Navigating the Challenges of Professional Documentary Filmmaking

documentary filmmaking Apr 13, 2023
Jonny von Wallstrom

Making a professional documentary film

Are you passionate about documentary filmmaking but overwhelmed by its challenges?

Don't worry! You're not alone. For a long time, I struggled to make my films. I was ready to give up. But then I sold my film to Netflix, and my career skyrocketed.

It doesn't matter if you’ve been dreaming of making your film for 1 or 20 years. Everybody suffers from the same doubts and fears. That’s what I want to help you with. Together we can make your dreams a reality!

Let me explain how I turned my struggle into a Netflix blueprint that always works.

I have dreamt of making films since I watched Van Damme & Chuck Norris as a kid. I got so inspired I just wanted to go out and fight someone. Weird, I know. But not as weird as pursuing filmmaking. I was told there was a straightforward path to success.

1. Apply to film school.

2. Apply for film funding.

3. Make a great film.

4. Live happily ever after.

It turns out that’s not really how it goes… I applied to Sweden's top film school, a sure path to success. I was rejected. So I paid $8,000 for a film school to prepare for applying to the “real” film school. That didn’t help. I got rejected again. So, I gave up and decided to try my luck with film funding. Drum roll, rejected there too.

I kept making short films, hoping for a breakthrough. As the rejection letters flooded in, I wanted to quit. But then Robert Rodriguez's film El Mariachi inspired me. Like Robert, I decided to put my savings on the line to make a short film. The big goal was: to get into Festival de Cannes. I set off to shoot in the mountains of Sweden. 12 people isolated in a house, working incredibly long hours. We wanted to give up.

But we didn’t. We made a film. It forced me into bankruptcy & a temporary telemarketing gig to recover. But the film's acceptance into Cannes proved I did something correct. I followed this blueprint to make my first self-funded & self-shot doc: Zero Silence.

Also very financially UNSUCCESSFUL! Nonetheless, it sold to several broadcasters for peanuts. But I knew I was onto something. So I decided to make another doc with another bold goal: Sell it to Netflix

Guess what? It happened, proving the impossible. I’ve gone on to make several films from there. All with the exact no-budget blueprint. This is why it frustrates me when aspiring filmmakers are misled. Fed this illusion that filmmaking is easy. It’s not, but failing a lot will make you find a way.

Even though it can be challenging, especially for independent filmmakers who may need more resources, funding, or equipment, documentary filmmaking is an art that requires a mix of creativity and technical skills. The process involves researching, filming, editing, and ultimately presenting a story that can inform, educate, and inspire people. Despite these challenges, many aspiring filmmakers have a deep passion for the art and a determination to overcome obstacles to reach their goals.

Here are some tips to simplify the process:

  1. The hardest part is starting

    Every day, I find myself in a constant battle against procrastination. Through years of experience, I've discovered that getting started is the most challenging task on any project, especially those I don't feel like doing. It's all about taking that initial step. Once you do, your mind stops overthinking and effortlessly enters a flow state. So, embrace this practice: dive in and begin instead of dwelling on things. I guarantee you'll surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish.

  2. Outline your goals and vision:

    Before making a documentary film, you must have a clear vision and set your goals. This includes identifying the story you want to tell, defining your target audience, and understanding how you want to present your content. Developing a synopsis can help you organize your ideas and define the project's scope. Having a clear vision of what you want to achieve can help you to stay motivated and focused. Plus, a synopsis is the backbone of any great pitch proposal.


This Is How You Write A Great Synopsis in 5 Simple Steps

1. Find the hook, a captivating one-sentence logline.

- What makes your documentary unique?

- An unexplored topic?

- A fresh angle on a well-known subject?

2. Build a story:

- A character is in a zone of comfort.

- But they want something.

- They enter an unfamiliar situation.

- They adapt to that situation.

- They get what they want.

- But they pay a heavy price for it.

- They return to their familiar situation.

- They have changed as a result.

3. Write your synopsis concise & engaging, ideally one page. Consider that many readers skim, so use bullet points, short paragraphs, and simple language.

4. Remember, an excellent documentary tells a personal story that deeply resonates with viewers. Include your inspiration and connection to the subject.

5. Seek feedback from fellow filmmakers or industry professionals.

Focus on engaging the audience emotionally to win people’s hearts.


2. Collaborate with other filmmakers:

Networking and collaboration can benefit documentary filmmaking, especially for indie filmmakers with limited resources. Consider attending film festivals, industry events and joining online communities to connect with other filmmakers and share your work. Collaborating with other filmmakers can help you access resources and create something more significant and successful than you might do alone.


3. Develop a budget plan:

One of the biggest challenges of professional documentary filmmaking is the budget. Ensuring you have proper funding is crucial in producing your film project, but it's also essential to develop a budget plan covering all filmmaking aspects. Consider costs such as camera equipment, transportation, editing equipment, etc. Making sure you allocate your resources appropriately throughout the shooting process is key.

I know, super boring. But it’s crucial for selling a film. Grab this FREE budget template to get on track! Neglecting taxes or being overly optimistic can add up. This leaves networks concerned. I’ve often miscalculated editing costs & networks hate me for that...

8 money-saving tips

1. Plan, as sudden changes can be costly.

2. Be resourceful & use what you have.

3. Be realistic about your goals & available resources.

4. Partner to share expenses & reduce costs.

5. Seek a good deal with a post-production partner.

6. Find people willing to work for free against payment if it sells.

7. Apply for grants and funding to finance your project.

8. Opt for natural light instead of expensive studio lighting.

Predict these pitfalls to avoid jeopardizing your project!


4. Commit to a shooting schedule:

Creating a documentary demands significant time and calls for unwavering patience and persistence. Establishing a shooting schedule not only fuels motivation but also combats procrastination. Setting specific times and goals makes the process more manageable while facilitating efficient teamwork and coordination amongst the crew.


5. Get Creative with Finding Resources:

I understand your desire to bring your film to life and believe in its greatness, thinking that success will naturally follow once it's made. I, too, held this belief once, thinking that if I created my magnificent film, people would effortlessly grasp its brilliance, allowing me to continue making more. Alas, the industry proved to be a harsh reality check driven by market demands, something I had to learn through personal experience.

Every rejection I faced inflicted tremendous suffering, compelling me to summon the strength necessary to prevail. I've experienced bankruptcy once and teetered on the brink of it multiple times. While I still yearn to create films according to my artistic vision, I've come to realize that if I truly want to sustain my passion for filmmaking in the long run, I must find a way to secure the financial resources necessary. Unfortunately, many artists overlook this craft's essential business aspect.

I get it. It’s boring, I used to hate it too. But I want to help you out. Let's start with a special gift my FREE list of film funds.


10 Easy Steps to Funding

1. Create a clear vision, budget, and timeline.

2. Research grants aligned with your project's themes.

3. Contact grants to discuss their preferences—then tweak your application.

4. Use AI to speed up your application process.

5. Collaborate with relevant organizations to reduce cost

6. Seek free or discounted equipment rentals or post-production.

7. Use crowdfunding to build an audience & funds.

8. Host fundraising events to generate buzz & attract investors.

9. Attend film festival forums to learn the industry ropes.

10. Stay committed, refine your pitch, & keep making your film.


Thinking creatively about the resources you need to produce your film is essential. Consider contacting companies and individuals interested in partnering with you or sponsoring your movie. Also, take advantage of free or low-cost resources, such as film grants or film festivals, that provide resources and support for filmmakers. This might also look like working with crowdfunding campaigns or different film grants to help get your project up and running.

Making a documentary film is a challenging task, but it is a worthwhile one. The process is filled with challenges that require deep passion, dedication, and commitment. As an indie filmmaker, it's essential to know how to navigate these challenges, and this starts with having a clear vision and setting out your goals. Collaboration, developing a budget plan, sticking to a shooting schedule, and getting creative with resources are some of the key ways you can overcome the challenges of professional documentary filmmaking. Remember, every filmmaker started from somewhere, often from nothing. If you stay committed and motivated, you, too, can create influential films that can touch people's hearts and inspire change.



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