1. Is your idea original?
If your idea is based on an event or person or secret that you have unique access to it stands a far higher chance of interesting commissioning editors than if it’s something that already widely in the ether. Anything that was sparked by a newspaper item or something you saw online, chances are, hundreds of others are thinking along the same lines. Don’t panic! Try and think of an angle that’s a lot less obvious, e.g., another person’s point of view or what (really) led up to the event. So unless you can’t come up with anything that isn’t readily available, don’t make it your number one priority.
2. Has your subject already been covered?
One way to find out is to brainstorm as many relevant keywords, key names and key places associated with your idea, then Google them relentlessly. This should reveal other programmes or fictional treatments of your subject, or ones very closely related. In which case you’re equipped to take a different tack, or demonstrate that you’ve done your homework and have a new angle to promote. This research will also undoubtedly throw up some new ideas and leads for your story.
3. Where do you find relevant information?
Another way to discover whether your subject has be covered before is to go straight to the archives of the broadcasters you’re thinking to approach. And no, we’re not going to tell you how. That’s part of being a good researcher!
4. What are the latest commissioning priorities?
Look very carefully at the various strands and slots that each possible broadcaster is commissioning for. This information should be available on their websites. Read about them in detail: content, style, length, whether they allow overseas filming. Are they contemporary, people-led stories, historical, geographical, etc? Watch several of each of the programmes already made for any possible strands and learn how and why they fit the brief. Are they complex, multi-camera shoots? One or two person teams out in the wild? Do they use a lot of archive? Write down everything you notice and then see how it fit with your premise.
5. Does your idea work visually?
Lots of documentary ideas just aren’t that exciting in terms of images. You may have plenty of interesting people to interview, but how will you fill the screen with anything but talking heads? If it’s a historical story involving people – e.g, True Crime? Or if it is about a significant place and time, might dramatic reconstructions be the best way to illustrate key events or interactions – a court case, for instance? If so, this instantly impacts on your budget – and your skills as a director! Perhaps your idea is better suited to a radio documentary, or long-form podcast?
6. Do you have access to the people you will need in your documentary?
You can’t assume that key people will be willing or available to participate in your great work! Don’t make promises you can’t keep, either to people you approach in the hope they’ll take part, or to commissioners, by assuring you have things nailed down when you don’t. This can be a tricky area to navigate. You want to be sure the people you need are articulate, clear of memory and able to speak without rambling. Are they honest (unless the fact they aren’t is the point of your piece), and actually have the information you need them to share! It hardly needs saying, but people who are ill or near the end of their life are the biggest risk. Getting a commission takes time.
7. How much work should you do before contacting a commissioning editor or pitching an idea?
The simple answer is, it’s hard to say! Make sure you have a solid premise and enough hard data to make a convincing and compelling pitch. You need to have established that you can get access to the people, places, even countries that you’ll need, including that you can get all necessary permissions to film. You have to have at least a working idea of whether you can use certain other material, such as written works, art, photography or archive film, which may be under copyright. And you need a good grasp of what any of these elements might cost you.
8. Is your idea tied to a time of year or anniversary?
If so, it’s likely more people will be focused on the same celebration or event and bombarding commissioners with ideas. Unless you have something really unique up your sleeve, or can get the ear of the commissioning editor long in advance, your chances are slimmer than with a programme that could go any time. Unless reacting to a very recent news event, things are usually planned long in advance. Don’t expect your idea to be snapped up if it needs to be filmed in a couple of months’ time.
9. Are documentary festivals worth it?
It’s a matter of personal taste. It can be overwhelming to see just how many talented, ambitious people are chasing the same dream as you. Many will have come a long distance, even from overseas, at their own expense, determined to attend an event you weren’t sure you could be bothered with. Try to have a clear idea what it is you hope to get out of it before you commit to the ticket, travel and accommodation involved. Are you planning to network? If so, is there an opportunity to do so, or will you spend three days hanging out with others who just want to drown you with their own ideas? Is there a pitch session? Face-to-face meets? Is it an opportunity to see the work of other documentary-makers, to see what wins prizes, or to listen to panels of commissioners telling 500 people what they’re looking for…? Festivals can be draining and dispiriting, or they can be inspiring, a shot in the arm and leave you bursting with ideas and hard information. Often, they’re both!
10. How do you cram a beautifully crafted documentary pitch into the tiny questionnaire the commissioning editors have put online?
The simple answer is, you can’t. A great deal of factual commissioning is done this way now, and there is often no opportunity to meet the people who make the decisions face-to-face. This is why you need to learn to distil the information you’re sitting on into a truly stunning piece of temptation. Practice whittling your pitch down to a single sentence, and a single paragraph. Trim anything you can, and use very well chosen irresistible words. Add the key elements that show you’ve got enough to go on: The people, places, facts and of course the story – your unique take. Have a realistic idea of the budget.