How To Make Your First Feature Documentary

For filmmakers interested in making a feature documentary, advancements in production technology has created the golden age. Equipped with a camera, it’s never been easier to make films. But as a layman or someone who is just getting started in documentary filmmaking, where do you begin?

Making your first feature documentary can seem like an impossible task, but like many life changing ventures, the hardest thing is starting. Once you’ve decided what can keep your interest and love for at least 3 years (without going broke) you are on the right track. Passion is essential for getting your feature documentary made. One golden rule I follow is this quote:

‘Don’t write a film because you think it is marketable or commercial. Write what you want to write because you feel passionate about writing it’
— Damian Harper the director of ‘Los Angeles’

The same goes for every creative endeavor. It is never as easy as it looks. Loving what you do will put the odds in your favor. As will hard work…

feature documentary

How To Make Your First Feature Documentary

Achieving success in the film industry is a challenging. For example, in Australia, the likelihood that you will make a second film after the first is just 40%. With more films being made, it is difficult to find people to support your projects.

Rather than waiting for everything to be perfect, I believe you are better off funding your feature documentary yourself while keeping costs at a minimum. Aside from actually finishing your project, you will gain skills and experience. My career has accelerated as a result of this philosophy.

After investing at least 2 years of your time and resources into making your feature documentary, you may feel like you have no money or energy left. This is tough, because distribution demands as many resources as making the film. Heck, sometimes it feels easier to make a film!

One way to get the attention of distributors involves getting your feature documentary accepted by a major film festival. But with immense competition, it isn’t always easy. Organizers of film festivals receive many films. For example, the Sheffield Doc Fest gets around 2,000 submissions. A mere 150 films are screened and many of these are short interactive films.

As a filmmaker, it can be quite a somber feeling to learn that the odds are not in your favor. The trick to overcoming this uphill task is to plan your schedule in advance. Try to research the types of films the programmers like to support and try reaching out to them personally.

Top points to note about festivals include:

  • Always do thorough research
  • Follow the festival’s set rules
  • Pick the right festival for your film
  • Check that your film is good before submitting
  • Label your film properly
  • Reach out to the right festival programmers to follow-up

​While festivals are great, getting accepted will not make or break your film. Instead of putting all your energy into the festival circuit, work more on integrating social media and blogging into your filmmaking. I have done this and it has lead to my upcoming film, The Pearl Of Africa engaging online audiences well before the release.

Our marketing budget was limited to roughly $1000. As a result, our grassroots strategy involved releasing a web series and doing a crowd-funding campaign. This lead to CNN catching our story and describing the series as the “Top African show to ditch House Of Cards for.” This created a lot of buzz, which we leveraged online.

Right now we’re doing a follow up series detailing our work with the project. Here’s our first episode:

As video becomes the norm online, documentary filmmakers have a huge advantage. Yow are an expert at engaging people emotionally through the medium. If you can learn how they engage audiences you stand a great chance of building a loyal growing audience for yourself. In this respect, you won’t need a distributor or a broadcaster to make and distribute your films!

Making a feature documentary is not easy. But just like any profession, dedication and passion will be your greatest asset. As Henry Ford said, Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.

Jonny von Wallström is a award winning, self-shooting director. His work has been featured in the world’s largest medias such as; CNN, Arte, The Huffington Post, MTV, TV6, ZTV, SVT, Al Jazeera and more. In 2014 & 2015, he was awarded Swedish Guldägget and PPFT Maggie Award for media exellence in global journalism. He’s also a contributor at The Huffington Post.

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