Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.





A Ready Documentary Proposal

I have been working with a researcher on a proposal for a new documentary project. It's a bit of a documentary spin-off, if you will, ‘cause it has to do with Shakespeare in an unusual setting. Anyways, she and I have been going back and forth on research and proposal writing for about 2 months now. At our last meeting, she asked me, “So how do you know when your proposal is ready?” Great question!

At this point we have gotten the proposal into a rough draft form, and what it really needs now is a paragraph by paragraph, followed by a sentence by sentence, fine tuning.

But let me back up a bit. How did we get to this point in the first place? Well, it has gone something like this:

-Actually had this idea 5 years ago when I was making Shakespeare Behind Bars. So it went into the ideas folder.

-On summer break from teaching last May, I went to the ideas folder and came across this idea.

-Sweated over giving the potential subjects a call for few weeks, so did a bunch of research on them before the call.  Knowledge is power!

-Sent an email outlining the project to them, and asked to set up a call.

-They emailed back an enthusiastic response (phew!).

-We spoke on the phone, all went well. They suggested we come for a visit.

-Jilann and I went for a visit in August, met many potential subjects, everything still looked very positive.

-Back to the drawing board-started doing research and writing out ideas for the film. Began working with researcher to come up with an outline, and then drafts of proposal.

If you want more info on how to develop an idea, check out our Documentary How To on idea development.

And that’s where we were last week when she asked me, “So how do you know when your proposal is ready?” My first reaction was, ‘you feel it in your gut—your intuition tells you when’. And by that I mean every sentence, every word flows from one to the next, and the proposal is lean but hearty, dramatic but not overly so, authentic while really just being a prediction of what may happen.

It's not an easy process to write a proposal, but it is an absolutely essential part of the filmmaking process. A treatment of some form, whether its ever shown to anyone else or not, is a necessary part of figuring out what the film will or can be. Being without a proposal is like going on a camping trip without any gear. You have to be prepared—it’s not a matter of just going out and starting to film and hoping to find the story that way.  You must figure out the story's potential, as well its pitfalls before hand.

Basically with a proposal you are trying to find the essence of the film, and put that into written form. By going through this process of committing to paper what you see the film to be, it helps you figure out your vision, your premise, your themes, your goals, your audience, and on and on. By putting thought into all of these ahead of time, you save time in the long run, because you focus yourself on the essence of the project. Of course that can change as you go along, but the important thing is you are beginning with a plan.

I guess another answer to her question would be you know when a proposal is ready when the funder gives you money. But really that’s only when YOU have done the work of finding the idea, getting permission from the subject(s), and writing a great proposal.

If you want more info on how to write a great proposal, listen to our Documentary How To: Documentary Producing 101.

You can also become a member and hear a great DOC TALK with a well-known funder, who offers up lots of great proposal writing info (in the DOC TALK archive).  Join our mailing list to be notified about our next DOC TALK. 

Good luck!  Hank