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Ingredients for a successful documentary film proposal

Nov 30, 2022

Ingredients for a successful documentary film proposal 

Filmmaking is a time consuming endeavour. While it might take someone less than 90 minutes to consume and fall in love with your film, it takes you and your team countless hours, many sleepless nights and endless shots of espresso to pull it all together. 

From storyboarding your narrative to perfecting your script, securing talent and selecting locations and don't forget the actual filming and editing part! – a lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into making a movie. 

However there is one part of the filmmaking process that can feel like it takes an eternity to create and get right. And it actually has very little to do with the overall look of your documentary feature film…but oh boy, can it make or break your production! 

I’m talking about your proposal. AKA your ticket to funding your project. Because while documentary filmmaking will give you a great sense of accomplishment it also carries more than a few challenges. And writing a great proposal is one of them.  A great proposal is directly related to the single biggest factor in determining if your film will be made.  Finance! 

And securing enough finance or funding to make what you envisioned in your mind is probably one of the biggest challenges a filmmaker faces.

Which is why in this post I wanted to take a close look at crafting a proposal that’s so convincing, it’ll have potential funders begging to get behind you and your documentary. Writing proposals is something I do regularly and I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks that help to get the structure and tone right.  What to include and what to leave out. And sometimes it’s what you leave out that makes it more successful!


Behold my top tips for creating a successful documentary film proposal. 

But first let’s have a chat about who has the money… 

Who are these “potential funders or financiers”? 

Determining the right groups, organisations or even individuals to approach for financial support can be a tricky game. There’s a lot to consider - figuring out the right contacts, - understanding how to pitch with passion and shortlisting your target financiers. 

As an impact filmmaker with a focus on health equity, the potential funders I reach out to are often philanthropists, foundations, and not for profits – in other words organisations and groups that are aligned in their mission to that of the project I’m creating.  They may have the resources to help me and my team finance it. 

Don’t be afraid to get a little creative with your approaches though. I made a film about a childhood disease called Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD). When I was filming in the top end of Australia it was brought to my attention that we were making films to educate children on why it’s important to practice good hygiene because it helps to prevent RHD.  I became aware that we were asking children to regularly wash their hands with soap.  

The problem is that many of the children didn’t have access to soap, primarily because it can be extremely expensive to access in remote communities. Consequently, I reached out to a soap company to see if they would like to be involved in the project.  And YES they were and they came on board as a project sponsor- cue the champagne! 

But importantly they’ve made a strong relationship with a couple of communities and were able to supply soap to them.

As an example of a project funder that is aligned with a film project this is a great case. Remember: You’re looking for groups or organisation that would find your project useful and helpful in progressing their own mission. 

Another thing to keep top of mind is that it’s often who you know. Receiving a warm introduction to a potential funder via a colleague or acquaintance is a great way to start a conversation. Scour your LinkedIn or your little old address book if you’re old school and get in touch with anyone working in an industry that relates to your project. 

If you don’t feel you have any of the “right” connections, don’t fret. That soap sponsor I mentioned above? A completely cold approach! 

It all comes down to how you position your ask and the proposal you share. Which brings me nicely back to crafting that proposal. Let’s get yours underway. 

What am I meaning by a proposal?

You might be thinking of a document and wondering if I really mean a pitch video.  A pitch video is helpful to have in the mix but I am talking about a written document, often a pages long pdf.  

Yep, you have to do a lot of writing in this filmmaking business! It’s not all lights, camera, action. 

So first things first…

The first step 

A blank page with a blinking curser can make most creatives want to switch their screen off and head to the nearest bar. So I always recommend starting slowly. List out the key topics that you need to include in your proposal and flesh out from there. 

Here’s is basic structure that you can follow when you’re just starting out. \

1.Project summary 

Start by detailing what your film is about. Yes, it might be a glimmer of an idea right now, but outline what interested you in the topic, if you have any personal connection to the subject matter and why you believe you are the best person to share this story. If it’s a topic that’s been covered previously (and most have!), discuss why your take is fresh and relevant at this moment in time. Talk about the key problems and ultimate solutions your film will bring to the foreground. 

2. Audience 

Think about your target audience and how they will experience your film. Explain who they are and why they might be interested in your project– potential funders will want to know if your audiences overlap or are aligned in some way. Discuss the kind of impact you think your film can bring about too – from financial returns, to people reached and behaviours changed. 


3. Style and approach 

 Is your film hopeful or an exposé? Does it include a mix of interviews with experts and “everyday” people? Where do you plan to shoot - in one location, multiple cities or, or at a studio? Provide some detail about your style of cinematography and the key elements that will make your documentary unique. But but don’t feel like you need to be too specific – a vivid, but broad overview is fine. 

4. Key participants and collaborators 

Share who you’re already collaborating with and who you will (or hope to) interview –provide brief bios for each person so potential funders can get a feel for who they are and how they will enhance the film. 

5. Plan of work 

Provide an indicative overview of each phase of your project – from pre-production, to production, post-production and distribution. Also include any specific outputs – including the feature film but also any accompanying content or touch points such as short films, websites and social media placements. 

6. The ask 

Finally, you’ll need to include an outline of how much funding you are asking for – and whether you are seeking support form one sponsor or many. Be clear on the benefits to funders – how will their contribution help you further your mission and what’s in it for them? Be sure to align your vision with your potential investors’ vision. 

Ensure your proposal is visually-led 

Once you have the information side sorted, it’s time to pull it together into a visually engaging document. 

You don’t need to be an art director to knock this out of the park either. Tools like Canva and PicMonkey are a great resources for non-designers. Not only are they incredibly user-friendly, they carry a stack of templates that you can adapt to suit your own style and project. 

My top tip is to use as much imagery as you can. Avoid big slabs of text, incorporate bold. punchy headlines and breakout boxes to keep your reader focused. 

Include links to your past work, pre interviews or teasers that are relevant to this documentary. If you have them, share images from your development journey but know that it is ok to use stock images in your proposal too – as this is for a private audience you won’t be breaching any copyright laws. Legal risk averted! 

Proofread your proposal (or give it to someone with a great eye for detail) 

Finally, you want to ensure that your film proposal is free of errors, typos or grammar mishaps. Check it, re-check it and check it again – or better still, hand it over to someone in your team to review. It’s often tricky to pick up your own mistakes because you know the content so intimately. 

Now it’s time to get it in front of potential funders! 

Once you’re happy with your proposal, you need to get it out there. Don’t lose heart if you send email after email only to receive no response. Securing funding is a long game and it can take many follow ups and many more meetings to bring someone on board.

But there’s nothing like the sense of achievement you’ll feel when you receive a response to that email, saying ‘Yes, I’d like to meet to discuss your project.’ 

And if you’re wondering what to do when that inevitable positive response rolls in, I encourage you to check out this post  on the three questions potential tuners always ask.

Happy pitching! 

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