Producing your docuseries is a challenging but rewarding endeavor. It’s a journey that not all filmmakers want to take but it’s a great way to expand your documentary idea into long-form. Here are some tips on how to produce your own docuseries. Enjoy the ride!
5 Tips for Producing Your Docuseries
1. Killer Pitch
I really dread when people use the world ‘killer’ when they’re describing something really great or fantastic or when they want to boast about something. It’s probably me. I can be a little snobbish about language (and my musical tastes, for that matter), and for whatever reason when people say ‘killer’ it makes me want to pursue a quick retreat from discussion with this person.
However, I am somehow finding usage of the word ‘killer’ as an adjective in this instance very appropriate. Because, the idea here is to build out a pitch that is so damn good, that you will slay the dragons of distribution with their amazing idea for a docuseries!
When you go into a meeting with a potential funder, sponsor or distribution partner you have to be able to convey to them that your idea is worthy of consideration and their attention and collaboration. And you usually have a very limited amount of time to do it. So plan on building out a tight 10 minute presentation and then be ready for a lengthier discussion, should you be fortunate to be given more time. And part of this Killer Pitch is #2 on these tips…
2. Sizzle Reel
You’ve got to have the sizzle reel, #doclifers. This gives visual representation of what you will be conveying in your pitch. And it’s kind of like the adage of actions speak louder than words. You can sit there and tell an executive how amazing your docuseries idea is and why they should be the platform to jump on it while they can, but nothing is going to be effective in the way that your sizzle can be.
Your sizzle reel should consist of some of your finest moments from any filming that you have already captured. It should also consist of tidbits of story and thematic elements. What it should not do is tell a perfect story. We’re not looking for polished 10 minute documentary short. Save that for producing your documentary short and for the documentary film festivals.
I’ve made this mistake before when I’m putting together my video teaser or work-in-progress when I’m applying for documentary grants. The problem is that it doesn’t leave any room for imagination on the viewer’s part. They see the full circle completed, which, even if just subconsciously, doesn’t allow for them to see even greater potential for what it will become.
While a potential funder or investor wants to feel that you have a great idea and that you have the ability to pull a series off, they also want to know that they will be able to impact the project in some way ( and, possibly editorial input) and that it’s going to help your series reach it’s full potential.
3. Don’t Make Reality TV
While one can certainly see crossover between the genres of reality television and a docuseries, it doesn’t take much to see and feel the difference between the two types of filmmaking. For the most part, reality television sets up a premise – often with commercial interests in mind – and hires the talent who will most interestingly (i.e. commercially) tell the story of the premise. Through the course of the telling of this story, many many decisions are made by television producers – either on the fly or based upon production meeting notes – on things like story ideas, character arcs, locations, etc.
Whereas, the other has a premise, a few major players, with a much-more documentary sensibility or approach to it. That is to say, that while the characters certainly have story arcs, discussions and decisions are certainly made by the people making the series, the actual production of the series and what is being portrayed is a bit more true-to-life. Even if you’ve never worked in reality television or seen any sort of behind-the-scenes, it doesn’t take much for the lay person to note the subtle (and certainly not-so-subtle) differences between reality television and a docuseries.
Now, reality television wasn’t always like this. We had on documentary filmmaker and good friend, Brian Kimmel on the podcast last summer, and he was talking about how, as a doc filmmaker, he loved working reality television in the early days – that it allowed some interesting deeper character and story development, which was a nice option to regular commercial television – but how that had changed over the course of time, and had devolved into sensibilities and approaches that were very counter to documentary. In fact, to the point, where he wasn’t any longer really interested in working in reality television.
If it seems that I am saying this with judgment that is not my intent, and I apologize for this! Flint Town producer, Gary Kout, talks more fluently and certainly more diplomatically about the difference between reality television and long-form documentary in this podcast episode.
4. Secure the Rights to the Story
The last thing that you want to do is spend a bunch of time researching your topic, filming interviews, maybe even editing a sizzle reel, meeting with potential investors… only to have your chief subject or subjects at some point, tell you that they are no longer interested in having their story told in documentary. That they, in fact, have had a change of heart, and no longer want to be a part of your film series. Or maybe even worse, tell you that they’ve decided to instead sell their story rights to HBO Documentary, and thank you very much for your interest and time.
It’s kind of a tricky thing, securing rights for a documentary. And it’s not one that we always think of. We often associate story rights with the feature film industry or buying the rights to a novel for adaptation to screen. But, it’s a thing to consider in documentary as well.
Not unlike making sure that you have personal releases for your subjects, you want to make sure that you’ve something signed between you and your subject that allows you to tell their story. This protects you from your subjects getting cold feet midway into production or from other entities swooping in when they catch wind of your project and telling the story.
I had a mixture of both scenarios play out on a documentary project that a good friend and I were once doing about a potential Olympic wrestler… it was an awful scenario where we’d spent quite a bit of time filming with the subject in multiple locations around the country… only to have him not grant us rights to his story. He effectively completely handcuffed us when he decided that he should be making some money off his story, even though we were clearly paying for the production out of our own pockets, driving to and for Idaho, flying to Oklahoma City, sometimes doing the one-man crew thing.
He even not-so-subtly began mentioning that HBO Sports was inquiring about his story. We eventually had to give him a deadline in which he could sign or not sign the release. He missed the deadline and we decided that was too much. That working with him would become too difficult, or a liability. And so, unfortunately, this project that we were very into and hopeful for, never came to fruition. And for the record, nor did any HBO Sports deal happen or documentary about the person ever get made.
I don’t want this situation to ever happen to you, my fellow #doclifer. So you have a decision to make here. Yes, most of us recognize that giving money to a documentary story is a matter of documentary filmmaking ethics. However, we’re all being maybe a little naïve if we don’t think there is sometimes some exchange of money that is happening. I don’t know – and this is just for me, personally – I decided a long time ago that I would not pay any direct money to subjects that I was making a documentary about.
Sure, I could help with the occasional meal or travel costs, but beyond that was never going to be part of the deal. For myself, I believe that it changes the nature of the relationship, and so I don’t want to do that. You may feel differently about this, and in fact, you may feel that I am the naïve one! That’s cool. Regardless of where you might fall on this subject, you must get something in document form written up that allows you to be the person or company telling someone’s story. You’ve got to protect yourself, or risk losing our documentary project, potentially after you’ve already invested substantial time and money into the effort.
5. Be Friendly, But Don’t Be Their Friends
This is a pretty good rule to follow when doing a documentary film – and I’m sure we’ve mentioned it before – but it’s worth mentioning again. You are going to be spending a lot of time with your subject and subjects, so it’s pretty understandable if you’re friendly with them. And why wouldn’t you? You’re going to be spending an extraordinary amount of time documenting (intruding upon?) their lives. It’s only natural to be taking their well-being into account throughout production.
But there is a risk, if you get too close to your subjects, that some important content decisions be made that can negatively impact the potential of your series to tell a really in-depth and thoughtful story.
You don’t have to completely remove yourself from interaction with your subject – though that is certainly an option and one that some filmmakers prefer – but you can minimize the amount of interaction in a way that allows a story to play out or a subject’s life to continue as realistically or unfettered as possible.
So consider how and the type of interactions that you may or may not want to be having with your docuseries subjects. Your story will be thankful for it!