Are you taking too long to make your film? Is that a reasonable budget? Glossy magazines tell a fairy tale of outwardly hero filmmakers that somehow shot the film, edited it, got into a major festival, and, as they say, the rest is history. Or isn’t it? Follow author and story analyst Fernanda Rossi as she unveils the true story behind the story and learn from the hits and misses of your colleagues with these real life examples.

Amy Nicholson must have been the last person in the world to shoot a documentary on film. Yes, film. She attended my workshop on story structure when she was in the midst of a very successful festival run with her previous film, Muskrat Lovely. Zipper was going to be her next project and just a short. It became a feature. We collaborated over time, sharing joys and sorrows. Here are some of the things that provoked those joys and sorrows.

Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride
Producer/Director: Amy Nicholson
Length: 77 min.

Film Vitals

A small-time ride operator and his beloved carnival contraption are driven out of Coney Island when the City of New York and an opportunistic developer lock horns over the future of the world-famous amusement park. Zipper examines the high cost of economic development for an American cultural icon.

Select Festivals, Screenings & Awards

  • DOC NYC (Premiere) – Received Special Jury Prize and sold out!
  • Atlanta Film Festival
  • Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
  • DocUtah
  • Montclair Film Festival
  • Salem Film Festival
  • Sidewalk Film Festival
  • Theatrical release in New York City (IFC Center) and Los Angeles (Laemmle’s Music Hall) starting August 9, 2013.
  • She never thought the film would get a theatrical release. Ever.

Shooting Location:
New York City

Production Timeline:

  • 6 years from beginning to end (shot in 16mm — maybe the last people on Earth to shoot a documentary on film!).
  • 33 shooting days over a period of 4 1/2 years.
  • 6 months to edit a rough cut, 3 months to edit a fine cut.
  • 6 months on-and-off for test screenings and fine tuning.
  • 3 months of post-production and finishing.
  • Lots of research at the beginning and during the rough cut.

Money Talk:

  • Self-financed. Nicholson had a full-time job in media. She applied for grants and was turned down everywhere.
  • Budget was $500K, but she had never done solid accounting and that includes paying the producer.

The Filmmaker

Film School:
Nicholson took a summer off as a working professional and went to New York University for its first-year Tisch curriculum. She made a short doc out of those classes titled Beauty School.

Other Studies:
Nicholson worked in advertising for many, many years before attempting to make a film, so she was familiar with sets and real people shooting. She also took many classes and seminars and attended countless panels about doc-making, including shooting, marketing and social media. Has taken photography classes.

For a Living:
Nicholson writes commercials.

Survival Strategy:
Nicholson claims to need a survival strategy for her survival strategy! On most days she got up early and spent 2 hours on the film before work, then after returning from work logged another 3 to 4 hours. “It gets old. And it makes you old!” she says.

Previous Films:
Beauty School, 2002, doc short (10 min.) – Producer/Director
Muskrat Lovely, 2005, doc feature (56 min.) – Producer/Director

Amy’s Smart Move

“There are two things I am really, really glad I did. First was waiting patiently for Joe Sitt [the developer] to give us an interview. And then not caving in to his scary lawyers, who wanted rough-cut approval of the film after the fact,” she said.

Nicholson held her ground and eventually got her release form. Both took six months.

“Second,” she added, “I am really glad we went to Honduras where the Zipper has been relocated. Not only was it great closure for the film and for us as a crew, but we definitely got a lot of respect from the Zipper crew guys. It also happened to make an amazing ending, and we got a really fun behind-the-scenes short out of it.”

Never Again

“No more maps,” Nicholson declared in haste, referring to animated graphics of maps. “They are way too painful and the amount of work it takes to be accurate and make them interesting is hardly worth the entertainment value they provide. The maps were a necessary evil for us, but I will avoid any subject matter that requires them in the future.”

Animation in general is a labor-intensive, slow and very expensive process. She warned, “Don’t ever think you can just find some whiz kid who knows After Effects and he’ll whip up some fabulous thing in his mother’s basement for you.”

Memorable Moments

“The night that was definitely the most fun and the biggest runaway train at the same time was the interview with Joey and Don of the Zipper crew. They are like a comedy team — talking over one another and never letting anyone get a word in edgewise,” Nicholson said. They arrived for the interview at the filmmaker’s friend’s SoHo loft after what appeared to be a few cocktails.

“Of course, I had several pages of questions and knew a lot of their best stories. But the minute the camera turned over, I had zero control. They talked and joked and went on and on for seven full rolls of film and I didn’t get to ask one single question. Somewhere around roll #4 we all started to drink. It was a very funny, very memorable night.”

Will She Relapse and Make Another Film?

“I am going to work on a project called Sleep, Save Money and Pay Attention to Your Husband.”

Zipper continues its runs in New York City at IFC Center, and the film opens in Los Angeles this weekend at Laemmle’s Music Hall. For more information about screenings, visit

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Published by

Fernanda Rossi
Fernanda Rossi collaborates with filmmakers in all areas of storytelling, from development to fine cut. As an author, international speaker and story analyst she has doctored over 300 documentaries, fiction scripts and fundraising samples, including two nominated for an Academy Award®. Author of Trailer Mechanics: How to Make Your Documentary Fundraising Demo. More info at Follow Fernanda at