How to make a documentary film
I am tempted to call my documentary a complete failure.
I made a lot of mistakes making this film and I want to share them with you so that they can not be repeated. I will discuss how to make a documentary film, not in the usual way but share with you some unique tips I have learnt.
The first part below is mostly how I made personal mistakes in my life before and during the shoot, after that I write about how I sold the film, feel free to ask me any more questions on making the film. Think of this as a case study.
A few years ago I made a feature length documentary. It was the first feature length project I had made myself. I done an extensive amount of research before making the documentary it was if anything an experiment to see what I could do with the skills I had as a filmmaker. I graduated university a few years before making it and I wanted to see what I could create myself.
I completed the documentary within 6 months – researched, shot and edited it myself. It was a low budget film, Selling the film proved to be difficult but I managed to make some money back. I have decided that being honest and open about my experiences and mistakes would be more useful, this blog was created for me to share what I learn with others. If anything making this documentary was a terrible idea.
You learn more from your mistakes than you do your Successes
1. always tell a story you are passionate about
At the time when I decided to make this documentary I had found myself in a rut. I had been making a living as a Script Supervisor and I had realised that working within film was not for me.
I was unsure what I wanted to do next. I have always wanted to be a film director and thought that by working on film sets I would be able to work my way up the crew ladder. The problem is in show business there is not always a ladder to climb.
On realising that no matter how hard I work for other people there was be no gaurantee I would succeed, I became depressed. I was depressed that I had this life outline in my head that had all gone wrong. I wanted the film industry world to be structured and logical. I decided to make a documentary film because I didn’t know what else to do.
I made a terrible decision and made a film I thought I could sell (a history documentary) instead of making a film with a story I was passionate about. This is the worst mistake you could make.
Trying to sell a film you are not passionate about feels dirty
2. My mistake was giving into pride
I was ashamed that I left working on film sets.
I told some people about my decision to leave the film industry and everyone was disappointed. I was told it would be embarrassing to go from working on film sets to an ordinary job. People were disappointed in me (or was it in my head). I was told I was lowering myself and then my pride took over. I was ashamed to get a normal job and so I decided to start a business instead.
Unsure what to do I started to google for ideas on how a filmmaker can make money. And I came across a blog post by a man who had made a lot of profit making documentaries.
This man had made profit from his film but the profit had been very slowly trickling in over the years – too slowly. Also the majority of his profit would come from market stalls, literally standing at market stalls and flogging copies of DVDs like you would bananas.
I support myself financially completely, at this moment in time I had some savings but had to pay rent and bills every month so I needed to make a decision fast. I decided to make a film I thought I could sell.
The problem is online people like to sugarcoat the truth
3. avoid loan snakes fund the film yourself
My original plan was to fund the film with my own savings. Now here is where I made more mistakes. It is very embarrassing to say and I probably should put my tail between my legs and never work in film again. Now we are 2 years into the future and things are working out well but two years ago I was depressed and unsure where I was going in my life, when you feel like this it is easy to make mistakes.
Being depressed and desperate I found myself on a site that gave out small loans to young entrepreneurs. I hate that word entrepreneur and now I associate it with bullshit. The site itself did not mention a thing about money but posed itself as a place for young people to get advice on their careers. I emailed and they called me. A nice woman, bubbly, overly confident, she talked me through my ideas and she thought it was a good idea for me to make the documentary. She thought it was a fail safe idea, it turned out she worked for a loan company. She said that the loans had very low interest and that it would be a good idea for me to get one out. She talked me into getting out a loan.
Making and Selling the Film
4. Owning the rights to your own project
The film was shot and edited within 6 months. I filmed on a basic DSLR camera and recorded with a zoom mic. I enjoyed doing the interviews, but since I was not passionate about the subject finishing the edit was difficult. Everyone who appeared in the film signed a waiver form which would help with selling later on. You can download a copy of the waiver form here to use in your own film projects. Talent Release Form. doc
I own the rights to all material shown within the film, images, music and intellectual property. I wanted the film to be able to be shown anywhere TV or cinema if the opportunity came up. My film is not great but the quality at least is OK and people who have been interested in the subject matter have been happy with the film. I also got out Public Liability insurance prior to filming. I am from the UK so I did this through Bectu.
5. Selling the film what worked
Before I made the film I researched into shops that I thought would be a good place to sell the film on dvd. You can simple go into a shop and ask for the contact details of the person who buys the stock. Before I made the documentary film I had 10 shops listed who said they would sell my film. The problem was only 2 shops were interested after I made the film. Not because the film was bad People were just saying yes despite not really meaning it.
Shops did not care for the quality of the film just as long as the DVD design looked good
However with only 2 shops selling my DVD I made money. One shop has bought 200 copies the other 80. By getting your film into many shops it could be possible to make good money.
I had been told that selling DVDs at markets can still make you a lot of money. This proved to not be true for myself. I sold my film at a christmas market first. The cost of hiring out the stall was expensive, £50 per day and the market was not very busy. I tried out selling at a spring market later that year and didn’t sell a single DVD. I believe that the market culture has faded, some people claim online to have done well selling dvds at markets but I found it to be a waste of time.
- TV BROADCAST
Despite local television being interested I decided to not give up the broadcast rights to my film. The television station wanted my film for FREE but also wanted to stick commercial slots within it and make money themselves. A common problem with being an independent creative – people want everything for free. Recently a reader has sent me links to american TV stations so I will be trying out other companies this year.
I sold many copies of my film when I first launched the DVD but after the launch there was nothing. Selling anything online these days is not as easy as if you build it they will come. If I wanted to I could have spent the past year building a blog dedicated to my documentaries subject matter and gathered subscribers to sell it to. Since I was not passionate about my documentaries story I could not do this.
I learnt how to make a documentary film and sold enough DVD copies to make my money back. I learnt the basics on how to sell a film. I learnt a lot from taking the risks even if they were not so clever. In the future I wish to make feature films and I may have no choice but to sell them independently to make a profit.
From now on I will only tell stories I am passionate about. I would love to make surrealist and fantasy films, they may not be genres that sell easily but selling this film would have been a lot more fun if I had passion for the story.
Max Duplication (the DVD company I used, very good quality I paid £1.40p per DVD).