How to Write a Powerful Documentary Film ProposalDescribe the film you want to make, how you'll make it, and why you’re the best person to tell the story.
Your cinematic vision expressed on the page.
I’ve been teaching screenwriting here at Lights Film School for some six years, and in that time, I’ve reviewed a lot of student writing submissions.
As students of our online film school, filmmakers choose one of two tracks when they reach the curriculum’s Screenwriting Module: narrative or documentary filmmaking. Students who choose narrative filmmaking must submit a screenplay no longer than ten pages, which they transform into a short film toward the end of their studies. Although there’s always room to improve, the formatting and storytelling requirements for most traditional screenplays are fairly standardized.
For students who choose documentary filmmaking, however, the writing process is more nebulous. Documentary filmmaking students aren’t always sure who they’re writing for, what should be expressed in a written documentary proposal (also known as a “treatment”), or how far along they should be in the filmmaking process before submitting for teacher review.
Let’s clear up the confusion!
3 Types of Documentary Film “Screenwriting”
There are really a few different types of writing in which a documentary filmmaker engages:
I. Preparatory Writing
Here, you’re figuring out for yourself what topic/character you want to explore; what people, struggle, or context you’re going to use to explore that topic/character; where and when you’re going to shoot; what approaches and techniques you’re going to adopt; etc.
For example, are you going to interview your subjects? Are you going to record them in action? What sort of situations are you going to cover? Will you need archival footage? Essentially, preparatory writing is brainstorming, and it doesn’t necessarily need to assume a specific or even a readable shape.
II. Proposal Writing
Here, you’re expressing on the page the sort of film you intend to make. You might think of a documentary proposal as a more formal, written statement of intent. A documentary proposal often is used to seek grant financing and should be a well-planned, clear, and professional essay-style document. It should cover a few things. What/who is your film about, and why? What shape will it take? What visuals will it include?
A proposal is usually the closest thing a documentary filmmaker has to a screenplay, since it’s a space for the filmmaker to express their vision and communicate clearly to others how they intend to achieve it.
It’s important to note that for the purpose of grant applications, documentary filmmakers write proposals at all different stages of creation. Although most Lights Film School students submit their proposals during pre-production in order to cast a vision for their film and invite actionable feedback, in the wider world of documentary filmmaking, grants are available at every stage, from production through post-production and beyond.
III. Structural Writing
Unlike a narrative filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker usually continues writing after the production process. After you’ve shot your interviews, action, and BRoll and before jumping into the edit, there’s still some work to do and preliminary questions to answer. In what sequence will you show the shots and scenes you’ve captured? How will you inspire a reaction in the hearts and minds of your audience? Essentially, how can your story be told most effectively?
Structural writing isn’t necessarily writing you’ll end up sending to anyone – although, if you’re working with an editor, you might share it with them! – but it’s nevertheless integral to many documentary film projects. The most meticulous structural writing amounts to a sort of “paper edit”.
What if you’re not planning to apply for a grant? Why you should you take the time to engage in Proposal Writing during pre-production? There are quite a few reasons, including:
- You’ll be forced to have an honest conversation with yourself about where you are in the filmmaking process. A successful proposal is one that’s written by someone who has an idea of what they’ll be doing. Meaning, you have your subjects lined up, you know your visual style, and you’re as ready to go as you can be when it comes to making a movie in the sandbox of real life! If you sit down to write a proposal and don’t know where to start, then you’ll be inspired to do more Preparatory Writing, which will help distill your vision for your documentary.
- You’ll start formulating Plan A (and Plan B and C and D and…) Proposal Writing helps streamline and focus your thinking and intended story, equipping you to make on-the-fly decisions when you’re caught up in the thrilling, messy whirlwind of documentary production, which often forces you to improvise.
- You’ll be able to visualize your finished film, similar to how a narrative film’s screenplay helps suggest its pacing and mood. A documentary film proposal is a sort of blueprint that articulates your intentions. In so doing, it helps show you where you’re succeeding – and where you may be lacking clarity.
An Interview with The Sundance Institute
Convinced of the usefulness of Proposal Writing? Great! So how do you actually write a documentary proposal? What do you need in order to successfully cast your vision and, when necessary, inspire others to finance your film?
Here’s the answer, in short: you need a lot of really well-crafted and intentional information. But of course, there’s more to the story than that.
Surprisingly, there aren’t many resources out there for filmmakers eager to craft the perfect documentary proposal, which is why we want to contribute to the conversation here on our blog. One of the best existing resources, however, is The Sundance Institute, a nonprofit organization that actively advances the work of independent storytellers in film and theatre. We reached out for their perspective, and to our delight, Betsy Tsai – assistant to the Sundance Film Fund – was happy to chat!
Betsy provides critical operations support for the Sundance Documentary Fund’s proposal tracking and management, and she’s an integral part of the SDF proposal review and evaluation process, working directly with applicants, screeners, and fund panelists. She’s a directing alumna of the UCLA School of Theater, Film, & Television. Prior to joining the Sundance Documentary Film Program, Betsy worked for a conflict analysis nonprofit and on award-winning fiction and nonfiction films.
Before we share Betsy’s insights into the hallmarks of a successful documentary proposal, let’s take a moment to introduce the Sundance Documentary Film Program. Its mission is to support nonfiction filmmakers worldwide “in the production of cinematic documentaries on contemporary themes.” Recent projects include Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR, Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, Sabaah Jordan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets?, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet, and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, to name only a few!
For reference, the program grants funds to documentary filmmakers in several categories:
- Development (grants available up to $15,000)
- Production/Post-Production (grants available up to $40,000)
- Audience Engagement (grants available up to $20,000)
- Additional Opportunities by nomination
In order to apply for a grant, filmmakers must submit – you guessed it – a written proposal. For an overview of what should be included in a proposal, check out Sundance’s website. What we’re going to focus on now in our discussion with Betsy is how to optimize the proposal’s content, in order to create the best possible documentary treatment.
Hello, Betsy! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights with our students and readers! As someone who reviews documentary proposals, what do you really like to see in one? What makes a documentary proposal successful? What shape do you want a proposal to take?
Clarity. I should have a strong sense of what I might see on screen, whether you have access to these subjects or events, how it will read stylistically, and what the emotional tone of the film will be.
How is your film different from other films on the subject? Why were you motivated to make the film, and why are you the best person/team to make it?
While your story may allude to a lot of historical and/or social circumstances, if knowing about them is not essential to understanding the core narrative, then they should be in the “Topic Summary” rather than the “Story Synopsis.” We’re a storytelling organization, so the way you talk about your documentary (even though it’s still in the making) should have some sort of clear narrative structure – beginning, middle, and end, even if that changes during the course of production.
A sense of structure helps keep a film engaging and on track, for sure. On a related note, how firm of a vision should a documentary filmmaker have when submitting a proposal? Should they describe visuals, characters, etc.?
Yes and yes. Not only is our process highly competitive, but successful applicants are also doing something visually compelling and have a distinct voice. The secret to a good application is to somehow be able to translate that cinematic voice into the language of the application. Especially if you don’t have a lot of edited material to show, incorporate some imagery in your writing that will make us want to watch your film. References to other films or artworks can also be helpful in evoking what you are going for.
The Sundance Institute has a range of fellowships and labs available to documentary filmmakers. Do you find that you review more proposals for one stage of production than another?
It’s split pretty evenly across all production stages. With the exception of the Creative Producing Fellowship and the Art of Nonfiction Fellowship, all of the Documentary Film Program’s creative programs are currently open only to successful Sundance Documentary Fund applicants (for example, you cannot apply directly to the Story and Edit Labs at this time).
When you review a proposal from a filmmaker who is in the beginning stages of pre-production on a documentary, what type of information are you looking for? What do you want the filmmaker to express? How much information should they have decided upon even though production hasn’t yet occurred?
You should have identified and secured access to your main characters. We also want to have some sense of narrative engine in the film. In most cases, there should be something at stake.
Our applicant pool is extremely competitive, so while we do accept development applications without work-in-progress samples, we strongly encourage all applicants to have some visual material.
When you review a proposal from a filmmaker who is already in production or even post-production, what type of information are you looking for? Also, what are the major differences and similarities between a proposal for a film that’s in pre-production and one that’s already in post?
For a production or post-production application, the narrative arc should be pretty clear. In other words, we are going somewhere and not ending up where we started. Production applications don’t need to have all the plot points hammered out, but there should be some allusion to some transformation happening, rather than just a situation.
The film’s point-of-view on the story and characters also should be more fully-formed and developed.
What are some common pitfalls you see in documentary proposals (for films in any stage of creation)? Is there something that filmmakers include that they shouldn’t? Or is there something that is commonly missing?
Apart from mistaking issue for story, the most common thing I see is filmmakers not doing their homework on what other films are out there on the subject. It’s difficult to want to fund a film if there is another successful film like it that came out last year, and your film is not doing anything different or adding to the conversation.
Also, we’re interested in projects whose stories warrant a feature-length, cinematic experience! It should be clear in writing and on screen that your project is going into the depths and nuances that shorts and reportage cannot.
7 Pointers for Crafting Your Documentary’s Written Treatment
A few things Betsy shared with us really stood out to me, in terms of things that Lights Film School students and other independent filmmakers should keep in mind when preparing a documentary proposal during pre-production. Essentially, when writing your documentary film treatment, you’ll want to consider these eight points:
I. Express clarity of vision.
The documentary proposal should paint a striking picture of what you want to do. We don’t just want to feel like the film you’re proposing needs to be made – we want to feel like you specifically are the artist who needs to make it.
II. Have a structure.
A documentary captures real life, but it still employs storytelling techniques. Don’t underestimate the power of, say, traditional three-act structure.
III. Things will change as you move along, but be strong in your intentions from the get-go.
Real life throws curve balls, yes – that’s why you should be prepared to hit them! Don’t be afraid to own your vision.
IV. Describe and secure access to the people in your film.
Give the reader a clear sense of the characters who will carry the story. Character writing – whether you’re inventing a character from scratch for a narrative film or covering a real person for a documentary – is all about specificity. Help us understand who we’ll be living with through your film’s running time. Draw us into their stories with passion, personality, and verve. Get creative! Remember, this is effectively your “screenplay.” And of course, be sure that your subjects have agreed to be in your film.
V. Don’t confuse issue with story!
This is so important. It’s really hard to make a film about an issue resonate with audiences if you aren’t grounding that issue in the experiences of living, breathing human beings with substance, often to whom we can relate.
VI. Contextualize (where appropriate).
Share some background on the topic you’re exploring and important parts of characters’ pasts, if relevant to the story. Don’t forget to tell us how you plan to communicate contextual essentials onscreen!
VII. Use words to paint vivid visuals.
What will we be seeing as we experience your film? After all, it is a visual medium!
A documentary proposal is an opportunity for you to get clear on your vision and test how that vision will resonate with audiences.
By communicating your concept to a reader, you’re starting a conversation – with yourself and with your reader – about the film you want to make, how you’ll make it, and why you’re the one who needs to tell the story.
Lauren McGrail, with
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