Do you have a nonfiction idea, perhaps even a completed and published book, that you’d like to pitch as a documentary for film or TV? The world of the silver screen may feel scary. However, while there are differences between nonfiction publishing and screen documentary, there are also similarities. You can build on what you already know for a successful documentary pitch.
Publishing Versus Documentary
One major difference between book publishing and documentary is the money. On the one hand, documentaries pay better than books. On the other, the higher costs mean there are fewer made, making for a more challenging market!
Commissioning documentary editors also expect a high level of cinematic and narrative excitement. But if you have the right project and the right approach, you could end up with a successful documentary pitch.
Finding Your Pitch
Nowadays, pitching documentary focuses almost invariably on narrative. This applies even for science and arts. There is little room in today’s media for the leisurely trawl through a subject. You need a strong story. If that describes your book, then great. If not you’ll need to dig out narrative thread to stitch it together with.
Almost always, it still boils down to 'What is the story?'
Award-winning documentary writer-director
Take a good look at your material. Is there a good story to be found in it? You may be surprised. A great documentary could be constructed around a relatively small part of the original work. Perhaps a dynamic character or dramatic situation which can be used to draw in an audience.
Do Your Research
In developing your pitch, your most important research tools are the cinema and TV listings. Study them with care. Ask yourself which you feel would attract an audience and why.
Most writers don’t do enough research into what audiences watch these days. You need to know as much about what’s being made in your chosen genre as the producer you’re pitching to.
When you find another documentary in your genre, learn as much as you can about the producer and production company.
These will be the people you’ll be pitching to. And you’ll need to match producer to project. No point in trying to sell a biography of Mahler to a company that makes nothing but X Factor clones.
The Log Line
Before you approach them, though, you’ll need what the industry calls a ‘log line.’ This is a single sentence, two at the most, which describes the heart of your idea.
Keep your log line succinct, clear and conversational. Unlike publishing, film and TV favour the face-to-face pitch. And even if your initial pitch is by email, your producer will need the log line in order to talk to others higher up the food chain. They'll use the log line when they take your documentary pitch to commissioning editors, financiers, distributors, etc.
You’ll already have seen many of these log lines. They were the blurbs in the film and TV listings.
Go back and have another look at how they work.
You’ll find that most log lines begin with the genre. That way the recipient of your documentary pitch immediately knows what you’re selling. To leave out the genre is to risk being like the car salesperson who spends half an hour giving her best spiel only to find the customer wanted a bike all along.
You’ll recognise many genres from books. You'll see educational and arts and historical and crime. However, reality TV has become the most popular. To the point that it is hard to find interest from TV channels for any other kind. At least at the point of this writing.
At the heart of a reality documentary, you create a situation and then follow it. You might arrange, say, for people to swap places or learn a new skill in a short period of time.
For example, in the series The Secret Millionaire, a millionaire goes undercover to work with a group of deserving volunteers. At the end of each programme the secret millionaires reveal who they really are and decide whether to make significant donations of money.
The attraction of reality TV as a documentary genre is that it promises something exciting to watch on the screen. Does your book lend itself to finding a reality TV slant? If so, you’re in a strong position to interest a producer with your documentary pitch.
That’s not to say that you can’t sell a documentary about (say) a historical event or an arts movement, but you will have to come up with a way to make it visual.
It will also need to have a compelling subject. You may be entranced by the central character in your biography. But will enough people have heard of her to guarantee an audience on screen?
Outer Goal, Inner Character
Having established the genre, the rest of your log line sentence should briefly and clearly outline the following:
- Who or what the documentary is to be about.
- What the characters involved want or fear.
- How you expect them to be challenged and possibly even change.
This is the heart of any story.
You have to have a clear conflict and an expected outcome. A goal that’s being aimed for or a big change.
Award-winning documentary writer-director
For example, the cinema documentary pitch for Touching the Void might go something like this.
"The dramatised true story of two climbers who conquered one of the most difficult peaks in the Peruvian Andes only for one to fall off a cliff leaving the other to make an agonising decision: abandon his friend? Or try to save him and risk both their deaths."
If your topic is abstract, such as science, you’re still probably going to need characters. Researchers, people affected by the issue, and so on. Your documentary will come to life most strongly if you can show us their experiences, setbacks, and discoveries in a human and engaging way.
A prime difference between a #book and a #documentary is showing how you intend to make your documentary work on screen. #documentarypitch #nonfiction #asmsg #indieauthor
Putting Your Story on the Screen
A prime difference between a book and a documentary is showing how you intend to make your documentary work on screen. There are a number of possible approaches, which can be used in a variety of combinations. But beware, they each have their pitfalls.
- Talking head, i.e. interviews. Hated by producers who believe (not without cause) that it leads to static and flat filmmaking. They can work, though, with an absolutely captivating subject.
- Celebrity presenter-led. Very popular at the moment, but you’ll need at least a written agreement of intent before you pitch.
- Archive footage. Brings a story to life, but it has to be good.
- Live footage. Often the best way, but you need to be able to convince the producer that you have access to the people and places needed.
- Authored. The filmmaker becomes part of the story. Such authors are usually celebrities in their own right.
You and Your Documentary Pitch
For all the challenges, what you have on your side for your documentary pitch is your experience and the research you’ve already put in. You’ve written the book or at least know the territory.
Choose your target producers carefully. Address them by name, never, ever a generic Dear Sir. Flesh out your log line with two more–short–paragraphs that show:
- Why you are approaching this producer, and
- Why you are absolutely the right person to be writing this film.
Stand back and ask yourself whether you really have created the most compelling pitch you can.
If you haven’t, go back and fix it.
If you have, go out and start pitching.
Adapted from Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV