Unlike most genres in the film universe, documentaries have evolved tremendously over the past several decades. Gone are the days when the word “documentary” meant the film would educate its viewers with a narrator who sports an incredibly boring monotone voice. Thanks to Fahrenheit 9/11, (2004), Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning box office smash that made $119.1 million domestically and another $103.3 million internationally, (totaling $222.41 million worldwide), documentaries finally became financially relevant. Furthermore, Michael Moore’s approach of making himself as much a part of the story as the documentary’s topic, has opened up a whole new style of documentary storytelling.

In fact, Moore’s style rubbed off on Morgan Spurlock, who was nominated for an Academy Award for being the subject of his own documentary as he ate Macdonald’s food three times per day for 30 days, in Super Size Me (2004). However, like Morgan Spurlock’s diet in Super Size Me, which proves that too much of anything will make you puke, the current marketplace has been littered by so many documentaries that the docs themselves have saturated their own market and severely deflated their own values.

Over the past three years, I’ve seen the values of all documentaries plummet beyond belief. Even the value of high-end docs with star power has crumbled.  For example, in 2008, a deep pocketed, star-driven documentary would wrangle $200,000-$250,000 for a territory like Germany. But, thanks to the oversaturation, most docs today can only wrangle $3,000-$7,000 from Germany, and “star docs” can’t get much more than  $10,000 to $12,000. I’ve personally experienced the demise of docs, since my company Lonely Seal Releasing has distributed several high-end docs since 2006.  But, since I’m a big fan of docs, I would love to help yours find an audience. Thus, this article will focus on key things you can do to give your doc life.

Know What Works
One of the key elements to winning any game is to examine how others have won previously. The same is true for docs. The chart below (from www.the-numbers.com), lists the top ten highest grossing documentaries of all time.

Rank Title Studio Lifetime Gross / Theaters Opening / Theaters Date
1 Fahrenheit 9/11 Lions $119,194,771 2,011 $23,920,637 868 6/23/04
2 March of the Penguins WIP $77,437,223 2,506 $137,492 4 6/24/05
3 Justin Bieber: Never Say Never Par. $72,964,470 3,118 $29,514,054 3,105 2/11/11
4 Earth (2009) BV $32,011,576 1,804 $8,825,760 1,804 4/22/09
5 Sicko LGF $24,540,079 1,117 $68,969 1 6/22/07
6 An Inconvenient Truth ParC $24,146,161 587 $281,330 4 5/24/06
7 Bowling for Columbine UA $21,576,018 248 $209,148 8 10/11/02
8 Oceans BV $19,422,319 1,232 $6,058,958 1,206 4/22/10
9 Madonna: Truth or Dare Mira. $15,012,935 652 $543,250 51 5/10/91
10 Capitalism: A Love Story Over. $14,363,397 995 $231,964 4 9/23/09

The first thing that stands out from the  top ten grossing documentaries of all time list, is that Michael Moore owns four of the top ten spots. These include #1 Fahrenheit 9/11, (2004), #5 Sicko (2007), and #7 Bowling For Columbine (2002) and #10 Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). Love him or hate him, the financial success of Michael Moore’s films have created more opportunities for documentary filmmakers than anyone or anything else in the world.

The next trend that surfaces from the top-ten doc list are nature based and environmental documentaries captured four spots. These include #2 March of the Penguins (2005), #4 Earth (2009) #6 An Inconvenient Truth, (2006) and #8 Oceans (2010). Thus, Mother Nature equals box office success!

Music based documentaries grabbed the last two top ten spots. These include # 3 Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2010), and Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991).

What the above list teaches us is the documentaries that tackle topics of a broad scope, i.e. 9/11, the environment or multi-platinum selling singers, are selling. Thus, if you’re a filmmaker getting ready to embark on a journey to make your own documentary, ask yourself two questions:

1) Who is going to be interested in your topic?

2) Will they care enough about your topic to pay to see it?

While I’m aware that a true documentarian doesn’t make his or her film for money, having the film succeed is the best way to “get the word out” about their topic.

Europe Prefers Sixty-Minute Documentaries
While I’m not suggesting your doc should be 60 minutes long in its entirety, I am saying that you should create a 60-minute cut for Europe. This is because hour long cuts best fit into European programming schedules.

Seventy Minutes Is Considered Feature Length
Distribution companies, film festivals, and the Motion Picture Academy, all consider 70 minutes to be “feature length,” for documentaries. Thus, docs should stay in the 70-85 minute range. Of course, “star driven” docs can run a bit longer, but even they should stay in the 100 minute or less range.

“Star” Narrators Only Help in English Speaking Countries
While it always helps any sale to have a huge, A-list celebrity narrate your documentary, the value of the documentary itself won’t spike to the skies in countries where English is not the predominant language. This is because most countries will have to dub an English language documentary into their own language, leaving the celebrity voice deemed insignificant.

Keep your Budget Tight, Tight, Tight, And Then Some
The biggest mistake made by most documentary filmmakers is that they spend more money making their documentary, than the picture will ever earn. I can’t even count how many times filmmakers have told me that all they need is $100,000-$150,000 to “finish” their documentary. Of course, none of them listen when I tell them that needing $100,000 to $150,000 to finish is crazy, since $50,000-$75,000 should be their final budget. Just remember that due to how little documentaries are worth these days, spending north of $75,000 on a documentary that isn’t already pre-sold to a distributor, is a total and utter waste of money.

However, there is a sharp upside to spending less, because doing so could make your documentary seem far more successful. For example, if you spent $200,000 on a doc that only grossed $150,000, your documentary would be deemed a flop. But, if you only spent $50,000 making the same film, and it went on to earn $150,000, you’re seen as a genius whose documentary tripled its budget. Which perception would you rather have? The first makes you seem useless, while the second may get you financing for your next film.

Find A Broadcast Partner Before You Shoot The Doc
I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t utilize this tactic. Simply put, finding a broadcast partner means that you take meetings with TV networks and cable channels, in order to find out who, if anybody, is interested in your documentary. Should they become engaged in your idea, you could either get your doc financed up front, or you could at least find out how much money the broadcaster is willing to pay for the completed film.

Should all the major networks and cable stations pass on your idea, you’ll still have invaluable insight on how tight you’ll have to keep you budget, knowing that your documentary may not achieve major distribution. Either way, going after a broadcast partner early is one of the smartest things you can do.

Entertain While You Educate
I believe the key to educating through documentaries, is to do so without having your viewers realize they’re being educated. Thus, make sure your documentary is fun, or an emotionally moving experience, as opposed to being something that beats the audience over the head with your point of view.

Talking Heads Can Cause Severe Drowsiness
Make sure your documentary isn’t two hours of “experts and witnesses” sitting in a chair and talking. Remember, your viewing audience is already sitting in a chair, so the last thing they want to see is other people sitting in chairs. Hence, showing movement on screen is the key to keeping your audience engaged.

In closing, a great documentary can change the world, a pretty good one can change your life, and all documentaries can change an opinion. So don’t hesitate. Go make your doc and help the world become a better place.

Until next Tuesday, thank you for lending me your eyes!

Posted on May 10, 2011 in Features, Going Bionic by

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  1. James South on Tue, 10th May 2011 10:52 am 

    True docs should be unbiased accounts of the story they are telling. Moore’s films are simply propaganda.

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  2. den on Tue, 10th May 2011 1:30 pm 

    This was a great article…

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  3. Don R. Lewis on Tue, 10th May 2011 5:11 pm 

    So James-
    only surveillance videos and police interrogation videos- both not edited- are true documentaries? As Godard said about film, “every cut is a lie.”

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