You need to make sure your reader can visualize your project as a completed film. A proposal does its job when it includes a strong narrative and clear visual approach. But how can you ensure your proposal is as effective as possible?
This page is intended to give you some pointers on how to write your proposal. Please know that there is no one way to write a documentary proposal. What’s most important is that you get your message across and make the reader both understand and feel what kind of documentary film you want to make.
Give a clear and simple description of your project. What is it about? What is the film’s subject (person, group, environment, social issue, etc.)? If your project is non-narrative or not character-driven, then what is your project’s concept, what are the themes you want to bring across, and how is it constructed? Keep it short and sweet.
A project description should bring your film to life and trigger the visual imagination of a potential film.
A project description can include background information, story outline, visual approach, main protagonists, access to protagonists/subjects, and director’s note. Try to capture the essence of your story in a couple of sentences. Provide a clear overview of what’s going to happen (or what you think will happen). Use the above-mentioned elements and link them in such a way that the tone and style of your story are palpable.
Story outline: Making a documentary film is unpredictable, so good research is essential to getting ideas on where your story can go: possible narrative trajectory, conflict, likely outcomes, and events that may occur along the way. Where does your story start and where does it end?
Visual approach: Describe the mood and feeling of the documentary film. How will you tell the story? Think about the use of sound, pacing, and rhythm, whether you will use interviews or not, whether the story is character-driven, etc. Don’t forget that the most important goal here is to help the reader to visualize your film.
The right combination of story outline and visual approach makes your film come to life. Is it poetic, a piece of art, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, or a mix? Don’t be vague. Aim for accuracy and simplicity.
Subjects/protagonists: Describe the main characters in your documentary film. Who is in front of the camera and why are you sure they’re going to work on camera? Why is their story so special?
Director’s note: Explain the unique selling point of your film. Why should this documentary film be made? Then provide your own motivation for making this film. What makes your film different from other projects, and why will international audiences want to see it? Explain why you want to make it, and why you’re the right person for the job.
Background: Any historical or other context relevant to understand the story.
Access: For most projects, access is crucial to get to the story. Describe the access you have to subjects/protagonists/organizations/locations included in your story.
A clip can make or break your project. Be critical about the clip/trailer or research material you choose. Show it to others before sending it with your proposal. This can be an edited scenes or a sequence, presentation of the character, trailer. Make sure the material is representative of the final film you have in mind and that the visuals synchronize with the written proposal. Otherwise, the viewer will get lost, and the project will lose its power.
Make sure to explain what kind of material you are sending. What should reviewers be looking for in your sample? What is present and absent in the sample, and how it will differ as a finished film? How it is representative of the intended story, style, subject, or other aspect of the project?
For Development applications: introduce story/mood/characters and show ability filmmaker.
For Production applications: access to characters, visual treatment, and the developing tone and style. For example, a completed scene can provide insight into the team’s ability to communicate their intention.
For Post-production applications: access to characters, story arc or concept, and visual treatment.
Questions to ask yourself while writing your proposal
Is this a film or a radio show?
What is happening on screen in addition to the historical context?
What’s the film’s style? How is the story told?
Who are the protagonists/subjects?
What are they going through? What journey are they going on?
What changes take place over the course of the film?
What makes your viewer want to keep watching?
What does the film tell us that we didn’t know before watching it?
How does the film touch us?
What makes this film unique?
Is the story strong enough to succeed in different places/environments?
How is it relevant now?
Is the proposed length appropriate for the narrative?
Why will it be 90 minutes and not 20?
Is my use of language simple and clear?
Reviewing your proposal
After writing your proposal, be sure to review it carefully. When reading over your texts again, one important thing to consider is that repetitions should be avoided in the text. Think of details such as names and ages of characters that are constantly repeated, or sentences that are reused in different sections.
This overview has been compiled based on information obtained from various sources, including the experiences of members of the IDFA Bertha Fund selection committee, presentations made by industry professionals, and information on the websites of partner organizations.