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How To Pitch Your Documentary Idea and Write an Effective Documentary Proposal To Get Funding

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So you have a wonderful documentary idea and you just need some cash to get it going. Where do you go? How do you find funds?

One of the first things you’ll need to do is write a Documentary Proposal. A proposal not only helps explain the project to potential funders and supporters, it’s a great exercise to get YOU the filmmaker thinking through all the details. Basically, a Documentary Proposal is your film’s business plan.

Here are the key elements you’ll need to include in a documentary proposal: synopsis, project overview, treatment, style/tone of project, production schedule, interview subjects, crew bios, advisors/experts, partnerships, target audience, budget, fundraising plan and distribution strategy.

There is often a lot of overlap when describing the synopsis, project description and treatment. There is no right or wrong answer. One way to think about it is to say that the synopsis is a short 1-2 paragraph summary of your project. The overview is a longer synopsis that goes into more detail about the project, perhaps 1-2 pages in length. And the treatment is more like a script, describing specific scenes and quotes. A treatment is often difficult to write at the beginning of a project since the nature of a documentary is that it can’t be “written” until after it’s been shot, so I would say including a treatment in your proposal is optional unless specifically requested.

An effective documentary proposal will answer the following questions:

  1. Why this documentary, why now?
  2. Why is this documentary different from any other film ever made?
  3. Why are YOU the one to make this documentary?
  4. What gives you and your team the credibility to be trusted with donated money (experience, partnerships, advisory board, fiscal sponsor, letters of support, etc)
  5. What unique access or connections do you have for making the film?

The big picture goal for a documentary pitch or documentary proposal is to build CREDIBILITY. You do that by putting together a well-written proposal, having an experienced team (if not you, that can be crew, advisors or partners), having a compelling film concept, a well-thought out plan and a realistic budget.

Once you have your proposal together, now it’s time to start making your pitch. If you are a new filmmaker, my best advice is to avoid the big foundations and grants and go after the “low hanging fruit.” Find people who are already passionate about the subject matter of your film and see what connections they have. Basically, you want to go through the “back door” to find your funding. Maybe a friend’s uncle is the CEO of a local million dollar company. Or perhaps your favorite college professor is friends with the executor of a small family foundation. Leave no rock left unturned.

The last thing you want to do is say, hey, who’s the richest guy in town and let’s go after him. Does the guy already have a proven interest in the subject of your film or in art/film projects? Do you know someone with a personal connection to the guy who can pitch the project on your behalf? If no, then don’t waste your time or theirs.

Find natural connections to people who are already pre-sold on the theme of your documentary project and send them your proposal. They already know the subject matter of the film is important, now all you have to do is convince them that YOU know how to get the job done.


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