Jump To Section
What Is a Documentary Proposal?
A documentary film proposal is a thorough description of all aspects of your proposed film, including the project’s history, the intended audience, the style and approach of your storytelling, biographies of your chief collaborators, and a plan and budget for completing the work.
What Is the Purpose of a Documentary Proposal?
Making films requires money, and a documentary proposal is necessary for pitching your film to investors to secure funding for production. Even if you don’t pay yourself, you still need to budget for equipment, licensing, and salaries for your crew, which makes fundraising essential. As with any film proposal, your documentary proposal is your most important tool for raising those funds.
9 Parts of a Documentary Proposal
Below is a basic structure for creating a documentary proposal.
- Abstract: The first page of your proposal should be the abstract, a one-page summary that a reader can detach and share separately from the full proposal. Since it is the very first page of your proposal, it will form a prospective investor’s first impression of your project, so write it carefully. Abstracts are longer than loglines but shorter than treatments.
- Table of contents: The second page should include a table of contents, providing a big-picture overview and delineating each component included in your multi-page proposal.
- Treatment: The treatment is a short narrative of what you envision will happen on-screen during your film. Documentary film treatments can be several pages long and should contain colorful descriptions and give specific details about potential characters and anticipated story beats that will feature in your final film. Aim for a vivid but realistic description that is between two and five pages long.
- Project history: Your project might be just a glimmer of an idea at this point, but start tracking the germination and growth of that idea. This should include what interested you in the topic, your personal connection to the subject matter or to the characters, how long have you wanted to make this film, and so forth.
- Audience: Think about audience engagement and how they will experience the story you want to tell. Who will be interested in watching your film? What other films have been made about your topic, and what is new or fresh about your take on the subject?
- Style and approach: Your film should have a point of view. Consider the visual style of the cinematography. For example, notate whether your film will use reenactments or rely heavily on photographs and found footage. In regard to style, consider the editing: Will it consist of rapid pacing and surprising juxtapositions, or savor moments of beauty and calm. Describe in one page or less the key stylistic elements that will make your approach unique.
- Principal participants and advisors: Think about who you'll collaborate, interview, and consult with to make this film. Include brief bios with basic information about each of these participants. Try to limit this section to two pages.
- Plan of work: What will be the different phases of your project, and how long will they last? How do you plan to reach the finish line? Outline what you will accomplish during pre-production, research, script-writing, hiring, shooting, editing, music composition, and sound mixing. The resulting timeline for completion should be one-to-two pages.
- Budget summary and breakdown: How much will each stage of your project cost? In a spreadsheet, itemize each and every line item that will be needed.
Once you have your proposal in hand, there are generally four categories of documentary funders, or underwriters, that you can approach for a film grant: the government, corporations, foundations, and individuals. When you eventually do get financial backing, know that one funder will likely not be enough. Be prepared to patch together your budget with a variety of sources. Think locally and get creative about who you approach by identifying organizations and individuals who understand your topic, deal with it day-to-day, or know its importance.
4 Tips for Writing a Documentary Proposal
Writing a documentary proposal is a time-consuming process, but since it’s your ticket to funding for your project, it’s well worth the effort.
- Be as thorough as possible. This isn't a time to be general. Proposal writing is a time to include every detail, no matter how minute. The proposal gives producers and funders everything they need to know about the film in one document.
- Be realistic with your film budget. Along with a documentary treatment, you also need to develop a realistic budget for your film. This doesn’t need to be an overwhelming task: Start by simply jotting down the big-picture elements on a single page. Ask yourself what the essential line items will be, such as the number of days you will need to shoot, the cost of renting camera and sound equipment, and paying crew for that duration. How many weeks of post-production will you require, and what are the rates of your editor, sound mixer, and composer?
- Determine your fundraising strategy. Fundraising requires perseverance more than anything else. Get a head start on fundraising by writing a first draft of the content that will make up your proposal. No two grant applications will request the same information, so what you should do is create a “menu” of component parts that can be called upon as needed and adapted for each particular use.
- Stay confident in your project. Film is a competitive business, and rejection is an inevitable part of the process. Keep doing what you have to do. Ultimately, the hard work of convincing others to fund your film will help you refine your passion and zero in on how your story needs to be told.
Want to Learn More About Filmmaking?
Become a better filmmaker with the MasterClass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by film masters, including Ken Burns, David Lynch, Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, Jodie Foster, Martin Scorsese, and more.