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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Born-Digital Library

The Internet Archive (IA) is a not-for-profit digital library with the stated mission “universal access to all knowledge.”  It offers permanent storage and free access to collections of digitised materials, including websites, music, moving images, and over 8.4 million public domain texts, including books.

Internet Archive logo

As of today, the Internet Archive files consist of 2.1+ million moving images, 147,104 live music files, 2.6+ million audio recordings, 112,000 software files, and over 1.1 million images, all of which are in the public domain or are Creative Commons-licensed and are freely available for download.

The Archive provides unrestricted online access to that material at no cost and allows the public to both upload and download digital material.

The texts collection includes digitised books from libraries around the world, as well as many special collections.

Via its sister project, the Open Library, the IA seeks to add a record for every book ever published, something like an open source version of WorldCat.  It holds 23 million catalog records of books, in addition to over 1,000,000 free ebook titles and full texts of about 1,600,000 public domain books, which are fully readable and downloadable.

Millions of websites and their associated data (documents,  images, source code, etc.) are saved in the IA’s massive database.  It also allows users to see archived past versions of web pages (cached pages), what the Internet Archive calls a “three-dimensional index”.  The service can be used to see what earlier versions of websites used to look like, or even to visit websites that no longer exist.

In addition to web archives, the IA maintains extensive collections of digital media that are under a license, such as Creative Commons licenses that allows redistribution, or are in the public domain in the United States.  The media are organised into collections by type (audio, text, moving images, etc.), and into sub-collections by various criteria.

In addition to feature films, IA’s Moving Image collection includes classic cartoons; newsreels; Skip Elsheimer’s “A.V. Geeks” collection; anti- and pro-war propaganda; advertising; ephemeral material from the Prelinger Archives, such as educational and industrial films and amateur and home movie collections.

The audio collection includes audio books, music, news broadcasts, old-time radio shows as well as a broad mixture of other audio files.

The sub-collection of the Live Music Archive includes over 100,000 concert recordings from independent artists and musical ensembles, as well as from more established artists, all with approval for recording their concerts.

Freely distributable music is hosted via IA’s NetLabel, Lifehacker.  This collection hosts complete ‘virtual record labels’ or ‘netlabels’ – non-profit, community-built items committed to providing non-commercial, high quality, freely distributable MP3/OGG-format music – comprising a multitude of genres, often Creative Commons-licensed catalogs that are freely downloadable/streamable.  There are over 500 sub-collections available where you can search by collection, media type, keyword, etc.  An excellent way to find that ‘just right’ piece for your next project (or your music collection).

Some of the film classics available at the Internet Archive:

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