Documentary Night

My wife has belonged to several book clubs, sometimes more than one at once. And every month I would watch the drama unfold, about how the book sucks, or she won’t be done reading it by the next meeting, or it’s her turn to pick a book but she’s not sure what to recommend, or the next meeting is at so-and-so’s place which is hard to get to, or she’s hosting the meeting and needs to come up with tasty appetizers.

It all seemed very exhausting and not much fun. Over dinner one night (OK, it was June 3rd, 2014) with three friends, we decided that a guy-appropriate alternative was to watch a documentary every month – no prep time, and since we all lived in different cities, it would be a virtual event (no food prep, no pre-event cleaning, nothing but net).

Since that fateful dinner party we’ve watched 57 documentaries, plus 2 stinkers we aborted – more on that later. It’s been a great way to regularly stay in touch, and the group has grown steadily over the years to 27 members. In case it’s useful to others, below are some details about how it works.

The Movie List

It’s all on this Google Doc. The first three columns are the event date, who picked or is picking the movie, and the movie title with a link to a review, typically on Rotten Tomatoes. Column D had scores from the one time (back in 2017) we decided to review past movies and pick everyone’s top 5.

Column F has a list of contenders, which is useful when it comes time to pick the next movie. Column H was used for to remove movies from the list of contenders, but as the group has expanded, we’re not so worried about ensuring nobody has seen it, as that’s rarely the case. Instead, when the movie email goes out, if too many people respond with “seen it, skipping” then we’ll reconsider the pick.

When someone new joins the group, I’ll ask them if they want to pick movies. If they say yes, I add them into the rotation (column B), usually two months out, so they have a chance to watch some movies and get a better sense of what might work for the group.

Movie Selection

We have a general convention that the movie has to be available via either Netflix or Amazon (not necessarily Prime, but that’s better). We’ve made a few exceptions, for example if it’s free on PBS then that’s fine.

Total length should be less than 2 hours. From what I’ve seen, shorter usually is better, as documentaries that are significantly longer than say 100 minutes feel like they could be shorter with better editing.

After a run of depressing documentaries, it’s a good idea to pick something a bit more light-hearted. There are plenty of significant, serious and urgent issues in the world. But not every documentary needs to be the down-bound train.

Managing Members

We use Google Groups, and directly invite people. The invite message looks like:

Hi xx,

Welcome to the group!

We watch movies on the second Thursday of each month.

Beer call is at 6:15pm (Pacific) via Zoom (<zoom link>). You should have this app downloaded & working in advance, of course.

The movie starts promptly at 6:30pm (Pacific). Don’t forget to mute your mic while the movie is playing.

We usually hang out for 15-20 minutes after the movie discussing it (longer if it pisses Jono off, like after “Inequality for All”).

If you’d like to get added to the movie picking rotation, let me know!

— Ken

PS – See <link to editable Google Doc list of movies> for a list of documentaries we’ve seen, contenders for future months, and movies that have been black-balled.

This also will have your name & date for when it’s your turn to pick the movie, if you want in on that action.

Video Conferencing

Initially we used Google Hangouts, but even highly trained MIT engineers had trouble figuring it out. I’ve heard it’s gotten better. We also tried Skype, but that failed when we got to more than 5 or so people. In the end, Zoom has been a win. I’ve got a paid subscription that I use, so we don’t have any weird time limits on the video chats.

Scheduling

When we first started, we’d try to pick a night that worked for everyone. This became an administrative nightmare, as someone would have a conflict, and we’d be proposing alternative dates, and waiting for responses. At the end of 2017 it became so painful I stopped trying, and we missed a few months.

Eventually we decided to make it the second Thursday of every month, come rain or shine, regardless of who could or couldn’t make it. This has worked well, though our Valentine’s Day meeting was controversial.

I usually send an email reminder to the person picking the movie on the Sunday before the meeting date, and then send out a general email (via the Google Groups mailing list) to everyone on Tuesday. This looks something like:

Hi everyone,

Drinks at 6:15pm Pacific, movie starts promptly at 6:30pm.
The movie (recommended by xxx) is “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”.
It’s 74 minutes long, and available on Amazon.
See you soon,
— Ken
PS – The Zoom meeting link, as always, will be <zoom link>

The Ripcord

Twice we’ve watched documentaries that were just not doing it for the group. Via Zoom chat, it’s pretty easy to express opinions during the movie, and if the majority of attendees aren’t feeling it, we’ll call an audible and switch to something else. So I usually have a movie in mind that I’m pretty sure will work as a fall-back.

Summary

I’m sure I’m forgetting important details, but the above should be enough to help you start your own group, if the spirit so moves you. Enjoy!

 

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