How to Write a Documentary Proposal

How to Write a Documentary Film Proposal

In my last post I wrote about coming up with documentary ideas. Now I’d like to write about the next logical step: developing your idea into a proposal.

Why It’s Important to Write a Film Proposal

As we explore this topic you’ll become familiar with the numerous individual parts that comprise a film proposal. While there are specific parts that may be irrelevant to your project, there are some that are important for every project, whether artistic or commercial in nature. But, first, I want to explain the importance of writing a film proposal in general.

When I first started creating short videos and films, I’d essentially just come up with an idea and then go shoot it. I spent very little time and effort preparing for these projects, and it was reflected in the final product.

Over the years I’ve learned just how important it is to be totally prepared before I start shooting something. In fact, there is a direct correlation between preparedness and quality of work.

Writing a film proposal is the first step after coming up with an idea and helps with preparedness.

Film proposals have a very specific structure, have very specific needs, and require you to answer very specific questions about your project. These questions are important as they ensure that you’ve thought through your project before you begin shooting.

Film proposals answer these fundamental questions about your project not just for you, but for everyone you plan to collaborate with. You can even think of your film proposal as a “welcome packet” to any collaborators who want to wrap their head around the project.

Film proposals are also a requirement if you intend to apply for grants, approach investors, or even plan a crowdfunding campaign.

How to Write a Documentary Film Proposal

Lucky for us, we don’t have to guess at what a film proposal ought to look like. The Sundance Institute has provided a film proposal checklist according to their own grant guidelines, which lets us know exactly what information to include:

(Page limits are suggested lengths only.)

Logline (2-3 Sentences). Provide a brief, catchy summary of your story.

Story Summary / Synopsis (Approximately 1-2 pages). What is your story and story structure? Give an overview of your story, introducing the main characters and potential plot points. Describe the anticipated story structure and narrative trajectory, or potential character arcs for your project. Discuss your access to the story and characters.

Topic Summary (Approximately 1-2 pages). Why is this topic important, timely, or relevant? Why are you the best person to make a film about this? Explain the cultural or social relevance and context for the topic, and why this project is timely or urgent. Detail the topics, issues, themes, challenges, stakes, or questions that your project will cover.

Artistic Approach (Approximately 1/2 page). How are you going to tell this story? Describe your creative vision for the finished project – its visual look and feel. Explain your intended use of cinematic language or any particular artistic approach that informs the storytelling. If applicable, mention any creative elements and assets, interactive elements, new technologies or non-traditional mediums that you intend to utilize. Explain how these elements will enhance the experience and interaction between viewers and the world of the story.

Project Stage (Approximately 1 paragraph). Explain the current status of the project. Outline the projected production timeline from the project’s current state to the anticipated completion date. Your timeline should cover both the creative and production processes and should detail major project activities, production schedules, and anticipated post production and release dates. If you have applied before, please share how your project has progressed since the last time your applied.

Key Creative Personnel (Approximately 1 paragraph/bio). Provide brief biographies (50-150 words) for the director(s), and if attached, the producer(s), cinematographer, or editor. Include notable credits and/or major recognition or award information. For each key creative, include information about relevant expertise and the individual’s role in the project. Do not send resumes, CVs or extensive filmographies. Bullet list any other advisors or consultants, if applicable.

Audience and Distribution Strategies (1 paragraph for each)

Distribution and Marketing Strategy. Characterize the intended distribution life for your film. Specify plans for festival, theatrical, and/or community screenings, as well as plans for securing national broadcast and/or distribution.

Intended Audience. Describe the anticipated audience for your project, including any underserved audiences. How do you plan to reach your target audience? How have you addressed the needs and interests of this audience in your film? What is your relationship and access to this community?

Audience Engagement and Social Impact (if applicable). Audience Engagement is a strategy designed to activate audiences and constituencies toward a specific goal. Not all films are suited for social engagement, but if yours is, what actions do you hope for viewers to take after seeing your film? Potential activities could include organizational partnerships, educational guides, targeted stakeholder/community screenings, social media strategies, multi-platform activity, or social change campaigns. Do you have partnerships with organizations in your issue area already, and if so, how are these relationships informing your project development?

Visual Sample. Please provide links and passwords for both samples in your written proposal.

Director’s Prior Work (1 paragraph) (required). The director’s previous work (any length or genre) is required. If a prior directing sample is not available, you may submit a film you have shot or edited. Alternatively, previous work from a key creative on the team will also be accepted. Note: A directing sample is not required for Audience Engagement applications. Describe the sample you have submitted, including its narrative, aesthetic, or communication intentions. Discuss the relevance of the work to the current project, if any. If the current project is a departure from the prior work, how will this film differ?

Current Sample/Rough Cut (1 paragraph). Required for production/post-production grant applications. Provide necessary background and/or context for the work-in-progress. What should reviewers be looking for in your sample? Explain what is present or absent in the sample, and how it will differ as a finished film. How is it representative of the intended story, style, subject, or other aspect of the project? If you submitted a rough cut, what additional scenes do you need?

Financial Info (1 paragraph for each)

Fundraising Strategy. Describe the strategy for raising the additional funds necessary to complete the project. Include all sources and amounts raised to date. Clearly distinguish between potential sources of funding and secured amounts. List the status of other sources of funding currently under consideration, whether to be applied for or pending.

Grant Impact. Amount requested? If you were to receive a grant, describe how the funds would be spent. In light of your total budget, how would these funds help you move forward with your project?

Comprehensive Line Item Expense Budget. Please list a breakdown of all expenses from development through release in U.S. dollars, including a grand budget total. You may view a sample budget on our website. This sample budget is provided as a reference tool only, you may use your own budget format.

Contact Information. Please provide complete contact information including a valid email address, telephone number and mailing address (in the country’s format). Contact information should be valid until AT LEAST December, 2015.

An Important Note About Documentary Film Proposals

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed or bogged down trying to create the perfect film proposal, but please keep in mind that a proposal is a working document.

Nevermind the fact that your financial/fundraising circumstances will change over time, but the actual subjects you intend to follow and story of your film will also change over time. Instead of thinking of your proposal as something that needs to be absolutely perfect, think of it as a working document that changes over time to reflect the progress you’ve made.

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1 reply
  1. Demi
    Demi says:

    Great info 🙂 thank you so much for this. There really is so much to consider and justify- but thanks so much for making me consider thinking differently about it! More of a progress document- great advice!

    Good luck with the film, shall donate.


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