Filmmaking Amateur
13 Common Mistakes Made by the
First Time Documentary Filmmaker

There's a lot to learn when making your first documentary and it's easy to make some common filmmaking amateur mistakes.

Signs of a filmmaking amateur:

  1. No Clear Vision - There's no clear vision for how the film will be used in the end. Is the goal a theater release, to be bought by a national broadcaster such as HBO, is it for PBS? Or is it a packaged educational piece to be sold to schools? Perhaps it is simply to showcase to family and friends. Or will it be a mini-documentary for the web only? The point is that if there is a certain goal in mind, the documentary can be crafted from the very beginning with the end use in mind.

  2. Skimping on production -- For the filmmaking amateur, lack of money is a very real issue. It can often be the filmmaker with a camcorder and that's it. And if that's all you've got, then go for it and do your best. But realize that when you're back in the editing room with an interview that's badly lit or the sound is terrible, it's going to be torture and you'll be kicking yourself for not making the extra effort to get the shot right. Do everything you can to get the best quality footage in the field.  

  3. Underestimate the value and importance of a trailer -- An effective trailer can be the difference between your documentary getting made or not. A trailer can help you raise money, support and publicity.

  4. Shooting way too many interviews -- A typical documentary might only profile 7-10 people. More than that and an audience gets lost. Filming more interviews than you need is normal, but a filmmaking amateur goes way overboard.

  5. Creating a business plan -- Many first time filmmakers are enthralled by a certain documentary idea, but with no sense of who will be interested to see it when it's done or how it will be distributed. If the project is purely for joy, then skip this part. But with just a wee bit of foresight, you could potentially gear your idea to a particular audience where your film could be of value and help generate income for yourself. Make a list of all potential buyers before you start making the film.  Check out our Documentary Proposal Template for guidance.

  6. Not Using Facebook -- Old school filmmaking involved making the film and then releasing it to the public when it was done.  Those days are gone! A big mistake filmmakers make is waiting until the film is completed to start promoting it and building an audience.  As soon as possible create a Facebook page for your documentary and start building your audience by involving them in the process.

  7. Funding -- Raising money is much much harder than you can imagine. Prepare yourself mentally ahead of time that fundraising will be a long tough road. Put together a fundraising team if at all possible. Get more tips on documentary fundraising.

  8. Underestimating distribution and marketing -- Once the film is complete, now your second job begins. Oh boy! If you care at all if anyone sees your documentary, you will have to do a lot of work to get the word out and promote your movie. That can mean everything from film festivals, to creating postcards and posters, doing a public relations campaign, interviewing with media, social media outreach, speaking to groups, etc.

  9. Lacking courage -- Some documentaries will require you to go outside your comfort zone. Do it.

  10. Underestimating how long it will take to complete the project.

  11. Thinking about music last instead of first.

  12. Lack of planning -- Don't start shooting without a plan.. this is a typical filmmaking amateur mistake. Think about some creative storytelling techniques around your subject. For example, if you know the title of your documentary, have your interviews work the title into their answers. Stop motion is another great visual hook, as well as animation. What about skits that illustrate certain points of your documentary. With the documentary Young @ Heart, the filmmakers had their elderly subjects perform in music videos that weaved in and out of the interviews and storyline.

  13. Signed Releases - If you ever hope to have your documentary broadcast on TV or sold on DVD, you'll need signed releases from your interviews stating you have their permission to use their image. Read more about legal, consent and copyright issues

So those are some common filmmaking amateur mistakes. 

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