How To Survive The Making Of A Documentary

15 Essential Survival Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

How To Survive Making A Documentary

Are you stuck somewhere in the process of making your documentary? Have you lost confidence in your ability to finish the project? Or maybe you're just wondering how to get started.

There are all kinds of devilish issues that can sabotage your filmmaking efforts.

Here's a list of some of the most common pitfalls new documentary filmmakers face.

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⚠️ Common Pitfalls of
Documentary Filmmaking ⚠️

  • Little or no training in filmmaking and storytelling techniques

  • Lack of funding

  • Confusion over what kind of equipment to use

  • Getting caught up in the latest and greatest gear instead of focusing on the storytelling

  • Lack of connections to mentors, advisors, crew

  • Losing momentum and getting discouraged

  • No interest and therefore no understanding of business/marketing which is a crucial factor in getting your movie seen and sold (ie distribution)

  • Legal mistakes and copyright issues

  • Navigating from one stage to the next which often requires a wide variety and often conflicting set of skills (proposal/budget/grant writing, fundraising, tech/equipment savvy, production, scriptwriting, storytelling, editing, sales/marketing, social media, internet marketing, web site building, etc)

15 Essential Survival Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

1. Don’t Quit Your Day Job 

It’s the rare and privileged few who actually get to make a living making documentaries. 

2. Stand Out in the Crowd

Cheap video gear means a saturated market of filmmakers. It’s more important than ever to have a unique story, a unique pitch and a unique angle that will make you stand out.

3. Don’t be a lone ranger

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged during the documentary process. And making a documentary from beginning to end involves numerous skills. Focus on what you do best and delegate the rest. Of course, funding to hire these skilled jobs is always an issue. We get that. But remember this. People LOVE being involved in a filmmaking project (hey, it’s cool!), so find a student or friend to help you even for some small assignments.

4. Start building your audience early, communicate often

You’ll thank yourself at the end of the process if you do this. When you’re ready to fundraise or distribute your film, your social media followers will be the ones you count on for support, ideas and to help build buzz.

5. Anticipate distribution

Before you even start making your documentary, imagine where your film will be shown and what you hope people will do or feel after watching your film. Image the film playing up on the screen. Who’s in the audience? Why are they there? Will your documentary be shown at community centers or on broadcast television? Or perhaps it will be best suited for online viewing only?

6. Network & Attend Events

Join Forums. Find a supportive community that understands what you’re going through. Go to them when you’re stuck or lacking courage.

7. Anticipate the loss of momentum

At some point, you WILL ask yourself “What was I thinking!?” You will question everything about the documentary project. Think back to your original excitement and remember what made you so interested in the topic in the first place. Even if you can't re-ignite that passion, ask yourself what small step you can take right now to move the project forward. Movement has a funny way of getting you back on track.

8. Invest in quality audio gear

Go ahead, shoot with your old VHS camcorder, but do not, I repeat do NOT skimp on the audio. Buy the best microphone and audio recording set-up you can afford. Your audience will forgive bad video before they will forgive bad audio.

9. Set Goals

This is a no-brainer. Just do it.

10. Take baby steps

Ask yourself exactly what it is that's stopping you from moving forward. Break the problem down into manageable bits. For example, if you need $25,000 and are stuck finding someone who can donate that amount, ask yourself how you can get ten people to give $25.00. It's not $25,000, but it's a start and gets you moving in the right direction!

11. List "Five Quick Wins" and "Five Bold Moves"

This tip is from Morrie Warshawski in his wonderful fundraising book "Shaking The Money Tree". For example, raising $250 would be a quick win. Having these mini-successes can play a big role in boosting morale.

12. Set a small goal to complete THIS week

A BIG first step is to make a "teaser" or fundraising trailer. Producing something that is 1-5 minutes is much less daunting than trying to produce a 60-90 minute movie! For example, you could have your trailer completed one week from now! And that is a fantastic fundraising tool. Another thing you could do is come up with a list of people you'd like to interview. Choose one of them and go interview them! You could have that done in one week also!

13. Craft an elevator pitch (ASAP!)

As soon as you mention to someone that you’re making a documentary, they will ask what it’s about. Don’t get stuck giving a boring babbling answer. Crafting a great elevator pitch takes time. But it’s worth every second of effort you put into it. A great pitch helps you survive the inevitable naysayers.

14. Avoid Naysayers like the plague

Making a documentary is hard enough. Surround yourself with people who support your dream.

15. Be Kind To Yourself 

Forge ahead one step, one day, at a time and DON’T beat yourself up if you aren’t going as fast as you like. Learn to forgive yourself when things don’t go according to plan.


documentary filmmaking

Of course, there's always the chance that your original documentary idea is not panning out to be what you envisioned. And it's perfectly okay to cut your losses and try the next idea. Just make sure you're quitting for the right reasons. Sometimes the beauty of a documentary is that it turns out completely different than what you expected and can still be a great (if not better!) story.

So keep your head up, face your problems head-on and keep moving forward. If you do that, you have a great chance of surviving the documentary filmmaking process. 

Want To Become A Full Time Documentary Filmmaker?

A key survival skill to working as a full time filmmaker is learning how to generate cash flow for your projects. That means fundraising and putting together winning proposals/budgets/pitches.

If you're not sure how to do that, we've got you covered with our FREE Documentary Budget Cash Flow Worksheet and Tutorial.

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