How to Write a Documentary Film Proposal

This is an excerpt from The Art of Film Funding: Alternative Financing Concepts, 2nd Edition by Carole Dean.  

Chapter 3 – THE PROPOSAL


Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart… Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

                           – Carl Jung


Reading proposals is a passion of mine, which is a good thing since I read over five hundred proposals and view over a thousand DVDs a year for my Roy W. Dean film grants. Filmmakers frequently ask me how they can improve their applications.

The Art of Film FundingFirst, remember, grantors or investors are usually under a deadline to read and make a decision on something that should never be judged: your art. Your potential funder is probably reviewing hundreds of proposals, one right after the other, so find a way to make your proposal unique.

I consider the introduction or synopsis to be the most critical element in the proposal. It is the first thing I read when I pick up a new film proposal because it tells me how compelling the project is and reveals how passionate the filmmaker is. It should tell me a visual story of the film.

Sponsors use the synopsis during the selection process as a way of categorizing and separating one type of film from another. If your synopsis is dynamic and is strategically placed on your application, it will remain active in the sponsor’s mind.

This is where your sticky story works for you. It’s important to have a concise overview of the film that gives us that visual description and tells a story with emotion, surprise, concrete information, credibility, etc. I can pitch you films that entered my grants over 10 years ago because I can remember a sticky story.

This is a visual industry, yet only 10% of the applications I receive include pictures, which always amazes me. Since the person reading your proposal is probably very visual, consider dropping a few pictures or graphics into your proposal.

How about submitting a picture of yourself with your application? Include a photograph taken during your last film shoot – something that shows you in action, behind the camera or giving direction. Even if it’s just your student ID, put that shining smile on the page and let us see who you are! Passion, perseverance, and personalization are what you need to win grants, so don’t be afraid to put your heart on your sleeve to win that grant!

How many grants have you entered? Tell us about them so we can see how determined you are to make this film. Do you really want this grant? Are you willing to dedicate the next three years of your life to produce this film? Find a way to communicate your dedication in your proposal. Include a personal film statement. Tell us what is driving you to make this specific film. That tells us you are in for the long haul. No matter if things get tough, this film is so important that you will not give up. I must feel that in your words.


Grantors want compelling films.

The first two paragraphs must be dynamite, knock me off my seat!

Be impeccable with the truth.

Do not commit to things you cannot do. Sponsors can tell when you are overstating.

Sponsors know if your budget is unreasonable.

A guaranteed audience, such as a commitment from a cable station, puts you on top. Or 3000 fans on Facebook for your film is very good.

Do you have a fiscal sponsor? If so tell us who they are or that you are looking.

Demonstrate solid marketing, distribution plans, and outreach distribution.

List names of your partners or sponsors for the film. We want to see a nice long list.

Have you secured a distributor or will you do it yourself? Tell us.

Bringing a scholar or expert on board as a mentor will shift the scales to your advantage.

Show how your film relates to the goals of your grantor.

Is your project one of a kind? If so explain and include support information.

If there are projects in the market place with a similar message or subject matter to yours, make sure you demonstrate how yours is unique.

Give specific information about your audience and include the full demographics.

Tell us all the social media outlets you will use to create your following for the film.

We want to know you have found your audience and they are following the film.

Attach letters from major donors to your application as a form of support.

Music and picture rights must go in the budget; they are expensive and
donors look for this.

Put your name and the name of your film on submitted tapes and on the outside of the DVD case. When donors are reviewing scores of tapes they often get interrupted and it’s easy to confuse DVDs.

Please don’t use insulated bags that are lined with that horrid, gray, fluffy stuff. Plastic boxes and bubble wrap are a much better choice.

More Suggestions

Mention any creative fundraising ideas you are using in your application. For example, filmmakers often barter with other filmmakers to get their projects completed. Donors like to see filmmakers who use creative funding techniques. If you are making a documentary on food, do you offer to cook a healthy meal for a $500.00 donation? Tell us your creative ideas for funding.

Tell us what you may be offering for large donations. We want to know.

I usually call my finalists and discuss their film application. When possible I give them guidance and suggestions on how they can improve their proposal. The most important thing I tell them is to submit again next year!

Cathryne Czubek, the producer for the wonderful film, A Girl and A Gun, applied three times before she won.

Cathryne Czubek, the producer for the wonderful film, A Girl and A Gun, applied three times before she won.

Something wonderful happens when you win one grant, most people win another or get some important recognition. It’s in the consciousness now and you are moving with universal speed to finish your film. You are in the “field of infinite possibilities” as Dr. Chopra says.

Winning one grant leads to success with future grants, so mention prior grants that you have won in your cover letter and any awards anyone on the crew has won.

Use a PR person to promote your accomplishments and you can easily pave the way for even more funding and distribution.

Avoid using technical jargon in your application unless your proposal is to a grantor who has specifically asked for technical information. The people reading it will not know what a 20 to 1 zoom is nor will they recognize the latest digital camera you want to use. This can be confusing and divert them from the real issue of your film.

A funder who was speaking at a conference I attended told the audience about an applicant who entered her grant seven times! Each time the filmmaker asked the funder how he could improve his application and he incorporated their ideas in his proposal when he applied the next year. The filmmaker finally won on his seventh try.

Many times the information given to filmmakers by grantors can improve the film so entering ITVS, for example, can benefit you with advice. I give a personal consultation to everyone who enters my grants. It is the reason you are entering, you want to win, right, but you also want to know why you did not win! That’s very important. Take everyone up on the consultation and take good notes, it will benefit you for the next grant.

Once you start on your journey you are committed. Never give up. You may have to apply several times but don’t despair. I tell filmmakers to stand by the suffragettes’ motto, “Never Give Up!”


If you have made mistakes there is always another chance for you… you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.
-Mary Pickford

Funding Outline

The following outline works well for funders. Use this guide as your standard outline and add additional elements according to each sponsor’s requirements:

LOG LINE & TITLE ( From Carole’s point of view)

The log line is a one sentence description of your film. I know you are saying, “But this film is too complicated!” You might as well make it a challenge to yourself because everyone has to do it. Finding the story points and creating your one liner will put you in good stead when you write your script. It’s the full story in a nutshell. When you think, “should I follow the main character’s wife?” read the log line. It’s there to keep you on track; it’s the backbone of your film. Richard Kaufman tells the story of the a writer who handed an envelope with “Romeo & Juliette on crack” sprawled across it. That sold his script. The film was Panic in Needle Park.

It’s a process. Write what you think are the elements of the film. The “who,” the person the film is about, the “what” that happens to him and the “how” it’s solved. This is way too much information but it can be a start. Then find the core of the film, keep removing words until you get down to one good sentence. This is the best tool you have for marketing your film, it’s your elevator pitch, it’s pure gold and totally worth the effort.

Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat! says that irony is the key element in your pitch. When you read Netflix’s outline on films you will agree that irony is the main ingredient. We love irony. So find that irony in your film and use it for your log line. Blake also says that on Saturday night when your friends are deciding on a film and you choose “Gunfighter” your friends will say, “What is it?” and if you can’t give them a good log line they will normally say, “What else is on?” This film just lost four customers because that log line wasn’t cleaver, ironic and engaging.

That’s how important this one sentence log line is. So please, write it first and stay with it.

Once you have a paragraph or even a few lines, you are moving in the right direction. Keep working to reduce what you have and make it shorter, smarter and ironic. You may wake up in the middle of the night with a great one liner, keep a pen and paper close to the bed, I do, and I get the best ideas in the middle of the night. Wayne Dwyer says that 3AM is the magic time and he gets up and uses that time to connect with the universe and write.

Log Line Examples:

The top student becomes the school slut to boost her popularity. Easy A career bank robber hits a roadblock when he kidnaps the bank manager and falls in love. The Town A backwoods Tennessee loaner plans his funeral while alive so he can attend! Get Low

You need to see the movie in your mind or part of it from the log line, that’s really what drives people to the movies and DVD rentals. This works when you are pitching studios, grantors and investors. They can usually tell who the audience is from a good log line and that’s the most important element to them. Just make sure the log line says what the movie is and we get a visual of the film.

Next is a title that will stick. Usually great titles are one word, some two words. Make it easy to remember. Word of mouth is your best marketing tool. When Jane tells Dick to see Remember Me, he has to remember it! Make brevity a key for your title.

Introduction/Synopsis (from Carole’s point of view)
Your introduction is the most important part of the film proposal (after your log line). Potential funders want to see two or three dynamite paragraphs that visually describe the film you want to make. If your project is a documentary, chances are you don’t know what the final product is until you’ve finished your final edit. That’s okay; just tell the story. People fund engaging stories. Don’t let them get lost in paragraph after paragraph about the history. Tell the story.

Creating this visual description of the film is an excellent exercise to help you, as the filmmaker, visualize what your story really is about and how you plan to tell the story. It is an exercise that will take your film to a new dimension. Focus on these three paragraphs because they are what make funders stop, sit up straight, and visualize the film with you. Once you’ve got our attention, we will read every single word. Follow Eva’s outline below. If your film is engaging, and you’ve put it into a concise outline, you will go to the top of the pile.

Background and Need

Acquaint the reader with essential information about the background of your story and your main characters. Don’t bombard the reader with information. Give them just enough detail to capture their attention and motivate them to keep reading.

Next, explain why you want to do this film and why it will be of interest to others. What specific concerns will be addressed and why? Who will benefit and how? What will your film accomplish? And, most importantly, who is the market for this film? Tell me that you know your audience. You have met them on FaceBook and connected to them so they are now sponsors of your film. Never say “everyone will love this film”. That seldom happens. Find your core audience.

Now you will insert the hook! You have already determined that your film fits the sponsor’s guidelines for funding. Now carefully study the sponsor’s mission statement and use it to create an original statement that demonstrates how your film relates to the sponsor’s specific goals and priorities. This is a critical part of your proposal and it is something that most of your competitors will overlook. I always know when you have read the guidelines for my grant because most filmmakers say,
“my film is unique and makes a contribution to society because….”. These are my criteria And they hang their film on my statement and tell me just how their film fits. This is very important to funders.

Approach, Structure & Style

This is where you will describe how to approach your story as a filmmaker. Structure is the framework that holds up each element of your story. Describe how your story will unfold and how the subjects will move through each of these elements from beginning to end. Is your story an intimate personal journey or an expose? Are you going to use narration? Is there a connective thread that will tie all of the elements of the story together?

Sponsors want strong stories that have strong characters. How will your subjects relate to each other and how will they impact the story? Will your subjects experience personal growth? Will they help others grow? How will they carry the story forward through the conflict, the climax, and the final outcome? How will your audience react to the dramatic tension and what will they learn by the end of the story? Describe how your film will stir viewers to action and inspire them to make a difference.

Documentaries can be character driven or concept driven. In America we love films that are character driven, whereas Europeans like concept-driven films more than we do. If your film is concept driven, I suggest that you take some of the characters and wrap your proposal around them for the American audiences.

We want to know who these people are. Are they fathers, religious, caring, giving people? Tell us the essence of the person and give us some visual description if you can’t put a picture in the proposal, let us see and feel your characters through your words.

If you are shooting life as it unfolds you may not know the final outcome. Explain this, then describe several possible outcomes and describe how you will approach each of these scenarios. Remember, a story does not have to have a clear-cut solution to have resolution. An open-ended film that leaves unresolved issues can be even more compelling than a story that reveals how the lives of the characters or events turn out.

Style includes all of the techniques that will give your film its own unique quality or tone. This might include camera work, lighting techniques, or your interview style. Include everything that will project your personal imprint onto the story. Avoid getting lost in a lot of technical detail. Instead, explain (show) how a certain technique or style will be used to carry the story forward or illuminate a specific character.

Avoid describing one specific approach unless you have completed all of your research and are convinced there is only one way you can tell the story. Research can reveal twists and turns that can dramatically alter your approach and changing approaches once a sponsor has already funded you can be sticky. If you are not sure which way you will approach your story, describe several approaches that you are exploring and explain how your subjects might respond to each of these approaches.

Coming up with an idea for a film is easy; nailing down the best approach is the hard part. If you have not decided on an approach, exploring and writing about different methods and ideas will draw you closer to your project.


The theme is what your story is about. If it is difficult to pinpoint an exact theme then your story is probably underdeveloped. Don’t worry, dig deeper and do more research. Your theme will emerge as you continue to research and write.

When I first started researching the idea for Searcher for Souls I concentrated on how the ongoing consequence of war affects a family for generations. It was an important theme but I knew something was missing. It was only after I went to Europe and spent two months researching my subject that another theme began to unfold.

Philippe Castellano is a French explorer who has spent over 20 years searching for lost American flyers who fell from the sky during the Second World War. As I followed and observed my subject I began to notice remarkable similarities between Philippe and the young American flyers he was looking for.

As you research your story, don’t forget to stand back and observe. Look for hidden themes that connect the elements of your story.

Audience, Marketing, and Distribution Your sponsors will want to know about your intended audience. Is your film about a subject that has worldwide appeal? Do you plan to target a specific community? Is it educational or commercial? How will the market support your audience and how do you intend to distribute your film to this audience? Give statistics that support the size of your audience and explain how your film will appeal to these audiences. Never say “everyone” will love this film. You need to know the demographics based on age, location, income, etc.

How have you approached distribution? Are you pursuing a specific network or cable television market? Does your film have a rental market? Will it be featured in public libraries, museums, or university collections? Will you enter your film in festivals? Sponsors want to see that you have a distribution plan and that you are exploring several options. Provide copies of letters of support from key individuals, networks, and anyone that can help support the fact that your film will be seen.


Your budget must be a reasonable projection of how much it will cost to produce, distribute, and market your film. Make sure your budget is consistent with the production ideas you have described. Explain where you plan to come up with the rest of the funds to meet your budget. This is also where you will describe how you will use the award if you should win.

Make sure you include a brief statement acknowledging the goals and objectives of the foundation and make it clear that you will use the award accordingly. Let the sponsor know how much you need this grant and that it will be used to create a film that will help advance their cause.

A film budget can have many hidden elements that can come back to bite you. If your budget is too big you might scare off a potential sponsor. On the other hand, if your budget is not in line with your production ideas a potential sponsor may feel you are too inexperienced or unrealistic. There are budget templates and budget software programs out there to help you create a budget. Entertainment Partners is a donor to the Roy Dean grants and we highly recommend them. They have excellent budget programs. Check them out at

Filmmaker’s Statement and Biography

Include a short biographical sketch of each of the principal filmmakers, with pictures if allowed. Describe any film grants that you have won and sponsors that you have secured. Be sure you attach the appropriate documents in an appendix.Include past awards and notable achievements as well. Attach letters of recommendation from industry professionals, letters from key officials supporting your project, and letters of support from industry mentors and advisors.

If you need to brush up on your writing skills Eva suggests William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, now available online at, and Purdue University’s online writing lab located at

Both of these resources feature search engines that allow you to easily find answers to your writing and grammar questions. Just remember, if you hire a professional writer to help you with your proposal you need to make sure your passion is projected in the final proposal.

The most important thing is never give up! Keep applying for those grants and keep your project in front of potential funders.

About Carole Dean

Besides writing The Art of Film Funding, Carole Dean is the president and founder of From The Heart Productions.  She conducts an Intentional Filmmaking Class that twice a year teaches filmmakers how to get funded.  She also is available for mentoring and consultations.