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A Guide to writing the proposal

A Guide to writing the proposal

February, 14 - 2020

So, you have this great idea for a Documentary that you want to make. You are eager to submit to IF/Then South East Asia 2020 and/or Docs by the Sea and have your idea heard. You get ready to sit down in front of your computer and type down these ideas until wait- where do I start? How do I convince them to pick my project over so many other applicants?

Surprisingly, most filmmakers have only read their own proposals and no one else’s. If funding organizations don’t publish winning proposals, then how can filmmakers know what makes a good proposal? How do you know that the proposal you write is engaging?

Essentially, you make proposals to gain trust and confidence from your funders that your story is what they are looking for. Therefore, we have compiled a list of tips and answers from funders, investors and filmmakers who have read hundreds of proposals, to see what stands out for them.

1. Have a clear and engaging logline

It’s so crucial for a filmmaker to be able to tell their story and vision clearly in 1 to 2 lines. Funders want to know that you have a good grasp of your own story and what makes it unique. Find the focus on your story (not the topic) and show what’s at stake in the logline.

2. State the urgency of the project

Why do you need to make the film right at this moment? Be clear about why this issue is important to be brought up. Tracie Holder, an Independent film consultant and filmmaker who has raised millions for funding of her film, spoke at the Sheffield Doc/Fest about the importance of stating the urgency of your film in your proposal. This is especially important as funders receive hundreds of proposals which increases the chance that projects with similar themes/topics come up. In this case, why should they pick yours instead of the others? Why is yours more crucial to make? And lastly why should you be the one telling this story instead of others?

3. Be clear about who your audience is

While it is very important to show how passionate you are to make this film, you also need to show how you are going to gain the interest of your target audience. Leslie Finlay, the Development Executive for Creative Scotland (a national body that supports the Arts and Creatives in Scotland) states how important it is for funders to be convinced that there will be people who will watch and can relate to the story in your film. As an example, if your story is about an indigenous community in the Philippines, how can international audiences relate to your film? How will your story impact your target audience? What will be your strategy?

4. Provide a strong written visual narrative of the story

Besy Tsai, the Assistant to the Sundance Film Fund claims that “The secret to a good application is to somehow be able to translate that cinematic voice into the language of the application. Especially if you don’t have a lot of edited material to show, incorporate some imagery in your writing that will make us want to watch your film.” You want the reader to be able to visualize the finished Documentary coming to live. Explain in detail your visual approach, the style of the film that you want to make along with scenes in your character’s day to day life that would help readers imagine better these characters as real humans that they can converse with.

5. Have a visual material that complements your written proposal

Your visual material can truly make or break your project. Make sure that your visuals complements the written proposal which together will be presenting the Documentary that you want to make. Your material can be a scene or sequences, a presentation of a character, or trailer that best represent the feel of the film. Do not send rushes or raw materials. The visual material also shows the jury your cinematic skills as a filmmaker. Although you are presenting research materials or things that are not shot with the most proper equipment, please know that your proposal will be judged by your ability to present a story visually through your visual materials.

6. Avoid texts that are too long-winded and repetitive

When Isabel Arrate of IDFA Bertha Fund spoke in our masterclass in 2018, she was surprised at how little the filmmakers are taking into consideration that the judges reading the proposals are also reading hundreds of other proposals. They know when the points get repetitive and are being reused in different sections of the proposals. Make sure you are clear with your points and capture the essence of the story in several sentences.

7. Have someone who is not involved in your project to read the proposal before you submit

Lisa Larazek from Wellcome Trust speaks about the importance of having someone with no prior understanding of your project to read your proposal to see if they can easily understand your story in the proposal. As an example, Lisa Larazek mentions in her talk about Proposal writing in Sheffield Doc/Fest that she once was reading a proposal, not knowing that it was an animation, until 3 pages in. Filmmakers have their own bias with the prior knowledge of the project that they have when they read the proposal. It is important that you can get your film across clearly and quickly to those with no prior understanding of your project, which makes this step quite essential.

In Conclusion, A proposal is a way for you to communicate to the readers and potential funders that you have a clear vision of your film from the development stage to when the film is received by the audience. Remember, a strong proposal is one that stands out from the rest and resonates to the audience.

– Fernández, Isabel Arrate. “Masterclass: Proposal Writing.” Docs By the Sea 2018. Docs By The Sea, 2 Aug. 2018, Bali, Indonesia.
– Holder, Tracie, et al., directors. Proposal Writing for Funding Applications: Say What They Mean. YouTube, Sheffield Doct/Fest, 4 Nov. 2015,
– McGrail, Lauren. “How to Write a Powerful Documentary Film Proposal.” Lights Film School, 3 July 2018,