Dreaming of making a documentary? Ten challenges to deal with before mortgaging your house

So, you´re an aspiring or established journalist, writer, researcher, communicator or engaged citizen. You have this idea that you believe could become an amazing documentary, but you´re not sure you have what it takes. Well, there’s good news and not-so-good news.

“Icarus” , directed by Bryan Vogel and produced by Dan Cogan, exposed the Russian doping scandal and won the 2018 Oscar feature documentary category. It was the first feature film documentary Oscar for Netflix.

The good news is that the opportunities to succeed are better than ever, thanks to disruptive technological advances that have lowered the barriers to both production and distribution. I wrote about this in more detail in my last post.

It is a testament to the radical shifting nature of the business models that Netflix commissioned the 2018 documentary Oscar winner “Ikarus” and will spend a record $ 8 billion on content this year.

But very few documentary makers will ever reach a global acquisition and distribution deal with Netflix, HBO, Amazon or Facebook. So the not-so-good news is that making a living and funding are the most challenging aspects of making documentaries. For most this is not a lucrative profession: In a 2016 survey by the International Documentary Association, only 22% of documentary professionals say they are able to make their primary living from documentary filmmaking.

The global competition is fierce, and for indie documentary makers the process from idea to filmmaking and post production onwards to distribution, can be very long. Rigorous professional demands still exist and you will have to face them as well if you want to get your story out into the world.

During my Stanford fellowship I have talked to many talented journalists and media savvy colleagues who are not aware of the full complexity involved in making high-quality documentaries. I decided to provide some basic advice, particularly focusing on the current affairs and investigative documentary categories drawing on journalism.

If you want to save the world in one way or another (a whopping 92 percent of respondents to that 2016 survey said they were optimistic about the social impact of documentary films), it is a good idea to think through what you really want to accomplish through a documentary. So before you mortgage your house, here are ten challenges you’ll likely face, and some hard-earned advice to help you succeed.

  1. Show proof of your filmmaking ability. Do a short pilot or show some key scenes as part of your pitch.

A few minutes of footage central to the story (character(s), revelatory scene(s), cinematography) could be the decisive factor in getting support, particularly when the prospective funders are not familiar with your work. The funders will also like to know about the team you have assembled for the project.

Documentary filmmaking. (Photo: Pexels).

2. Research is very costly, notably when you aim to do investigative work, It takes a long time and often yields no results in the short run. Be prepared to accept sunk costs for research leading nowhere, and to pivot away from what was your initial hypothesis.

Make sure to focus your initial research on the really juicy and vital content you need to cover in the film to tell your story. If you have secured that, everything else will usually be solvable.

3. Getting sources to come forward and talk openly in front of a camera, on your terms, can be excruciatingly difficult. This is true whether you seek a corporate whistleblower, a politician charged with corruption or a celebrity to be in the spotlight, or even an ordinary person with a dramatic account.

Remember, this is really different from dealing with print sources; you don´t want to use a lot of anonymous sources in your film. Figure out who are the key source(s)you must have to get traction. Once you have them, others will normally come forward.

4. To follow a process over time is often necessary to secure great storytelling and an alluring narrative. That means a lot of presence with the main characters, waiting it out and trying to attain the real scenes playing out. Alternatively your story maybe going nowhere, or you will have to tell, not show, which does not make for great visual storytelling.

Define in advance what time frame must be in place to get a minimum viable version out, with clear entry and exit points in your timeline.

5. There are often major issues concerning political, legal and ethical problems, some of which may be very hard to overcome, especially if your story takes place in several countries. Even in your home country there are certainly surprising limitations on what you can film and record without getting in trouble.

Know the ethical and legal guidelines where you operate and make sure you have access to some kind of legal advice and financial backing to deal with the worse case scenario. You may be able to make a deal with the broadcaster/distributer or streaming agent to share or cover legal costs as part of your contract.

Documentary filmmaking. (Photo: Alan Flowers Prodcutions.com/Flickr.)

6. There are often threats and hostile behavior, sources pulling out, lawsuits in the waiting, threats of retribution, open pressure against you and your family or your business or employer, creating unbearable risks and uncertainties leading to budget overruns.

Don´t get in over your head. You may need to accept that your story may be less spectacular than you hoped for; pivot if you must. Set up a minimum viable version of how the story could play out. Be honest to your partners about where your project is heading and the real challenges you face.

7. The clearing of rights has become a nightmare in the digital age, since global distribution requires complete rights management and acceptance, also for archive material grabbed from the web. It may be very complicated to obtain even a few seconds of footage, and extremely costly if you fail to credit and have to pay the original creators.

Get an estimate of cost before you finish your treatment or story line, and before you acquire archive material. If you don´t have a knowledgeable production manager on your team, consult expert advice.

Documentary filmmaking. (Photo: Alan Flowers Productions.com/Flickr)

8. You may need to get hold of documents from public records that governments want to restrict, hold back or deny on dubious grounds. To use this process in a documentary (both in terms of narrative and as evidence) could be both demanding and time consuming.

Depending on the nature of your investigation, focus on the key information needed. You don´t need to show all of your evidence in the film. Use online publishing to back up your claims.

9. If you want to do an international story or get crucial scenes from other countries, you will need cross-border cooperation in dealing with issues like research assistance, location scouting, source hunting, financial information on business dealings and cultural impediments.

For complex stories get involved in collaborative organizations such as ICIJ (The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), IDA (International Documentary Association) or EDN (European Documentary Network) to seek out partners and professionals. Sometimes you only need a local fixer or a photographer.

10. Finally what is probably the biggest hurdle: Funding.Quality filmmaking, whether investigative, current affairs or constructive in scope — normally requires robust and large budgets, compared to other forms of journalism (but not compared to feature film). All the issues I’ve listed in 1–9 affect the cost of a documentary. Applying and pitching for funding is a full time job.

Seek advice and find out who is the most realistic partner for your project. The most important is to get initial financing, even for further development. A letter of commitment from a broadcaster or digital outlet is a great tool to get commitments from others, such as non profit with a history of supporting documentary projects.

I could go on to list more challenges most documentary makers will recognize. My experience is that they are so committed to their films that they are willing to work for pennies over a long period to launch and complete their projects. That’s an amazing testament to the meaningfulness of our work, and despite the financial worries 83% are excited about the future of documentary and two thirds feels strongly this is a “golden era” for documentaries, according to the IDA survey. I share this optimism.

Dartmoor Arts Project, documentary filmmaking (Flickr).

One lesson from following courses at the Stanford Graduate School of Business this spring is that the entrepreneurial investment mindset in Silicon Valley is strongly focused on talented and passionate people, more than projects. Marrying your passion with smart strategic thinking may be the best way to attract investors in a media landscape experiencing continuous change.

If you are already making documentaries, or you are trying to become a player in this game, I’d like to hear from you.

  • What are the major challenges facing your project?
  • What would you add to my 10-point list?
  • What are you most worried about in the coming years?

I invite you to send me viewpoints, suggestions and comments for my continued research. Feel free to email me.

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