how to get your doco film to a wide audience

You’ve just made a documentary that you are passionate about, and are ready to show it to the world.  Now what?

Getting a documentary film made by a newcomer noticed and accepted by a distributor is tricky business. Mainly because there is not much money to be had for documentaries – licence fees for documentaries are very low in proportion to budgets – but mostly because many broadcasters produce their own content or commission documentaries, so they very rarely buy them off the shelf.  When they do, they’re very picky.

If you are lucky and get a distributor, expect a fee of something around a flat rate of 30% (no deduction for expenses in that case), or 25% plus costs, and a 3 year exclusive term of representation.

Unless your doco has won awards or has proven to be controversial enough elsewhere to be in the same category as Micheal Moore‘s (eg. online sales through the roof), you stand little chance with traditional avenues.

However, the collapse of old models and the emergence of new media mean there are more opportunities than ever before.  And even better, the filmmakers now have the freedom to make their own rules for distribution of their works!

So, before you get discouraged about the chances of selling your masterpiece to a major broadcaster, consider that you can also manage the distribution process yourself (or with a bit of help) by:

  • Selling the film as VOD online – pay to view download (this is how “The Secret” did it in the beginning);
  • Selling the DVD via your website, eBay, Amazon, FaceBook etc.
  • Showcasing it at relevant film festivals;
  • Pitching at international markets such as MIP TV, MIPCOM, BBC Showcase etc;
  • Travelling around with the doco, showing it at various art-house theatres;

All of these options do require quite a bit of effort and creative cross-marketing on the Social Media platforms, but the pay-offs can be amazing.


Whichever approach you consider, remember that an independent, non commissioned documentary that is looking to make a reasonable return should either have a highly saleable subject matter, or serious likelihood of major awards.

At the very least, your Executive Summary (my template at Scribd) of the proposal will need to include:

  • Title.
  • Exact duration.
  • A short, 25 word log line.
  • A one paragraph – no more than 250 word – synopsis of the concept.
  • Short bios of key creatives i.e. Producer, Director, Writer (good idea to include their short CVs).
  • Full contact details of the distributor, including postal address.

ALSO in your letter/email:

  • Which documentary slot you are submitting an idea for.
  • Year of production. (NB: Many broadcasters do not consider programs more than couple of years old.)
  • Details of any festivals or broadcast screenings and award nominations/wins.
  • Links to additional online content, including trailers.

Other points to consider:

  • Keep your proposal brief, concise and clear. This is more important than something pretty, glossy or bound. Your focus is your work and its benefit.
  • Focus on the purpose of the project. What is it trying to say? Why did you make this documentary? Why is it important?
  • Convince through facts, rather than emotion, the obvious connection between your work and the potential audience.
  • Your interpretation of audience must apply to a demographic and not just to a television audience and ratings.

Describe the Project

  • A Synopsis, or a 250 word summary,  includes the story or issue, why it is of interest and most importantly, what will be the impact of the documentary?
  • You may want to provide a five hundred word outline as well.  The Project Outline indicates a problem and presents a solution. Where does the story take us from to?
  • Are there any other pending broadcast arrangements and if so with who?
  • A good submission is a reflection of a well-planned project , including a plan to reach a wider audience ie. merchandising.

Why Now?

  • Highlight the need. Whom does this issue or film affect? Include where the research comes from: facts, figures and references (this may be written or anecdotal).
  • Outline the value of your documentary to your target audience.

Who are You?

  • One page of information about yourself and your company or organisation including what you do more broadly (including other projects or previous work), key personnel, company members, a history of your organisation or your own work, your philosophy or mission statement, evidence that you are connected to a community of interest.
  • Outline the ability of your team to carry out the project. Are there issues of access? If so, highlight how you have been able to gain this access.

Copyright Clearances

Bear in mind that no festival, broadcaster, theatre or distributor will consider a documentary film if all literary, visual (as in photographic), audio and video material used does not have cleared copyright.

Assignments of rights should be in writing and signed by both parties – the assignor and assignee – and should be for the rights to exploit the material in every imaginable manner, including in ways that have not yet been invented at the time of the assignment.

Movie Popcorn

Selling to Broadcast Stations

If you’re still determined to submit your brand spanking new documentary to a major broadcaster for consideration, first ask yourself, “Is my doco of a high standard?”  That includes all elements: story, visual, audio, editing.

Most channels are inundated with submissions, so before submitting a program it is a very good idea that you first familiarise yourself with their current content and if available, take the time to view the showreel on their web page.

In general, all broadcasters evaluate programs according to the following criteria:

  • Their schedule requirements;
  • Their broadcaster Charter;
  • Whether the program suits one of the schedule’s established time slots. (NB: Good programs can also be rejected if there is no free suitable time slot);
  • The quality of the production;
  • The program’s relevance to country’s viewers;
  • The program’s appeal to a particular demographic;
  • That program adheres to their Editorial Policy guidelines;
  • Whether the program is innovative in its style or content.

What channels will pay for a broadcast hour documentary varies from channel to channel, as well as from country to country.  USA pays much more per hour than Australia, however the exact figure is based on a broad array of commercial and programming considerations, as outlined above.

According to WestDoc 2013 (West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference) Co Founder Richard Propper (also CEO and Director, International Licensing and Acquisitions at Solid Entertainment, a sales agency specializing in documentary films) , “Today, we see around $8,000 for an hour in Germany.  We used to see $20,000.  France, about $7,500 and it used to be $15,000.  The UK – as high as $80,000, now $25,000.  Generally, all the digital, free follow along rights go with the license fee.  Pay VOD (view on demand) is still retained by the producer.”


20 Tips for Strategizing Festivals & Distribution Today

Best Selling Documentary DVDs on

DataBase of Film Festivals

Distribution Strategies for a Changing World by Peter Broderick

Documentary production in Australia, 2010: A collection of key data by Screen Australia

Get My Program on SBS

How to Sell a Documentary to a Network by Steve Brachmann, Demand Media

International Documentary Buyers’ Guide 2013-14

List of International Film Festivals by continent

Marketing Resources at Screen Australia

OzDox – The Australian Documentary Forum

Screen Australia’s Top 10 Australian documentary and light entertainment series titles on video 2010-2012

Supplying a program to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Top Grossing Australian Writers 2013

What Will TV Channels Pay for Your Doco? on


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can stories help?…

From an interview with Florian Gallenbergert, scriptwriter, student & short Oscar winner (‘Lufthansa magazine‘ 05/2009)

Everyone seems to be talking about the crisis these days.  People feel uncertain, even fearful about the future.  Can stories help?

Yes, I’m certain they can.  We need stories to live, and that’s something we become especially aware of in a crisis.  Just now, the feeling that material wealth can’t bring happiness is stronger than ever.  A good story can make us happy, an account statement with a string of zeros will not.  According to Freud, the fact that children don’t dream about money proves that money doesn’t make you happy.  Another analogy:  If your digestive system doesn’t work, we get sick.  Telling stories is a way of digesting life and if that doesn’t happen, we have a problem.

Stories put us in context.  And that’s all that happens when you tell a story.  You feel connected with the world, feel truly alive.  When people can no longer see themselves in a context, they feel stranded.  Stories are not about financial or economic values, they’re about human values.  And those never change.  Movies play a vital social role, an immeasurable role.  But then, you can’t measure love either.

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networking the networks

If you’re serious about maximising the power of Social Networking for your organisation, business, cause or project, while keeping your time-table (and yourself) sane, consider syndicating your networks.

These days that is generally not your old-fashioned website.  Social Networking platforms are where it’s all happening.  But the two are not mutually exclusive.  You can make them work in tandem by adding one element to your website – a Blog page.

Providing information of interest and allowing people to interact,  will not only keep people interested in what you have to offer, but will bring others to your virtual doorstep.

the old

Wikipedia defines a website as a collection of web pages, where a webpage is a document or information resource.”  Traditional websites basically tend to be directories that tell people who you are, what you do and how to get in touch with you. We all know a webpage can include audio and video as well, but generally there is nothing engaging about a static page of information on the Internet.

In the brave new world of social networking, static webpages are fast becoming uninteresting bastions of the past.  Unless spruced up to include a blog stream, or at the very least offer ‘share this‘ links to social networking platforms, they are dead fish in the water (excuse the cliché).

Incorporating a blog page into your website is just the beginning.

the new

Enter Social networks which mimic the structure of social groups.  At least that is the theory.  Often forgotten benefit of social networks is their power of referral or viral marketing – the electronic version of word-of-mouth marketing.

On the Internet, where it is becoming increasingly easier to create a virtual presence – FaceBookTwitterLinkedInFlickrTumblrPinterest, YouTube … the list is endless – things can get unwieldly very quickly.  As people’s web activities and communication increase, updating and keeping track of their social networks becomes more complex. And while millions of people use electronic mail and are familiar with websites, seems few people have figured out how to use the social networks efficiently.

the bridge

People being social beings, they like to share and debate.  A blog page goes some way to enabling interaction, but you can take things even further with very little effort. Actually, a little time and effort to set things up, and no effort at all after that.  The trick is to syndicate or automatically share all of your virtual homes.

The simplest and easiest way to do this is to use sharing applications to stream your blog to your social networking platform(s) where the post will automatically create a link-back to your blog page and website.  Why is that important?   One of the main factors that decides your page ranking with Google is the number of links to your website.  Sounds logical: If others are interested in sharing your website there must be something to it.

An information rich, regularly updated landing page welcomes people to share that information and having it accessible from the social networking platform of their choice (as opposed to having to surf the web) makes sharing so much simpler and easier.  Again, increasing opportunity for link-backs to your website, if that is where you’re blogging from, and by now I hope you’re convinced.


Social media applications are referred to by various names: “plugins”, “tools”, “add-ons”, “widgets” etc.   Irrespective of the name, they are all code which can be built-in or added to enable syndication or some other type of digital information exchange.

With the plethora of available social media syndication tools, info can be moved in any direction automatically.  Having said that, if you have more than a couple of virtual homes, it can get confusing beyond the confusion you began with.  If you’re wanting to connect all your social platforms you need to be mindful so as not to double up.  A one-way loop can help you manage the flow of information much more efficiently. Did you just think, “a what?”.

For example: If your blog feed syndicates to both Twitter and FaceBook, and your Twitter syndicates to FaceBook as well, you will be posting the link to FaceBook twice: Once from the blog directly and once from Twitter.

All social networks offer their own versions of social media applications to allow you to spread the word easily.  So the best place to start if you’re running your website from a blogging platform like WordPress (eg. this website), is the platform’s own social media tools.

If you are at all Internet savvy (or at least a bit brave), it can be very simple to share your blog posts to your social networking platform(s) of choice, including FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others.  If not, you can still set things up in a similar way but will probably need to get your web administrator to do it for you.

Minimising the number of starting points and distributing everything from the place you frequent the most will keep things simple.

Following is a sampling of options for networking from the perspective of different social networks.  You will need to be logged into your respective account to see the relevant linked page for some.

Blogger as your primary social network:

  • Blogger only facilitates promotion of blog posts to its sister site Google+ or, to RSS feeders;
  • The list of third party gadgets to import information into your blog is available from the Layout page of the blog;
  • NetworkedBlogs promotes your blog to readers on FaceBook (and/or Twitter) – Very useful if you’re a FaceBook fan like me;
  • Social RSS is a FaceBook app that posts your blog to FaceBook, but unlike Networked Blogs only posts to your personal FB wall;
  • posts from and to all of your favourite services.

FaceBook as your primary social network:

LinkedIn as your primary social network:

  • LinkedIn uses third party applications to take feeds in, including from WordPress;
  • Connect your blog to your LinkedIn profile with Blog Link;
  • posts from and to all of your favourite services.
  • LinkedIn and Twitter can finally talk to each other, both ways.

Twitteras your primary social network:

  • Twitter currently offers only two options: Use Twitter with FaceBook and  Take Twitter with you for your smartphone;
  • NetworkedBlogs (one of my faves) provides a simple way to get more exposure for your blog on Twitter (and FaceBook);
  • posts from and to all of your favourite services.
  • FaceBook to Twitter links your FB Pages to Twitter (not individual pages);
  • Twitter Tools is one of a growing number of third party plugins that allows you to send your WordPress blog posts to Twitter as a tweet, and and vice versa.

WordPress as your primary social network:

  • Twitter Tools is one of a growing number of third party plugins that allows you to send your WordPress blog posts to Twitter as a tweet, and and vice versa;
  • posts from and to all of your favourite services.
  • Tweet your posts – Self explanatory: Stream your WordPress posts to your Twitter account.  The tool also streams to four other social networking platforms, including FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yahoo Updates.


As with everything, some applications are better and easier to use than others; some will only post to your personal FaceBook wall and not your FaceBook page for example, so have a look through the variety listed here – you’re bound to find something that will suit the way you prefer to work in the virtual world.

These are some additional social media tools that can make the experience much richer:

  • Yoono Inc. simplifies your social life on the web by centralising all your social networks and instant messaging in one easy to use desktop, browser or iPhone app;
  • DisqQus is a discussion and commenting service for websites and social networks that works pretty much everywhere; and
  • Scribd, social web publishing company, will share your original writings and documents.

Lets say you use FaceBook on a daily basis.  If you don’t use FaceBook at all, I suggest you try it.  If nothing else, simply because it lends itself to being a pretty straight forward virtual-presence management-console:  You can see what family and friends are up to (use Lists to manage who can see what); Check interesting titbits from your contacts; Read the news from your favourite pages; Follow your favourite blogs; as well as keep an eye out on your own  information flow.

If you are self-employed, tie off any loose ends by setting up a FaceBook page and linking it in your profile as your present employer. Also important because, “Maintaining a personal account for anything other than an individual person is a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. If you don’t convert your noncompliant account to a Page, you risk permanently losing access to the account and all of its content.

In the end, bear in mind that keeping things as simple as you can will ensure things are working smoothly and you won’t get overwhelmed by it all any time soon.

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