Want to get a documentary made?

Documentaries are powerful.

They truly do possess the power to change the world for the better, which is one of the many reasons I love them. A great example? The positive changes at SeaWorld, thanks to BlackfishIt’s inspiring that we have the potential to make a difference – both audiences and filmmakers.

Let’s say you have a story that you believe needs to be told.

You think this story would make a great documentary. You want to work with someone to bring it to life. Where do you start?

It can be a little overwhelming.

Here are a few thoughts that may be helpful.

Behind the scenes on Brewconomy, a documentary about NC craft beer.
Behind the scenes on Brewconomy, my documentary about North Carolina craft beer.

Keep in mind these are only my opinions, based on my years in the field and personal experiences. Don’t let these thoughts or suggestions be what gets written in stone for you. Really passionate people tend to forge their own paths. You can, too.

Without further ado…

1. What do you ultimately want to achieve?

Think about your goal in making a documentary.

When all is said and done, what do you hope will happen? Is it changing legislation, raising awareness, launching a career, or seeking fame and fortune?

There’s no judgement here.

Making a documentary may not be the best path for achieving your goal in the long run. Recognize that making a movie typically takes a lot of work, time, energy, and money. There might be other, more strategic paths that achieve the same thing.

Think through what you want to achieve.

Montagnard men drink rice wine. (Courtesy of the late Rev. Charlie Long.)
Photo found during my research on Abandoned Allies. Montagnard men drink rice wine in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of the late Rev. Charlie Long.)

2. Do lots of research.

Spend a hours, days, and months googling the subject matter.

What’s in the news? Has a film about this topic been made? Recently? Who made it? Was it well received, critically acclaimed, or winner of awards? If it does already exist, have you seen it and would you support it? Or do you want to make a new film with a different take on the same subject?

This ties back to your ultimate goal.

Let’s say your ultimate goal is raising awareness and a film was recently made about it. You can join the cause. For example, you can organize a screening of an existing film with a panel discussion afterwards (featuring subject matter experts) to keep conversations going.

Filmmakers need advocates like you to champion social change in their communities. If a film has been made about the same subject matter, it’s easier to join the existing cause than to create a new one.

That being said, if you have a fresh perspective on the same subject, then it might merit a new film.

3. Find advocates.

Let’s say you have done the research and you’re bent on getting a documentary made.

Now it’s time to start finding advocates. In your research, you probably found a few ideal candidates.

Advocates can come in all shapes and sizes, and from a lot of unsuspecting places. They’re the people who believe the film needs to be made, and they champion your efforts. They’re totally on board.

Look for advocates in the communities you want to serve. There are non-profits, small groups, and businesses that serve these existing communities. They can offer a wealth of information and they (hopefully) benefit from the story you’re telling.

4. Reach out to organizations.

Meet with some of the advocates.

Listen more than you speak. Put yourself in their shoes. Seek a deep understanding of the issues in their world, and what might come up while you’re making the film or sharing a finished film with audiences.

You’ll learn a lot in the process.

Photo from the March 2015 social.
Meeting and mingle with filmmakers at upcoming TriFilm Society events. (Photo of a 2015 social held at The Frontier in RTP.)

5. Look for ideal filmmakers.

Making a movie is a long-term relationship.

It’s been compared to war and marriage. You want the right partner.

Find a filmmaker with deep passion for the story, skills and experience to tell it well, and resources to make a great film. Look for signs of shared values: ethics, morals, ideals, communication stylets, goals, etc.

Not every filmmaker will want to tell your story.

Don’t get offended.

Embrace hearing “no” from people because it means you’re on your way to finding the right person to say “yes” (if you’re willing to stick with it). Remember, you don’t want just anyone telling the story. You want to work with the person you feel was meant to tell the story with you.

There’s an ideal match out there. Be resilient in looking for the right collaborative partner.

RESOURCES

If you live in the North Carolina area, there are some excellent resources for learning more about getting a documentary made.

You can join the TriFilm Society or attend upcoming events to mingle among the film and video professionals in our area. I created the organization in 2009 to help make resources, connections, and opportunities more accessible. It’s a great resource.

Also check out the Center for Documentary Studies, attend the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (or their events throughout the year), and learn more about the Southern Documentary Fund.

There are plenty more resources out there to help you!

KEY LESSONS

Making a top-notch documentary film can be a serious investment.

Productions like that often require lots of resources: time, energy, effort, and money. As a result, a lot of people may say “no” to making it, and that’s quite alright. Getting the film made can take years and lots of effort; but, you can forge a path forward if you really believe in the idea.

Here’s the thing, though.

You don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission to get a film made. You can use the resources you have available right now and start telling the story. It’s why I have been blogging for 10 years, making movies since 2007, made a documentary with my iPhone, and started the TriFilm Society.

If you want it badly enough, you can make it happen.

FEEDBACK

Tell me what you think.

Need more insights or resources? Want more firsthand stories about the challenges I faced while making my four films, or details on the two new films I’m currently working on? Do tell!

Use the comments to share your thoughts.

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