12 Tips How To Make A Documentary

12 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started My First Film

how to make a documentary

Faith Fuller

If you are looking for ways on how to make a documentary, you’re in the right place. I worked in television news for seven years and then traveled the world (40+ countries) documenting the lives and stories of all kinds of people.  So I wasn’t starting totally from scratch.

I had interviewed thousands of people, so I knew how to do that.  I had edited and produced hundreds of videos, so I knew how to tell a story.  What I wasn’t prepared for with my first documentary was the funding and distribution.

Here are some top lessons I learned with my first feature documentary project.

How To Make a Documentary

1)   Make a trailer: If you have any need or desire to raise funds for your project, a trailer – a fantastic trailer — is essential.  A trailer is also a wonderful tool for building an audience and creating buzz.

2)   Think of the END first:  Where is this documentary going to be shown (or where do you envision it being shown)?  Who is your targeted/primary audience? Answering these questions helps you determine the content, tone, style and length of your documentary.

3)   Start building your audience: Launch a Facebook page (or other social media) immediately and build a website with a blog that you update regularly (this builds “organic” web traffic).  Make sure to include an e-mail sign-up form on your site.  These will be your top promoters and customers when you’re ready to launch your film and sell your DVD.

4)   Distribution: Have a distribution plan and (if at all possible) hire a distribution expert.  I took the self-distribution route to keep control and save money, but I can’t help but wonder how much better my project could have done if I’d had help from a professional distributor.

5)   Use your own music: Unless there is a very specific reason to use a specific piece of music, it can be a huge hassle and expense to obtain music rights.  I had to negotiate a deal with each publisher and record company of each piece of music used in my documentary.   I was grateful that at least that two thirds of the music of my documentary was originally composed.

6)   Funding: When you’re first starting to raise money, unless you are already a well-known documentary filmmaker, don’t waste your time on big corporations and foundations. Your best chance for success is to first target the “low hanging fruit”.  Find people and groups who are already “pre-sold” on the subject of your film and want to support your project.  Once you’ve raised $10,000 – $50,000, THEN you have some credibility and can branch out to larger groups.  Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are two great ways to launch your fundraising efforts.

7)   Fundraising Process: This is one of the reasons it’s important to think about where your documentary is going to be seen.  Something I did not realize when I started shooting my documentary is that PBS does not allow any funding of the documentary to come from the person/group/organization/subject that your documentary is about.   For example, if your documentary is about “Mary Jane”, “Mary Jane” cannot give you funding for your documentary otherwise PBS considers your documentary a propaganda piece.

Documentary Tools8)   Have a great public relations plan: I got lucky that one of my good friends was a public relations expert, so our team totally rocked with the PR effort and got tons of great publicity.  Having an expert on the team made all the difference.

9)   Develop merchandise: As part of your distribution plan, develop some products (t-shirts, toys, etc) that you can sell in addition to the DVD to help bring in additional cash.

10)   Sundance Film Festival: If you have hopes of submitting your film to Sundance or any of the other big film festivals, keep in mind that some of them require an exclusive first showing in order to be accepted.  Some filmmakers plan their production schedule around these festivals, so check the submission dates in advance and take this under consideration as you plan the premiere for your movie.

11)    Be prepared to give away lots of free DVDs:  This part was a shock to the system because I was totally broke and exhausted! In hindsight, it is really really important to give away some DVDs for free.  It not only creates good energy around the project and helps generate publicity, it’s the least you can do to thank those who helped make the project possible.  I lost count, but I probably gave away 500-700 free DVDs, not only to those who worked on the project or donated, but also to friends, family and the media.

12)   Plan your next documentary: This may seem totally odd, but as hard as it may seem, start thinking about your next project even before your current documentary is completed.  You can use the momentum of your finished project to generate interest and funding in your next film.  People will come out of the woodwork to help you once you prove you can successfully complete a project.

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Faith Fuller is the primary author of www.Desktop-Documentaries.com and the director of the award-winning documentary Briars in the Cotton Patch: The Story of Koinonia Farm which was broadcast nationally on PBS from 2005 – 2010. She helps filmmakers seeking ideas on how to make a documentary.