The documentary proposal is a detailed document used to inform the major details of the film—for you, and for the benefit of your collaborators, your clients, and other creative stakeholders. Most proposals include the main information about the documentary itself—including synopsis, background, description, style, audience and goals. You'll also often include logistics like the crew, budget, fundraising strategies, production schedules and plans for distribution and marketing.
- Earlier, we learned about the documentary pitch, which is kind of like a verbal commercial for your film. Now let's talk about the proposal, which is kind of like a welcome packet for your film. There are several reasons you might need to write a formal proposal. First, it's used to inform the major details of the film going forward. It's where you really begin to conceptually organize the film for you and for the benefit of your collaborators, your clients, and other creative stakeholders. Things will certainly change once you've conducted the interviews and have shot the footage, but having a solid, well-planned framework for the film is important in getting things off on the right foot.
Second, it can be used to sell your film and persuade others to back it or fund it. Whether that means applying for grants, approaching investors, or launching a crowdfunding campaign, you've got to be able to lay out the evidence that this is a worthwhile film to make and that you're the one to do it. Let's talk about the main components that many documentary proposals contain. Most proposals include the main information about the documentary itself, including the synopsis, background, description, style, audience, and goals.
You'll often also include logistics, like the crew and budget, fundraising strategies, production schedules, and your plans for distribution and marketing. Proposals may differ in format based on who you're presenting them to, where you live, what type of film you're proposing, and so on. So my advice to you is to cover your bases with a lot of this information, but be prepared to tweak it as necessary, depending on how you intend to use it and who you're providing it to. Now, we won't have the opportunity to delve into every single one of these points, as documentary proposals can often be very long documents, but I do want to at least touch on the parts of the proposal that discuss the layout of the documentary itself.
Also, if you'd like to look at the complete Project RELO proposal, you can find it in the Exercise Files of this course. Now the proposal often begins with a logline. This is a one to two sentence summary of the film. It should be catchy and inspire intrigue to learn more. Here's my Project RELO logline. Hard charging military veterans and white collar CEOs go off into the wilderness together for three days and emerge on the other side with mutual respect and a renewed interest in solving veteran underemployment.
Next, you'll often provide the film synopsis. This is where the work you did in writing the pitch can be really beneficial, because it's here that you want to succinctly summarize the film in much the same active, colorful language as your pitch description. Again, if it's not interesting your reader may not read further. You'll also often follow that with the introduction or background for the film, which offers further information about the film's topic and ultimately places the project in the proper context.
It's here you can explain the major details that your audience needs to know to really understand why this film should be made. For the Project RELO documentary, this is where I'll be able to better explain the veteran underemployment problem, along with the unique solution that Project RELO offers in this space. Next up, you'll often provide description of the documentary. It's here you'll lay out the details of what the film is going to be like in terms of style, structure, voice, and approach.
You've already provided a basic description and information in the synopsis and background sections, so it's here you can delve a little bit deeper in terms of how you intend to show these aspects in terms of the film. Try to paint a picture. You can also include the content and style of the elements that you plan to use in creating the film, including things like interviews, B-roll, process footage, observational scenes, archival footage, photos, graphics, and so on. You can also go into detail in terms of the style of editing.
In terms of structure, you'll also lay out how you intend to organize the film, whether it be a classic three act structure, a first person journey narrative, a chronological history, or any other number of devices. Be specific and motivated in your choices. Even if things change later, it's a good idea to have a solid plan in the proposal. Also, outline your objectives and goals of what you want your audience to get out of watching the film. And speaking of audience, it should also indicate who the audience is for the film.
Many times you'll have a primary audience that the film is made directly for, a group of people who will most care about the subject matter of the film. You may also have a secondary audience who you'll need to connect to by appealing to those universal human truths which we talked about earlier. Sometimes contained as part of a documentary proposal, but many times broken out as a separate pre-production document, is the treatment. I'll describe it briefly here, but we'll delve into it in more detail later in the course. The treatment is a creative document that describes the story of the film as it unfolds on screen in present active tense as if the film already exists.
Use vivid colorful language and don't generalize. Remember, you've already summarized the film in your synopsis, don't do it again here. As you go about this, you may want to begin thinking of your film as a series of story beats. Story beats are the smallest story unit, and each beat acts as the building block for the story you're creating. So, a group of beats together becomes a scene, a group of scenes becomes an act, and the acts combine to make a film. So even when you haven't shot the film yet, imagining how your story beats combine to form the narrative can be a very useful exercise as you're going through the practice of describing it.
In addition to all of the items I mentioned, there are many, many more things that you may want to include in your proposal, including items on this list. When deciding what to include do your homework to nail down the desired format and content depending on who you submit the proposal to. All of this can seem daunting, but keep in mind this is a working document, and the more time you spend working out many of the details now the more successful you'll be on your shoot.
- Developing a documentary idea
- Pitching an idea
- Writing a documentary proposal
- Planning and executing the research
- Conducting research and pre-interviews
- Developing pre-production materials
- Gathering non-production assets