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How to Get Into Documentary Filmmaking: an Insider Guide

How do you get into documentary filmmaking? It is a question that has many answers. Documentary filmmakers come from all walks of life and have different reasons for wanting to work in this field, but there are a few common threads that run through the majority of people who end up making documentaries. I’ll discuss what those threads are below, as well as some tips on how to make yourself stand out from the crowd when it comes time to apply for your first job or internship.

Your Big Why

The documentary industry is such a tough place to work that it’s very important to know your fundamental Why that drives your commitment to documentary making.

Why is the nonfiction film genre important to you?

For me, it was the opportunity to tell stories about issues I felt mattered in the world.

What I value most about the many years I’ve spent in documentary is that I’ve created an archive, a collection of films of which I am proud. Because these films go deep into important political issues around the world and bring significant issues from the international stage into the living rooms of ordinary people.

It didn’t stop with the films.

I had the great privilege of meeting many leaders in politics, academia, the military, intelligence, and even in terrorist networks.

That was a unique privilege, to meet people who know how the world really works. Who play a role in shaping all our futures.

The Fruits of Your Labors

I learned something very valuable from the meditation retreat at Plum Village in France.

One of the monks there said that the only thing you take with you at the end of your life is the fruits of your labor.

When I thought about that, I realized that the films I’ve made as a documentary director are among the most important ‘fruits of my labor’.

These days, I spend most of my time writing, publishing, and running an online business. It’s very different from traveling around the world and making high-level international documentaries.

But I can look back on my successes as a documentary filmmaker with pride, and for the most part with joy.

The fact that some people in the industry proved themselves dishonest, unethical, and duplicitous doesn’t diminish the many wonderful experiences I had as a documentary filmmaker, which have included great relationships with colleagues who became friends.

Of course, everyone’s experience and film work are different, but I suspect that the basic rules and principles I learned over 20 years apply as much today as they have over the past few decades.

Figure Out Why the Documentary Genre is Best For You

The investment of time and energy that comes with being a documentary filmmaker is significant.

That’s why you should take the time to figure out why this type of storytelling and filmmaking is for you.

Is it because you’ve seen films that have profoundly affected you?

Is it because it’s your dream to become a director or producer?

Do you have a message that you want to bring to the world?

The clearer you’re about these questions, the better able you’ll be to make good decisions as you enter and grow in the industry.

Is Documentary Filmmaking a Career?

The question of whether documentary filmmaking is even a profession is a valid one.

The fact is that the amount of physical and intellectual work required to succeed as a director or researcher in the documentary business is enormous. Whether as an independent filmmaker or on the staff of a large production house or broadcaster. Trust me, I’ve done both!

However, the television and documentary industry is anything but transparent or modern. Very often you get the feeling that you’re dealing with a Byzantine court when it comes to diplomacy and politics in the industry.

To some degree, that’s something you either accept and get along with, or you decide it’s not for you.

When you get into documentary filmmaking, be sure to realize that relationships with commissioning editors and producers are fundamental to getting your ideas and films made.

Sometimes this means dealing with people whose egos outsize their abilities, or ethics.

One of the reasons is that there’s relatively little money in documentary production. Especially for those who actually make the films.

Some documentary commissioning editors frolic at festivals and pose as film moguls, but the fact is that they usually have very small budgets.

Often, the most they can invest in a film is $100,000. And that would be a big film with other international co-producers involved.

The Difference Between Documentaries and Movies

It’s important to know the difference between documentaries and drama or movie productions. Regardless of Michael Moore’s advice to the contrary. Be proud of being a filmmaker AND a documentarian.

The fact is that people who work in the drama production and movie industry are much better compensated financially than those who work in the documentary industry.

Issues of diplomacy and relationships are just as important in the movie business as in the documentary industry, but there’s a very different ethos and culture that’s in many ways more professional.

If you want to direct a drama or fiction film, it may be better to go to film school and enroll in a filmmaking course, because there you’ll have the opportunity to make the contacts you need to succeed in the film business and learn film grammar in a formal way.

That’s not strictly necessary in documentary filmmaking, where determination, practical experience, and learning at the coal face are often more important than theory.

Production Timescales

Regarding expectations, it’s very important that you understand the timelines of the documentary business.

It can take many months, usually years, to complete a film. Don’t expect your burning project to suddenly get the green light and be on the screen in a month.

That’s almost never the case.

The time from financing to production to the completion of a film can be very long.

You may spend several years looking for money and then have to produce, shoot, and edit for a year or so before your film is finally made and distributed.

Then there’s the matter of marketing and publicity.

You’ll find that the effectiveness of networks in marketing and publicity varies greatly. Sometimes means that the film you slaved over for years is not given the attention it deserves.

Managing Dreams, Ambitions, and Expectations

If you’re going into the documentary business, I’d advise you to examine your dreams, but also set your expectations. It’s great to be an award-winning filmmaker, but you also need to pay the bills!

It pays to have an alternative source of income, so find a side hustle that you can do and enjoy that will bring in money independent of documentary filmmaking.

Although I personally worked as a professional documentary filmmaker for more than 20 years and it was my primary source of income, it’s relatively uncommon. Most people who work in the production industry have other jobs to make a side income or even a main income.

These can be things like wedding videography, portrait photography, freelance writing, research for marketing or business information companies, and hundreds of other occupations based on much more sound business principles.

Think carefully about what tradable skills you’ve and what skills you want to develop as a documentary filmmaker. I’d advise you to think creatively and laterally about how you can use these skills to build a cash reserve.

Salary Negotiations

Be clear about your salary expectations. If you are a commissioning editor, producer, or distributor, it’s different. Because you’re closely tied to the financial side of the business.

But if you work on the production side, it’ll be much more difficult to negotiate appropriate compensation for your intelligence and effort. Be aware of this and do your best to research companies, decision-makers, budgets, and so on before you get to work.

Be clear about why you’re the best person for a particular job and use that unique selling point in your negotiation.

If you’re selling an idea or proposal, you need to know how to protect your idea and get a fair share of the overall revenue. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a shark tank.

The Role That is Right For You

When it comes to getting into the documentary film business, try to get clear about your dream and keep it continually in mind.

Do you want to be a director? A documentary producer? Maybe write scripts for documentaries? Perhaps you’ll be happy as a researcher. Or your dream might be in front of the camera as a Presenter.

It’ll help you to have clarity and ambition when it comes to the specific role you want to pursue in the industry.

This will help you make better decisions about who to contact, what interviews to have, and what jobs to take.

Documentary Film Mentors

In my opinion, mentors are vital to helping you succeed in documentary filmmaking. I’m not sure it’s possible to make a great documentary without them.

It’s perhaps therefore worth sketching some of mine.

In my final term at university, I freelanced for BBC Horizon. After university, I worked on various programs for Channel 4 and the BBC, including The World This Week, a Channel 4 weekly current affairs magazine show.

It was at The World This Week that I met Ed Harriman, a highly experienced journalist who showed me how to research investigations. I worked with Ed on several investigative programs. He taught me how to do thorough research against deadlines – a vital skill in documentary filmmaking.

My first mentor as a documentary filmmaker was Leslie Woodhead, with whom I worked on A Cry From the Grave, and who executive produced my own film The Russian Newspaper Murders.

Leslie is a wonderful film director with decades of experience at the highest levels of documentary and feature filmmaking. He taught me the value of simplicity in documentaries. Many factors contribute to the success of a film, but if you don’t have a clear intention when developing a particular scene or sequence, you’re doomed from the start. Leslie also showed me the importance of really identifying with the people who’re in the films – another very important quality in a good documentary filmmaker.

Among other important influences was Daniel Wolf. He executive produced my first feature-length documentary film Soldat. Aside from helping a raw director through a full-blown feature documentary, he taught me one of the most critical crafts of documentary filmmaking: how to re-structure a rough cut to achieve the best form for a film.

I spent several years living in France, directing documentary feature films for the French-German network ARTE. A very different system and culture to that in the United States and the UK. The delineation of author-director and producer is much stronger there. Among the wise souls who helped me were Pierre André Boutang, Yves Jeanneau, and Paul Saadoun. Now sadly all passed on.

Without these mentors and others, over the years I could not have achieved what I did. The point you should take on board is to actively seek and value mentors throughout your filmmaking career. Look for ethics first and foremost.

Qualities and Skills You Need in Documentary Filmmaking

Some of the really important qualities of a good documentary filmmaker are:

  • You’re interested in the truth. That’s the essence of being a good documentary filmmaker. If you don’t have a strong ethical foundation, then I’d advise you to forget about being a documentary filmmaker. That may be a shocking statement, but I believe it’s true. When you’ve the responsibility to produce and deliver a film, you can’t compromise on ethics.
  • You love to develop ideas. The documentary world is full of concepts, ideas, and developing hypotheses into living, breathing films. If you can train your mind to effectively play with ideas and turn them into usable work, you’ll be all the better served as a documentary filmmaker. There are many ways to do this, including mind-mapping, extensive reading, effective note-taking, good research, and more.
  • You love to learn. This is closely related to engaging with the world of ideas, yet it’s a little different. First of all, a love of learning is about having an open mind and an attitude that promotes personal development. It’s also about understanding the value of genuine mentors and wise people. Including those you meet who are an interview subject. The more you interact with such people, the faster and better you’ll learn.
  • You love a good story. Basically, every documentary tells a story. It is a narrative film art and craft. This is true even of so-called essay films, which explore a thesis rather than tell a character-driven story. If nothing else, almost all essay films need to have stories in them for the essay to work. To make an argument function in an engaging way, you usually need a story to illustrate it.
  • You love developing skills. It’s not just about loving a good story, it’s about developing your skills in the practice of documentary storytelling. Take the time to learn the elements of storytelling, how stories work, story theory, narration, and so on.
  • You like trends. Good documentary filmmakers usually have a good sense of what’s going on in the world and what’s new and changing. Get good at spotting trends, tracking them, and following them. You’ll need this when doing specific research for your own films.
  • You like people. Almost every stage of the documentary filmmaking process involves people skills. From securing d=financing, to conducting an excellent documentary interview.
  • You like to read. I don’t think there’s any compromise on this point. Although you can and should learn a lot from watching movies and documentaries, there’s no substitute for the way the mind absorbs ideas and concepts through a well-written book. Writing is a fundamental skill of a documentary filmmaker. The more you read, the better you’ll write.
  • You enjoy learning from others. It’s a very good idea to study the background and career paths of other people in the industry. Many roads lead to Rome, and of course that’s true in documentary filmmaking as well. Although there used to be a traditional path where you started out as a researcher, moved up to production assistant, and then after a few years you made it as a director of short films before climbing the ladder to longer films, not everyone goes that route. That’s why it’s worth learning how others do it.
  • You are prepared to get organized. Jobs such as logging footage and archival footage are critical. It’s hard work, that involves scrupulous attention to detail.

Related: The Essential Elements of Storytelling

Continuous Learning

Never pass up opportunities to learn about the documentary filmmaking process and the industry.

There are some classic books that are worth reading. Among them, Sheila Curran Bernard’s Documentary Filmmaking, and Michael Rabiger’s Directing Documentary.

Don’t ignore documentary filmmaking courses online. If you can get hold of the Ken Burns Masterclass documentary film course, that also is well worth the effort.

Go hunting for good information on the Internet, of course. Look for advice based on proven real-world experience. Avoid the superficial. A good test is to check someone’s filmography (or, if a producer or commissioning editor, which films they backed).

Learn also from associated art forms. Writing, narrating, storytelling, journalism – all these should be grist to your mill.

The Value of Networking

Learning how to network effectively is a critical skill for documentary filmmakers. This goes both when approaching and developing participants in your films, and when networking with players in the documentary film industry to secure support, logistics, and funding.

There are a number of things you need to watch out for:

  • Get your CRM up to speed. I’d recommend not just keeping a contact book, but maybe thinking in terms of pipelines. Similar to how a sales team turn potential clients into customers. You need to identify the people who can help you move a film forward and have a clear process for following up with them to help keep the overall project moving.
  • Know where the money is. The brutal truth is that there’s not a lot of money in the documentary field. The number of projects that get proposed is huge relative to those that actually get commissioned and made. You have to become very good at figuring out who has money to spend, and how they spend it. Even at a very early stage or when you’re just getting into the industry, you need to develop a sense of which production companies, producers, directors and so on are well connected and actually have access to the fuel of documentary filmmaking: money.
  • Attend film festivals. Whether online or in the real world, it’s very important to attend any available film festival, network and pitch. That includes pitching films and yourself! Festivals are a great way to guage the mood of the industry and understand the current passions and interests of the decision makers. This is critical to success, because if you present an idea that’s targeted to a receptive market, you’ve a much better chance of success.
  • Understand the hierarchy. Even though some of the people who hold positions of power in the documentary industry definitely should not be there, the fact is that they are. You need to know who’s who and who is connected to who. Professionally, or otherwise. If not, you risk tripping up over and again, and not getting anywhere with your films and your career. Understand that certain production companies have established relationships with networks and funding sources – as a beginner, you’ll need to work with them to get your films made.
  • Be willing to make sacrifices. Documentary filmmaking is a tough game that requires sacrifice and compromise. This applies to both the actual filmmaking and the filmmaking process. You need to develop a robust and positive attitude about it all, or you’d probably be better off taking on a softer profession.

The Fundamental Unit of Documentary Film Currency: Story

Especially as someone starting in the documentary filmmaking world, you need to get good – really good – at sniffing out salable and compelling stories, and developing them sufficiently to interest those with power to make them happen.

I would go as far as to say that Story is fundamentally the unit of currency in the documentary world. Even more important than the author or director capable of pulling it off. For without story, you have nothing.

Keep your story ideas, and notes, organized.

Track who you share your documentary project with. Remember that a documentary idea cannot be copyrighted. A proposal, where the story idea has been developed into a form that can be sold, can and should be copyrighted.

Be sure to know the difference, check the reputations of people with whom you share your stories, and do your best not to be ripped off!

Related: Documentary Ideas

Going In With Eyes Open

I say all this not to discourage you from your dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker, but to give you a realistic picture of what the industry is like and how things work on a professional level.

It’s much better to go into the industry with awareness than to build everything on flaky dreams.

I hope this brutally honest article hasn’t discouraged you from becoming a documentary filmmaker if that is your dream. It is a unique, and challenging form of filmmaking.

It’s a wonderful profession, full of unique encounters and experiences. However, documentary film production is a profession that you’ll enjoy and benefit from much more if you understand the real ground rules of the industry and the working relationships within it.

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