I really like documentary filmmakers. Having met several hundred face to face over the years, I have come to believe that the vast majority of them are just “good citizens” who find themselves suddenly driven to reveal an important truth to the world at large. Their decision to pick up a camera is often the start of an incredible personal and professional journey. It is hard to admit that it doesn’t always end well.
If you are driven to make a documentary film, I strongly believe that the first and most important step you can take is to define exactly what you are trying to accomplish.
The best time to do this is when you first start your project because that is when your objectives are the most clear. You aren’t distracted by the people who you are working with, the forces of the market, or the costs associated with your project. In a sense you know exactly where you want to go because the “jungle of production” hasn’t swallowed you yet.
To define your documentary, you just have to answer a series of questions. There are no right answers to these questions but there are wrong answers. Any time you find yourself being less than entirely truthful with yourself over your motives or requirements for your project, you are making a huge mistake.
Why are you making your documentary?
Most documentary filmmakers find this a hard question to answer truthfully, and yet it is the heart of a documentary’s success. Your answer is your measure of the film’s success.
Perhaps you are making a documentary film because you want to tell the world about a problem that needs to be solved right away. Perhaps you want to tell the world about something wonderful that needs to be protected. Perhaps you are one of the few making a documentary in order to make enough money to pay your bills so you can make other films for a living.
There are many good reasons to make a documentary . . . but you need to understand what your reasons for making one are. Because those reasons will be woven into every other decision you make about your project.
If your objective is to tell the world something it needs to know you’ll distribute your film differently than if your objective is to make millions of dollars.
You can and will have multiple objectives for your film but the more objectives you have, the more illusive “success” is likely to be. It is possible to make a documentary that warns people about something you think is important, and to have that film become a tremendous financial success. Michael Moore did it with ROGER & ME, FARENHEIT 9/11 and SICKO. It took decades for him to move into a position to make those successes possible.
Do you know, personally, the people who will want to watch the documentary?
Some of the best and most profitable documentaries have very small “target markets”. For example, ORIGINAL PRIDE, is a documentary about the Satyrs Motorcycle Club of Los Angeles, the start of a gay motorcycle club revolution. The film has done very well for its filmmaker and for the group it supports. The first buyers for the film were members of the club, but the film has become well known in similar clubs and is now well known outside that community.
If you are working with people seeking employment, and those who help them, you will probably find it pretty simple to sell copies of that “GREAT JOBS ACROSS AMERICA” documentary you want to make. If your film is about Nikola Tesla and you don’t know any group of people who are passionate about Tesla, you’ll have to find a way to connect to those people so they can find your film in theaters, on TV or in stores.
It is possible to create a film about something that doesn’t have an established fan base. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS managed to find its market, as did INCONVENIENT TRUTH. But the filmmakers responsible for those films, and the firms distributing them, spent millions finding and contacting those audiences.
Do you really want to make your documentary film?
This is the best advice you’ll ever get about making a successful documentary. You have to love it if you want it to succeed.
It takes a lot of work to make any film, even a documentary film which is, most would agree, the easiest of a difficult breed. As a filmmaker you’ll be living with your project for months or years. You will assemble money, people, locations, equipment and other resources to produce it. To do your best work you have to love your project pretty much from start to finish. Not that you can’t get bone weary of it from time to time. Parents love their kids even when they get the flu.
But your underlying passion for your project has to be strong. You have to ensure that the people you hire, the production choices you make, the marketing decisions you make, the distribution plan you create, all make you like the project more, not less.
Because it is easy to lose your way in making a film, to lose what makes it inspiring, insightful, innovative, effective and enjoyable. When you lose that passion, so does everyone else on the project and so does everyone you talk to about the project.
If you do not have real passion for your documentary, don’t make it. Go find another film to make or something else to do. Life is too short to invest years on projects you really aren’t behind.
Once your documentary is defined . . .
A good documentary comes from a good plan. Start with a schedule, create a detailed budget, figure out out how the film will be distributed and marketed. During this time you must actually create the relationships the film will depend on. When your planning is complete, you will have a business plan that is an accurate record of all the schedules, costs, people and revenue estimates required to successfuly make your film. Then you will be ready to get your funding together.
Rest assured that all the work you do to make a good business plan guarantees another great day in funding, production, post production and distribution. Remember that you have something important to tell the world . . . and a good business plan shows your determination to be heard loud and clear.Tweet
Powered by Facebook Comments