, this is going to be great. There's an even better satisfaction w...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

What I think puts this learning format ahead of all others I have tried, is that I felt like I was having a private conversation with the instructor. I wasnt bogged down in outlines or rules or things to technical info but rather it was like I was in a ski lodge and ran into Ken Burns and sat there for the afternoon discussing his craft. Quite Impressive.

I enjoyed the director. This isn't a medium that speaks to me, but he was knowledgeable and told the story well which I did enjoy.

Ken's thorough descriptions of both the technical issues and the psychological challenges make documentary filmmaking seem much more accessible. I think I've gained the confidence to follow through on some of my own ideas.

Loved it. Again, it is the personality of the teacher that really keeps me engaged. Ken is a very inspiring guy.


Mary S.

Incredible! Now I want to start planning a film and watch all the Ken Burns documentaries I haven't seen yet. Will start on Vietnam tonight. This Master Class is engaging, inspiring and informative. It may be that I have the perfect combination of interest in and knowledge of this topic to get the most out of it, however I suspect it is the instructor's thorough content and passionate delivery that might be engaging for anyone with any interest in documentaries or their making. Got my money's worth out of this one for sure - I will watch it again and perhaps purchase it when my subscription ends.

Phil N.

From what Ken said, I guess filmmaker and evangelist are not two traits normally found in one person. That's surprising, and a shame because journalists, especially photojournalists and videographers, are the people on the front lines of history and outgoing in every sense of the word. Because they were actually physically present to witness the events and to understand the issues, they have valuable stories to tell, the stories behind the stories. Making the film tells the stories they covered, but going out to speak to audiences, evangelizing their films, tells their personal experiences and interpretations of that topic. This isn't a speech you have to rehearse. You've been working on it for years and immersing yourself in all aspects, so rest assured, you could spew fascinating facts and anecdotes forever. After a few presentations, your stage fright becomes adrenaline; you can't wait to share what you have learned and uniquely experienced.

Declan M.

Thank you so much, Ken Burns - for sharing these wonderful insights of your very personal world of documentary film making with me. I wish I had watched this before we finished our latest documentary and am now looking forward to finding the next documentary topic that resonates with me and my wife inly.

Charles B.

This lesson is Ken Burn's method of distribution. No doubt a 50 cities tour after being in the edit room for some time is a relief. And he clearly knows how to hold a conversation. There are other distribution methods.

Sunny N.

Loving each film as loving a child guarantees that the most there is to give to nurturing the film will be given. But then, as the child grows up, letting the film go to find its way into the hearts of others like it will remain in my own heart for all time. That was my takeaway from this lesson.

PoojithaReddy G.

Promotion was always a scary zone for me which I started to overcome this year. Yet, I needed a right guidance and boost up about promoting the work done. That is why WE MAKE A STORY - TO TELL AND SHARE WITH PEOPLE. MAIN GOAL. With this class, my heart and soul felt the importance and my brain is thinking of the possible ways. Thank you Mr. Kens.

Michael B.

The gratification of the dialogue that you've perhaps started with your film is maybe the most important lesson I've heard in Ken Burns' masterclass. In turn, allow me to recall a personal experience: When I finished my first own documentary about my father about 15 years ago, I sat in the room with the audience at one of the first screenings at the French National Film School in Paris and watched painfully to the very end, where my voice-over claimed how proud I was of this man who adopted me when I was 3 years old. That was the only statement in the whole film that referred to my non-biological connection with the man who had always bee my dad for me, for that was not the issue at stake. But it sounded (and was) right at the point near the end of the film, so there it was. After the screening, in the lobby talking to lots of people, the 7-year-old daughter of a producer and good friend of mine came running up to me, jumped into my arms and said, loud enough for just about everybody to hear: "I didn't know you were an orphan!" I wasn't of course, but at that moment, trying desperately to conceal my tears, I had the feeling that making that movie for a period of 2 or 3 years was worth just that one little girl watching it that night, that one innocent child who apparently had understood more about the film than I had myself. I will never forget that gratifying feeling when I thought that it was worth making a whole film for just that one kid.

Cameron T.

Too many filmmakers fail with this part of the process! We wrapped our historical documentary film over three years ago and continue to this day doing what we can with limited means to get the word out on our film. And Ken's prescribed approach of film festivals, theatrical screenings, higher education screenings, and eventually distribution is a phenomenal way to gradually improve your pitch. What an interesting world we live in to have immediate access to 'sell" our work to one of the biggest channels in the world . . . YouTube. And while it's a much different platform I believe the rules still apply - you never stop pushing to get as many eyeballs as you possibly can on your story.

AyanDace S.

I am not quite sure how to describe this entire Master Class from a master documentarian, Ken Burns. I've learnt a lot, solidified a lot of my thoughts and approach to my work and I am truly inspired. I am watching it again.

Richard C.

If you don't want to go out and meet people and tell them the wonderful news about the documentary you just made, then you're missing out on one of the best parts of the experience. That's what Ken Burns tells us in this lesson. Let me put on my ancient Greek PhD cap and talk about what "evangelizing" means in this context, in case that word was off-putting to anyone. It simply means to tell people the good news. The word "angel", which is part of the word "evangelize", simply means "messenger" in ancient Greek. "Ev" or "eu" means "good". Ken is that type of angel. Be a messenger, and make your news the good kind of news. As he has said in a previous lesson -- lead the viewer into Hell and then lead them back out again to the road to Paradise. Ken is a contemporary Dante. And the cap I'm wearing in my avatar, of course, is not my ancient Greek cap. But it's close. And Ken, if you ever want to explore Plutarch's idea of setting up parallel story lines, I'd love to work with you on the script and sourcing for a documentary intertwining the Peloponnesian War and American history since 9/11. There are no photos from the Thucydides era, but plenty of great writing and art. Might bring a fresh viewpoint to the material...