The filmmakers contacted me with excitement and passion in their voices; they stepped on each other’s sentences as they pitched me their project over Skype. They were ready to embark on their third documentary project. They had a great subject, they believed in it deeply, and they had some financing.
“Can you help us?” they asked. “Our last film barely made a ripple, and we were lucky to get this one. We really want it to work. What should we do?”
It’s a question I confront regularly in my advisory work for filmmakers and their financial backers, as we try to determine the realities of the movie-going landscape. Is there a way to decide if you should go ahead and make a documentary?
We are living in the Golden Age of documentaries; more excellent docs are made today than ever before. Next month, at the Sundance Film Festival, we will surely see another crop of powerful, important and inspired documentary film work.
Yet, not all documentaries succeed, in terms of their intended audience or financial impact. Therefore, I’ve developed seven criteria to assess if it makes sense to go forward with a doc. While these are not hard and fast rules, they are directional, in that if you have great answers to at least four of these seven criteria, you should probably take the next step forward.
I would value input on these criteria from documentary filmmakers, distributors and the financiers that support them.
Top 7 Reasons You SHOULD Make a Documentary
1. You want to have an impact and put your subject on the national agenda. There is no better, more powerful way to place your subject on the national (or international) agenda than to make an excellent documentary. A feature-length doc is long enough to be detailed and comprehensive, so you can pack in enough information to make your case, and it is better than having the definitive book on the subject, because a feature doc is a more populist medium: more people will watch a movie than read a book.
Moreover, it is economical. How better might you send your message to your audience? Contrast the cost and impact of a doc with buying some television advertising; television ads are the tactic most employed by political and special-interest groups to share their messages. For the cost of a few 30-second commercials on a national television show, you can make and market your doc, and people will see it and talk about it. As for the TV commercials, people will fast-forward through them or go to the bathroom while they are playing. Making a documentary is the most financially efficient way to share what you have to say.
2. You’re supported by a non-profit. Some of the most viable documentaries have non-profit organizations backing them. This is one of the best business models for documentaries, because a non-profit’s purpose is primarily to share its message and services, not to turn a profit. When non-profit money backs a doc, the non-profit organization gets the most compelling way to tell its story. Then, if for-profit investment comes in beside the non-profit money, the for-profit investors can have a better chance of getting their money back and making a profit, because they can recoup ahead of the non-profit.
For example, I have worked on a feature documentary for which 80% of the budget was funded by a non-profit, which wanted nothing more than a great movie. Twenty percent of the funds came from for-profit investors, who were in a better position to recoup their investment, because the movie only needed to make a fraction of its cost for them to get their investment back. Everybody wins in this model.
Assuming you know your audience, do you already have a relationship with them? Do they subscribe to your newsletter, belong to your organization, follow you on social media, come to your events? If so, and if your audience is already large enough to support an opening weekend in a few theatres, you’re in a good position to move forward.
4. You have a charismatic star. Before embarking on any movie, you have to have your cast. Documentaries are no different, except that in the case of docs, your “star” won’t be a famous actor: it will be someone we have probably never heard of before. Yet the question remains: Will the audience want to spend an hour and a half with this person (or with the group of people) you are focusing on?
There is only one way to know for sure: You have to shoot an “audition” video, where you follow the subjects of your doc for a little while, then cut a short reel together and look at it objectively, and also share it with third-parties to get their unbiased reactions. If the people you’ll be making your documentary about are fascinating on-camera, you have your stars. If not, and you’re committed to the subject matter, you would be well advised to find other people to feature in your doc.
5. You have the right kind of crowdfunding support. Crowdfunding, through Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other sites, has become a staple of the indie doc world, yet its importance is often misinterpreted. The greatest value of crowdfunding is not getting some money; the greatest value is connecting with your audience. Therefore, it is better to get more people donating less money than to get a few people donating more money.
Potential distributors, both theatrical and VOD, look at the raw number of people who have contributed to your crowdfunding campaign. With a larger number, you have a better shot at solid distribution.
6. You have your money. It’s a sad meme in the indie doc world: filmmakers who are out of money. This generally happen for two reasons. Either they plunged ahead without a plan, or they didn’t put together a comprehensive budget and get all the money they would need to finish, market and get their movie in front of audiences. I do understand that it is tough to raise money, yet people and organizations do it every day. The number of docs that are made is staggering. Even more staggering is the number of docs that are started and stopped incomplete, and now repose on hard drives in storage units, never to see the light of day. If you get together all of the funds you will need before you start, then you can guarantee that you will actually finish.
7. You have a distribution plan and the budget for it. It is no longer acceptable to make a documentary and pray that some angelic distributor will swoop in and take care of marketing and distribution. It happens rarely, and when it does, the economics frequently do not favor filmmakers or investors.
Instead, as part of your capital raise, you should gather enough money to market and distribute your doc with your own team. In this way, you can assure your investors they will have the opportunity to get their money back (they would have no chance of doing that if your film does not get distribution). You also will position yourself well for the happy, occasional situation when an angelic distributor does come calling, because you will either be able to return your marketing and distribution money to your investors, or you will be able to use it to craft a better deal with the distributor. That, too, is a win for everyone.
Taken together, if you have at least four of these seven reasons, I think you have a good shot with your project, and you should take the next step. But you also may want to wait… Read the Top 5 Reasons NOT to Make a Documentary.
Featured image: A scene from ‘Rich Hill,’ a documentary by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, that premiered at Sundance, 2014.