Moonshine Moonshot Blog

How to plan your documentary process

Oct 18, 2022

How to plan your documentary process

Hello fellow filmmakers and creatives! Welcome back to my mini series on the documentary development process.  I’m putting this together to help demystify what is involved in developing your documentary or narrative film idea from just an idea into a project ready to pitch for funding. 

I kicked off last week with a deep dive into getting clear on your story – ie figuring out your genre, defining your idea and immersing yourself in your story’s world.

If you missed it, you can catch up by clicking here. You can also watch the episode of Moonshine Moonshot on YouTube. My co-host Mike Hill and I are releasing a companion video series over the next several weeks, where we’ll walk you through how to take your movie idea from concept to the silver screen. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any tips. 

CLICK HERE to watch 

CLICK HERE to listen 

But back to this week. Because today, I’m turning my focus to (gulp) …planning. Now, I know that will sound about as exciting as ‘tax time’ for many of you. But stick with me!


There are huge benefits to planning and it can actually be…fun? Ok, maybe fun isn’t the right word. However, it’s definitely satisfying and it’s something I’m really into. 

And before you come at me with your, “Planning inhibits my creative process.” Or  I just find the notion of planning way too constrictive” , hear me out. If you skip the planning step, there’s a really solid chance you won’t actually complete your film…ever! No raving fans. No packed cinemas. No good, right? 

Exactly. Which is why planning is such a critical step in the filmmaking journey. Because as Benjamin Franklin said way back in the 1700s: 

“By failing to plan, you are preparing to fail”

So with those words of wisdom in mind, let’s get stuck in. 

Define your target audience 

I always find the best place to begin planning is with your audience. Because if you don’t have a clear picture of who you’re making your film for, it can all end up a bit muddy. And sure – you might not have a fully mastered movie to share with your audience until way in the future. Sometimes 18 - 24 months down the line (or longer) but that doesn’t mean you can’t start thinking about them, and even connecting with them, today. 

You’re more likely to release a successful, impactful film when you start to build and engage with your audience at the very beginning of the film-making process. 

So if you haven’t done this bit yet – put some time in your schedule to define your ideal audience. And by that I mean think about what you audience cares about, how they like to receive messages and the type of beliefs or values they might hold. Yes, a broad age range and their location is good too, but I want you to go a little deeper than that. Think about their interests. About what makes them tick. About why they’d resonate with your film’s story.  

Knowing this will also help you figure out where they are online so you can start building your social platforms as well.

If that’s all sounding a bit beyond you, don’t fret. I’ve created a course to help with this very step (aptly called, Define Your Ideal Audience). You can learn more and enrol over here. 

Know who your audience is? Excellent. Let’s keep talking about planning. 

Determine exactly the type of project you’re making 

Now it’s time to get stuck into the nitty gritty. And I don’t mean genre or even the actual story arch (I covered that in last week’s post – refresh on what was discussed here). I mean way more nuts and bolts stuff, like the length of your film and the platform you hope to publish it on.

Understanding your project’s duration is incredibly important – if you’re creating a feature length documentary or film, you’re presumably going to want to release it in cinemas, through community screenings or perhaps a streaming service. Knowing what duration your shooting for will give you a  clear understanding of how much content you’ll need to capture and edit together. Which will also inform how much time you need to capture it all as well.  If you’re working from a script this is a bit easier to know but if it’s a documentary and you’re finding stories, then this part is crucial to consider. 

On average, most feature films are roughly 98 minutes long, while a documentary might be anywhere from 40 minutes to 2 hours+. 

If you’re producing a series, you’ll most likely need even more content. And therefore you’ll need to schedule more production hours and more time in the editing suite. All of this needs to be factored in and accounted for, so you don’t end up with 16 minutes of footage that you need to somehow turn into an 80 minute film ….. 

Now, to throw a big spanner in the works, your duration might change once you really dig into the research and start mapping out your story.  That’s ok.  You can change as you need to.  Don’t feel restricted by a decision you’ve made early on.  But having a starting point to work from will help you get things moving.  You can always change later on if the project would benefit from a different approach. 

Next think about pinpointing when you’d like to release your film? Identifying a specific date is fantastic – particularly if your film covers a topical subject that gets widespread coverage on a particular day each year – but even just a month can be useful. 

I’ve produced several films that have focused on cancer and as a result, several of those films have been released on World Cancer Day, which falls on February 4 every year. 

My impact film Conquering Cervical Cancer, released on World Cancer Day 2022 and was screened by hospitals, schools, universities, nonprofits and charity organisations on that very date. Many used the film to rally their supporters together and advocate for greater cancer control and access to prevention, screening and treatment tools. I don’t believe the film would have had so much pick up if we had just released it on an ordinary Tuesday in June. 

Since World Cancer Day 22, Conquering Cervical Cancer has been screened more than 200 times around the globe. But my team and I actually started sharing content – including short video clips, still images and quotes from featured participants – in September 2020. 

Remember the point I made earlier about getting to know your audience in the planning stage? Makes sense now, doesn’t it? 

If it helps, follow this formula 

Once you’ve decided on when to release your film, you can’t start to apply my favourite formula. No lab coat required! 

The formula looks a little like this: X to Y by when 

Often, it helps to work backwards. Let’s stay your film also focuses on the topic of cancer and you want to release it on World Cancer Day, February 4 2024. 

Now that’s your ‘ by when’: Feb 4, 2024 

Your Y is ‘a fully completed film, ready for release’ 

And your X is your film idea

In other words I want to take my film idea and turn into an finished moving picture by February 4 2024. 

Voila! An end date to work towards. Now you need to break down all the elements you’ll need to check off in order to get to that target date with a complete film, including: 

Pre production
Post production

I promise you it can be really motivating to check each step off your list and meet your deadlines.

So set a (realistic) timeframe for when you want to begin and finalise each of these steps before moving on to the next phase. Just be sure to think about where and when you need to film so you can factor sufficient time in – especially if your subject matter is influenced by the seasons. 

A final word on planning 

Planning might not light you up, but it is an essential part of every successful film. It’s unlikely yours will be an exception. So please, try to take some of this advice on board and start to plan out how you’ll take your film from concept to completion. 


• Think about who your audience is 

  • Determine the duration of your film and the platforms you’l like to publish it to 
  • Apply the X to Y by when formula to keep you in check and focused 

Any questions? I’m only an email away. You can get in touch by contacting [email protected]. 

And be sure to tune in next week, where I’ll be discussing how to dodge imposter syndrome as a filmmaker. 

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