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How to Write a Documentary Film Proposal (Complete Guide)

Writing an effective and accurate documentary film proposal is one of the most important tasks you’ll face as a documentary filmmaker.

Writing a professional film proposal will secure your funding, give your team members confidence that they’re working on the right project, and keep you on track.

This guide will walk you through all the steps necessary to write a documentary proposal that won’t only secure funding for your documentary, but also increase the likelihood that your film will win awards and accolades.

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The Difference Between a Documentary Film Proposal That Fails and One That Succeeds

To write a documentary proposal, you need to know your intended audience, the story structure of your film, and your financial requirements.

The difference between an outstanding documentary proposal and a film proposal that doesn’t receive funding is that a successful proposal is a powerful sales tool.

Therefore, it’s important that you write an outstanding proposal for your film to satisfy both the need for accuracy and comprehensiveness, but also the requirement to subtly pitch your film.

The the Most Important Factor in a Documentary Film Proposal

The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful documentary proposal lies in the controlling idea.

The controlling idea is the central hypothesis of your film; it’s the main question that will be tested in your documentary.

The controlling idea is more precise than the theme of the film because it gives a concrete thing to be explored and tested with the film and its characters.

If you can clearly see the controlling idea in your film, the film will come alive. The challenge in the project proposal is to make sure that the controlling idea is clear at every stage.

Be Brave With Controlling Ideas

Making a controlling idea really clear in your film proposal takes some work. And courage. After all, the most interesting controlling ideas are the ones that are the most controversial or the most difficult to prove.

If you’re clear about the controlling idea, it’s almost always possible to express it quite simply in a single sentence.

You need to decide on a controlling idea, and then express it in a simple, direct, and compelling way.

This is an important part of the synopsis, project description, and logline of your documentary and, by extension, your documentary proposal.

It’s a good idea to put a deal of time and thought into this part of your proposal. Many documentary filmmakers, when writing their proposals, substitute big, difficult controlling ideas for clear, focused ones.

They think they’re being clever, when in fact they fail to really grab the attention of the financiers. However, if you can clearly define your controlling idea, your chances of convincing anyone to support your documentary project will improve dramatically.

The controlling idea in your film is the reason your documentary needs to be made.

Once you’ve got an excellent controlling idea, you’ll find that it’s much easier to write the rest of your film proposal.

Show Don’t Tell the Controlling Idea in the Proposal

Just as it’s very good advice to show and not tell in writing and filmmaking, the controlling idea you want to put forward should shine through on every page of your documentary proposal, but not be explicitly stated on every page.

The idea is that your film has cohesion and a dynamic that everyone feels when reading the proposal.

It’s a case of making your controlling idea an invisible central organizing force of your documentary.

The Connection Between an Outstanding Documentary Film and Its Proposal

An outstanding documentary is amazing because it shows you a world you thought you knew and shows you that you really didn’t know anything at all.

A truly memorable documentary lives on long after its audience has left the theater or screen at home. This is a documentary that will haunt you, a documentary that proves something. One that makes people change their minds.

Very occasionally it’s a documentary that can change the course of history.

A documentary proposal that meets this criterion of impact has a much greater chance of being commissioned than a documentary proposal that doesn’t.

An excellent documentary proposal shows the commissioning editor that you’re passionate about your subject, that you’re committed to telling the story in the best way possible, and that you think long and hard about your choices.

Most importantly, you manage to capture the audience’s consciousness with your film and make them see the world in a different light. This is a memorable documentary. One that you want to watch over and over again.

Getting the Emotional Connection in Your Documentary Proposal

It’s that emotional connection that makes the documentary special. You must be passionate, motivated, and feel that the documentary project will represent the truth.

Your engagement with the story as a filmmaker needs to shine through in the proposal.

Your job is to have a clear idea of your vision for the film and convince the commissioning editor that it’ll be a hit. Something that the commissioning editor will be proud to be associated with.

A documentary proposal that works well has a very personal, unique vision of what you want the film to accomplish.

The proposal shows how you plan to achieve that vision. It gives the commissioning editor an overview of what the film will entail.

An excellent documentary proposal reflects the true intent of the film.

It’s safe to assume that you care deeply about the story you want to tell when you write a proposal for a documentary. If that’s the case, your proposal will be filled with a genuine passion that will translate to the potential distributors of your film.

This Story MUST Be Told – and Needs to Be Told NOW

In any documentary proposal, it’s important that you clearly state why your film needs to be made in the first few pages of your document and made NOW!

It’s also important that you tell a potential funder what’s different about your documentary.

The real danger with feature documentaries is that they’re made over long periods of time. There are two main problems this brings:

The first is that it’s tricky sometimes to identify the thing that requires sustained urgency over the period of film funding search.

Secondly, there’s the question of whether the film can retain its relevancy by the time it is finally made and screened.

The two simple questions you need to keep asking are: Why now? Why this story?

The philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, but I know one thing: if he’s born now, he’s too late.

Build Tension and Conflict Into Your Film and Its Proposal

One of the most important points in a good documentary proposal that’s often forgotten is the role of tension and conflict in your story. Every film needs these ingredients to be successful.

Whether it be fictional or factual.

When you think about how to incorporate suspense and conflict into a movie, the very first thing you need to think about is who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist.

Of course, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a human being, it can be a force of nature. But you’ve to have it in the movie for the movie to be successful.

It takes skill to keep the audience on the edge of their seats and the story driving toward the climax.

Specifying how that tension and conflict will work in the film is an important part of a successful proposal. Because that’s one of the main dynamics that will ensure that the overall film will be a success.

Thinking About Juxtapositions

A movie works best through juxtapositions. Whether in character, story, sequences, transitions and in many other ways.

Juxtaposition is one of the most important ways to make your audience sit up and take notice.

If you build a sense of these juxtapositions into your documentary proposal, it’ll definitely help your film.

We’ll go into this later in the article, but it’s safe to say that some of the images in your proposal should also reflect the juxtapositions that your film promises.

It’s Not a Dry Document

Sometimes you’ll come across advice that makes documentary proposals sound like dry documents. Nothing could be further from the truth. To stand out in the crowd of competing projects, it’s important that your proposal jumps off the page.

That doesn’t mean you pack your proposal with exaggerations, untruths, hyperbole, or any kind of paranoia!

But it does mean that you think very carefully about how your proposal will come across to the reader. Indeed, it’s a very good idea to have someone who isn’t you, or even your production team, read the proposal so they can give their feedback.

Top tip: Don’t talk to them while they’re working through it, but allow them to actually read through the proposal and only then give you feedback.

The documentary proposal is ultimately a business proposal. It must include elements of a business plan, film budget, action plan, etc. to meet the requirements. We’ll go into more detail later on what these elements are. And how they work.

What’s the Purpose of a Documentary Proposal?

The purpose of almost all documentary proposals is to raise money.

Sometimes in the world of documentary film, you feel a bit like you’re in a medieval court. There are barons and baronesses who control access to funding and thus determine which documentaries get to screen.

While there are people who have a very good rapport with commissioning editors, and there are certainly trusted production companies you can turn to if you want to try to get your film commissioned, documentary film proposals are still an essential part of the whole sales process.

In order to sell the project and get funding, whether it’s from television networks, streaming services, film grant bodies – whether as a grant proposal or grant application – or whatever … but also, and this is very important, to reassure, build trust and anchor the film project in reality.

It’s not just about gaining the attention and commitment of a commissioning editor, but also about trust and trust-building.

Not only do they need to feel that the film will be excellent and has a clear plan for how it’ll be shot, but they also need to feel that they aren’t hurting their own careers by supporting the film.

Never underestimate the fear factor that exists among the staff in television and streaming networks!

The Difference Between a Documentary Film Proposal and a Film Treatment

Writing treatments for documentaries is a difficult task because a really good documentary is usually a process of discovery, where what you expect to happen doesn’t happen, and what you don’t expect to happen does happen.

That’s the beauty and magic of a real documentary, as opposed to highly constructed ‘Reality TV’.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always sit well with those who need to commission documentaries. As we noted above, they need assurance that they’ll get a tangible result. The goal of the proposal is to give them that.

Increasingly, television stations and networks are asking that the proposal for a documentary be accompanied by a documentary film treatment. Not only is this an exercise in UNreality for the documentary filmmaker (because you simply cannot know what’ll be discovered and said in your documentary) but it’s also very time-consuming to put together a treatment.

The treatment is something like a screenplay, where the story unfolds almost in real-time.

In the good old days, a good story synopsis and plot outline were usually enough to sell a film, and a treatment or documentary script was written before you went out on the road to shoot.

When a Documentary Film Proposal Is Written

The stage at which you write a proposal for a documentary can vary greatly.

You may need to convince a production company to hire you to get your film through the lengthy financing process, or you may already have a relationship or contract with a production company and the decision has been made to submit a proposal.

If you’re lucky, you might even get paid to write the proposal.

In any case, a proposal for a documentary is usually written before you meet with a funder or commissioning editor.

If you’re more advanced in your film production/directing career, the process sometimes works in reverse: the commissioning editor makes it clear that he or she agrees with the film, and you write a proposal that matches the intent that was discussed – but that’s rare.

Be prepared to do several re-writes!

How to Use Proposals in Your Pitch

A well-written documentary proposal can be enormously valuable when you’re pitching a documentary at festivals and such.

Not only does it give you the basis for an effective pitch that you can think of as a pure sales job in a nutshell, but it also gives you something to put in the hands of people who’re interested in your pitch and wish to follow up.

So, when the screener arrives and you’re asked questions like ‘Who’s in it?’, ‘What’s it about?’ and ‘Why should I bother?’ – at least you’ll have something to hand to them with your answers written down.

You could call the pitch the documentary business card – the original calling card, so to speak. The proposal is the follow-up.

The Audiences for Documentary Film Proposals

Most of the time, different audiences or rather recipients require different versions of a documentary proposal. Sometimes organizations and networks have their own templates for proposals that you must follow. Professional production companies usually know how to do it.

The general guide for success is to have one general proposal that you send out to festivals, sales agents, potential co-producers, potential investors, or broadcasters that requires them to respond quickly.

You then need ‘customized’ proposals that are targeted specifically to the recipient, that either very clearly explains all the information they are expected to know or are built to make the recipient work to find out more.

In almost every case, you’ll find that the more clearly you define the audience you’re writing for – whether it’s a funder, a commissioning editor, or a standard – the easier it is to write a successful proposal.

You need to find the balance.

Top tip: if you get a rejection, ask for honest feedback on your proposal. It will help the rewrite hugely. Then, re-submit the proposal! Huge determination is a critical factor in documentary filmmaking success!

How to Track Calls for Documentary Proposals – Alerts

Sometimes you’ll see calls for proposals for documentaries in various places. It can be a good idea to set up a tracking alert in Google Alerts to notify you when such calls are posted.

Personally, I have never done a documentary on such a process. I also suspect that other mechanisms determine in reality which films actually get funded and made.

However, as a documentary filmmaker, it is incredibly useful to know what’s going on in the market.

In addition, don’t just wait until the calls are open. Start preparing your proposal from the moment you receive notification of a call. It’s a race against time!

How a Proposal Can Help You Succeed With Your Documentary Film

It must be said that one of the worst parts of documentary filmmaking is what’s known in the industry as Development Hell.

This is the seemingly endless hell loop associated with trying to get a film financed and actually made. Development Hell can last anywhere from a few weeks to years.

With my last film, ‘The Warning’, I had to wait 20 years because the subject was subject to secrecy, and then develop for 3 years before we finally got funding for the film.

Granted, it was a 90-minute documentary and a very ambitious one at that. Still, Development Hell and endless waiting can gnaw at your liver. That’s why it’s important to write a passionate, effective, and compelling documentary proposal when faced with such a time frame. You don’t want to make a mistake at the documentary proposal stage!

How to Approach Writing a Documentary Film Proposal

What are the steps to writing a good documentary proposal?

Get Clear About the Story

The very first step in writing a good documentary proposal is to know the story. You need to be very clear about the story you want to tell. If you can’t do that, you’ve little chance of writing a documentary proposal that’s compelling and at its best.

You can feel the story, but you also need to enunciate it.

One of the best ways to do this is to use stream-of-consciousness dictation to literally cast the story into a document that no one but you will ever get to see.

Another very effective technique is to ask someone in your team to ask you a series of questions and record and transcribe the answers. Otter.ai is a great and way to do this, by the way – you get 10 hours monthly for free.

The point is that you’ve unburdened yourself of what you know about the film you want to make, and then you can pull the best parts out of that working document into a proposal.

Access and Exclusivity

The second important step in writing a compelling documentary proposal is to have a clear idea of where your access and exclusivity lie.

All documentaries are “access films” – whether you’re making an observational film, an investigative film, a portrait, or a historical documentary … no documentary can really stand out unless you have a significant amount of access to the people involved, the locations, and often archival footage.

That’s why it’s important that you describe the access you have, explain exactly why it’s exclusive, and that you back it up with evidence in the proposal.

Anyone who has experience commissioning documentaries knows that evaluating the degree of exclusive access in a documentary is a critical component to its success.

Therefore, it’s your job as a filmmaker to sell the access you have as best you can in your proposal.

However, you don’t have to have access to every single component of your planned film. Often, it’s enough if you have access to one of the main characters or to an important piece of information.

‘Finding’ the film then becomes a process of discovery and achievement as various elements are secured during research, filming, and even editing.

Point of View

The third important step in making a stellar documentary proposal is to have a clear idea of your point of view.

The point of view not only influences how you assess what you’re seeing, but also drives research (journalism), filming, and editing.

The point of view is what the filmmaker brings to the documentary. It is what makes the documentary unique and different from similar films. It drives the assembly and structure of the material in a documentary.

In the end, that clarity of point of view is what allows a documentary filmmaker to cut through the “noise” on the documentary festival circuit. It also helps audiences to make a connection with a film and to reach a conclusion.

Perspective

Sometimes a documentary can be told in the first person. The main character might even be the voice of the film, and things are seen from his or her point of view.

Usually, most documentaries are told in the third person. Although there’s no such thing as an objective film, since every decision you make in filmmaking makes your film a subjective affair, you still need a comprehensive view of a subject, story, or issue.

To the extent that a third narrator points out what the characters don’t see or experience, it’s worth mentioning in the proposal. This is because it makes the narrative structure of your documentary much clearer.

Characters in a Documentary Film Proposal

An important part of the overall concept and style of a film is how it deals with its characters.

Not just the protagonist and antagonist, but often the supporting characters as well. Nowadays, when we think of the content for a documentary, we also think of the casting. Even though the term is more associated with dramas and feature films.

The fact is that the characters in your film often determine the energy of the entire film.

Do the characters take the audience inside the scenes and scenes for a fly-on-the-wall perspective? Or is the camera’s focus on the action and points of conflict? Do the characters mediate? Do they provide insights and analysis? Or do they simply represent the story and the emotions of the audience?

Therefore, it’s very important that the characters come alive in your proposal.

One way to do this is to clearly explain how the characters are portrayed and the extent to which their point of view drives the sequences in the film.

You might want to speculate on how the characters will behave later in the film. This speculation will have to be based on research, but it allows you to get a sense of the flow of the material.

Present Tense or Past Tense?

Although you’re sometimes advised to write in the present tense when writing a proposal for a documentary, the present tense is actually more appropriate for documentary treatment.

If something happened in the past, it would be burdensome to insist that it is happening in the present; at least as far as the proposal is concerned. In the actual film, of course, you may well use the present tense to put the audience in the moment.

As a basic rule, you should use the tense that most clearly conveys what you want to say about the story, the sequences, the story arc, and so on.

Documentary Film Templates

You’ll find a number of templates for documentary ideas on the Internet from a variety of sources. I’ve linked to some of them in the Resources section at the end of this article.

Although these templates are very useful and sometimes even necessary when applying to certain funding organizations or festivals, you must be careful not to limit your imagination, curiosity, passion, and commitment to the film you want to make by following a template.

Honestly, if I felt a filmmaker wasn’t fully committed to the film they were proposing, I wouldn’t commission the film.

Of course, if you’re submitting to an event like Sundance, you’d be remiss if you didn’t follow exactly the template for documentaries that they put out. Also, make sure you have the latest version of the template.

If you’ve clearly thought out and expressed your ideas in a general proposal that you can send to anyone, you’ll be better able to fill it out quickly and effectively when you sit down with a proposal template.

Related: Documentary Ideas

Short and Long Form Documentary Film Proposals

In recent years, there’s been a trend toward short films that are shot as documentaries but actually function as quasi-drama films.

If you want to make a film in this style, you should make sure that the proposal reflects the editing rhythm, perspectives, and camera work that you want to use in your film. This is because shooting and cutting will likely play a very important role in the success of the film, and therefore the proposal.

Writing Documentary Film Proposals With Collaborators

The first thing to say is that writing proposals for documentaries are always a team effort. This is because the views of the director, the researcher, and the producer must all be incorporated into the final result.

Chances are, the final formatting and presentation of the proposal will be handled by the producer. After all, the producer is responsible for the relationship with the commissioning editor and for the film’s budget.

However, if you’re the director of the film, you must make sure that the way the story is shaped in the proposal is yours.

It can be a disaster if you’ve two directors on a film, and the same goes for the presentation of the story – for example, the story synopsis, the logline, and so on – because if there are mixed messages or a misinterpretation of what the film is actually going to do, that could sabotage not only the proposal’s chance of success but the actual film once it is underway in production.

The Essential Elements of a Documentary Film Proposal

There’s no set order to the elements of an annotated movie proposal unless you follow one of the templates we’ve already pointed out. However, there are certain elements that you should definitely include in your proposals, and we’ll give you a brief guide on what to look for.

Approach/Strategy

We all know that documentary filmmaking is a difficult art and craft. Most of the time, there’s no certainty about the end result and the way things will go once you start shooting and enter the editing process.

Therefore, when preparing a proposal for a documentary, it’s advisable to keep these imponderables in mind and take them into account when formulating the proposal.

For example, you shouldn’t be too committed when the reality is that it may or may not happen.

Sometimes it’s necessary to state in the proposal what you’ll do if the main plan cannot be implemented for some reason. In other words, you need to state that you have a backup plan to ensure that the film can be successful.

In the documentary world, there are – or at least there were – wonderful commissioning editors. I remember that my first major film, Soldier (‘Soldat’), was commissioned primarily because the commissioner Peter Dale at Channel 4 Television in the UK trusted that we’d get access to a regular Russian army unit for a long-term observational film.

It was clear to all involved that this would be an enormous effort and that there was no certainty whatsoever that we’d succeed. Nonetheless, the project was greenlit, and it took me and the researcher for the film three months of solid fieldwork in Russia to gain access.

When I was asked about it later, after the film was shown, I explained to Peter that failure wasn’t an option for me. He loved that answer.

Logline

A good logline sells the film. By definition, a logline should be short, unique, to the point, and intriguing.

It captures the spirit, the intent, and the sense of adventure that the film will bring.

To write a good logline, you need to think about what you’d say to get someone to read on. If your writing doesn’t have that quality, you probably didn’t work on it enough!

Sometimes the logline will come naturally during the writing of the proposal.

The Controlling Idea for the Movie – and the BIG Reveal

As I described earlier, the controlling idea for a documentary is probably the most important element in its success.

That’s why it’s often very useful to formulate the controlling idea before you even write the script. You don’t necessarily have to state it explicitly, but you could give a brief introduction to the story of the film that includes the controlling idea as something important and necessary.

As you continue to develop your proposal, pay attention to how the elements you describe in your proposal serve the controlling idea. Do they advance it? If not, has your proposal lost its way?

At the end of your proposal, be sure to indicate how the main idea is resolved in the finished film. It’s important to close this loop in the proposal.

Story Synopsis

Draw a clear picture of your story and characters.

A good way to create a story synopsis in a documentary proposal is to outline several main sequences that you want to include in the film. They must relate to the main story of the film.

This doesn’t mean you write them in full treatment, but it does mean that the reader of the proposal will get a clear sense of how the story progresses in the film and the feeling the audience will get from watching it.

If it’s an insightful film, sometimes a factual summary of the story is necessary before you get into how you’re going to tell the story. Still, you need to show the narrative path you’re going to take in making your film.

The Relationship Between Your Protagonists and the Story

The trick with characters and their role in the overall plot is to keep things as clear as possible in the proposal. If someone is a major character, say so. If someone is the opposing force, make that clear.

Don’t assume that the reader will remember the names of the various characters. Therefore, use descriptors over and over in the proposal to show who’s doing what, when, and why.

Signpost in your proposal in the same way that you would signpost inside your actual film.

Style and Genre of the Film

Docufiction? Compilation? Exploration? Observation? Hybrid? Animation?

It’s very important that the style of the film – its genre if you like – be clearly stated in the documentary proposal.

If your film is observational, say that. If it’s an investigative film, make that clear. The sooner the better, in the running order of the proposal.

Chances are, the type of film you made will determine who the proposal goes to. Including if it is an independent film.

If they don’t know you as a director or don’t have an established relationship with the producer, it’s even more important to be clear about the type of film being proposed. Any ambiguity on this point will almost certainly cause the proposal to fail.

Images

It’s amazing how many documentary proposals may have a cover image and then very few images after that! Every film, including documentaries, is a visual medium! Don’t forget that!

So – pepper images in your proposal that serve the points and story you’re selling.

You should definitely have compelling images of the main characters, key locations, and significant moments in the past that you want to bring to life using either archival footage or perhaps reconstruction.

In addition to images, you should also think about the music in the film. Music will play an important role in your film or will be a common thread throughout the film. A reference to the music you intend to use can also help to make the effect of the photos or images in your proposal more intense.

The same goes for graphics if your film uses them.

One last tip about including images in a documentary proposal: think about the framing you’d use in the actual film.

So if you’re using Dutch angles to build momentum or tension in the film, use some Dutch angles with the proposal images. Or if you’re using a certain type of lighting in your film, such as contra-light, make sure the relevant images show that.

Images play an important role in setting the style and tone of your film, even at the proposal stage.

Access to Characters and Rights

We mentioned the important role that access plays in any documentary.

There’s also a legal and financial component to this because if your film is based on someone’s book or account, it’s imperative that you specify how you have or will secure the rights, or how those rights are publicly available and incorporated into the film.

Plan of Work

Your plan of work doesn’t have to be super detailed, but it does need to indicate the time frame in which you plan to make the film.

It’s a good idea to at least indicate the time you plan to spend researching, shooting, and editing the film. This should give the person reading your proposal an idea of what the budget will be and when the film could realistically be finished.

Distribution and Co-Production Plan

Documentary producers are familiar with the various formats, lengths, and co-production needs to get a documentary made.

The commissioning editor needs to know which partners have already been secured for the film and what options are available for broadcast on television or in theaters.

In the world of television documentaries, it’s common to produce a 90-minute feature version and a 52-minute television version. Often the 90-minute version is shown at festivals and sometimes in theaters, while the 52-minute version is broadcast on television.

Note that it’s rare that television and cinema can run simultaneously. You usually have to decide which market you’re actually targeting with your film project.

To some degree, streaming services like Netflix have brought the 90-minute documentary back to life and made it a true cinematic experience. Documentary series is another case in point.

Film Proposal Cover Letter

Films don’t exist without an author and director.

That’s why it’s important to say in the cover letter who’ll be directing the film and why he or she will make a great movie. This can usually be done in one or two sentences.

Another important part of the cover letter is to state how to follow up.

Of course, you should also state why the proposed film is an ideal candidate for the slot for which the commissioning editor is responsible.

FAQ

How do I write a documentary pitch?

The best way to write a documentary pitch is to construct it as a series of slides.

How much money does a documentary make?

This varies tremendously. Typical budgets for a professional 60-minute documentary film range from $80,000 to $500,000, and sometimes above that.

Resources

Documentary Treatment:

https://desktop-documentaries.com/documentary-treatment

Sundance Template

sundance.org/pdf/press-releases/2009-06-08-docfund-checklist.pdf

Book

Documentary Storytelling: Making Stronger, More Dramatic Nonfiction Films by Sheila Curran Bernard