Style and Main Topics

The best rule is to aim for simplicity, clarity, and brevity in your proposal. Brevity may not always be possible, but it is a worthy ideal. Proposals for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) or the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) are often hundreds of pages long, but they are special cases. Few commissioning editors or sponsors have the patience to read long proposals in detail; a concise proposal contained in two or three pages is much more likely to get their attention. Aim to get your message across as quickly as you can, and as dynamically as you can, and then, if necessary, amplify.

What is implied in the above, of course, is that sometimes you may have to write two, three, or even four different proposals for the same project. The first proposal should be short; its purpose is to gain the interest of a TV station and to get them to give you a promise of airtime, backing, and some basic support. That is followed by the longer and, unfortunately, often encyclopedic proposal; its purpose is to get major funding from various national councils and foundations. And in between you will write other proposals of various lengths to go to all the agencies and groups in the middle.

What should the proposal discuss and how should it be organized? There are no absolute rules, but it helps to remember that a proposal is usually written with a specific person or organization in mind. I usually include the following items in my proposals:

• Film statement

• Background and need

• Shooting schedule

• Audience, marketing, and distribution

• Filmmaker's biography and support letters

• Miscellaneous additional elements

Film statement. The film statement formally declares that you are making a proposal and usually suggests a working title. It indicates the length of the film and briefly defines its subject matter and audience. It probably includes the basic assertion or target statement mentioned earlier. Only a few lines are necessary, as indicated by the following examples:

University Blues

This is a proposal for a thirty-minute 16mm film on the future of Oxford and Cambridge Universities for general BBC television audiences.

Because We Care

This is a proposal for a forty-minute 16mm film on St. Winston's Hospital to be shown to potential donors for fund-raising.

Background and need. The section on background and need reviews briefly any information necessary to acquaint the reader with the subject. This section lets the reader see why the topic is interesting and why such a film is needed or would be of interest as entertainment or information for a general audience.

Some years ago, I wanted to do a film about nineteenth-century American utopian movements and started writing the proposal with a friend, Brian Winston. We called the film Roads to Eden and included the following sketch with the proposal:

The most sustained and widespread efforts to remake the world took place along the expanding frontier in North America, mainly in the nineteenth century. Literally hundreds of communities with thousands of members were established, and the vast majority of them sought salvation through rigorous and what they thought of as ancient Christian practice.

The discovery of the New World and the birth of modern uto-pianism occurred during the same quarter of a century. The one deeply influenced the other, and the New World immediately became a place in which tradition and history could be restarted and remade.

The potency of America as a ready-made site for social experiment survived undiminished by failures, lunacies, or frauds for the next three centuries.

Inspired with a vision of early Christian life traceable back to the communes of the Essenes, enriched by the monastic tradition and the example of primitive (mainly German) Protestant sects, the American Christian radicals set about building their Jerusalem. Out of a flurry of activity major groups emerged: Mormons, Shakers, Amish, Oneidans, Ammanites, Rappites, and Zoarites.

Brian and I took some time to establish the background, but we were making a proposal for an hour-long major network film, which we also hoped would be the basis of a series. We assumed most people would like the idea of a film about utopias but would know nothing of their histories; hence, the detail.

When we had finished sketching in the background we set out our reasons for wanting to do the film:

In this film or series we will look at the past in order to ascertain where we might possibly go in the future, for the dream of a better world is not dead, only diminished.

Thus, a series of questions underlies the film. How can we make a better life for ourselves, our families, and our children? What can we learn from the past about sexual mores, family structures, and social organizations? What do the visions and struggles of the utopians tell us about our own future?

The background sketch can be short or long. You must ask yourself whether the reader has sufficient information about the central situation and premise of the film to make a reasonable judgment about it and whether you have provided enough information to intrigue the reader to go further. The background information should be a lure to fascinate the reader, to make him or her say, "What a marvelous possibility for a film."

Approach, form, and style. I have already mentioned that I am wary of defining approach, form, or style before I have researched the subject, as the research usually suggests the best way into the film. Yet in most cases, at least a tentative approach will be asked for at the proposal stage. If the original suggestion came from you, an approach will definitely be required. This is the part of the proposal that most interests the reader. Your ideas sound fascinating and appealing, but how will you carry them out in practice? Where is the drama in your story? Where is the conflict?

Where are the emotions and the character development? This is where you must be down-to-earth. If your approach or structure is tentative, then say so, or indicate two or three approaches you would like to investigate further.

The question of form and structure is discussed in detail later, but a few words might help now. In most television documentaries, the chosen form is usually that of the general essay or illustrative story, and the style ranges from the objective to the anecdotal or the personal. In the early 1970s, Thames Television in England put out a marvelous twenty-six-part series on World War II called The World at War. What was refreshing about the series was that it ran the whole gamut of styles and structures. One film would be an academic essay, and the next would be highly personal, telling the story of the war almost solely through the voices of the soldiers.

A few paragraphs back I set out the background for the utopia film. That was the easy part. But what approach should we use? It could be done, say, in essay style:

The film is set up chronologically as we tell the story of the communities from the seventeenth to the late-nineteenth century, from the Shakers to the Zoarites. The film will include all the main communities but will concentrate on the Shakers. It will be built around drawings, contemporary pictures, old photographs, and contemporary footage and will be told through a strong central guiding commentary.

This may sound a bit dry. Perhaps we could try a story form and an alternative structure:

We will look at the utopian movement through two central charismatic characters — the leaders of Harmony and New Harmony. These two colonies were situated in southern Indiana. The first was a religious colony founded by the grim authoritarian preacher from southern Germany, Emmanuel Rapp. Eventually, the colony was sold to the Scottish idealist Robert Owen, who wanted to found a workers' utopia.

We will film exclusively at New Harmony, which is today still faithfully preserved as in the days of Owen and Rapp. Besides filming on location, we propose using old diary extracts and the writings of Rapp and Owen as the binding narrative. The film will look at these communities through the lives of their leaders, who could not have interpreted the meaning of "utopia" more differently. However, we will also try to recapture the feelings of the community members of the time. The style will be evocative and poetic rather than didactic.

In the early 1980s, Canadian filmmaker Michael Rubbo made a film called Daisy, about plastic surgery. I never read his proposal, but from seeing the film, I could imagine Rubbo setting out the proposal something like this:

Why do people go in for plastic surgery? What are their fears and expectations? We wish to show something of the history and practice of plastic surgery to the general public.

We think the best approach to a film of this kind is to follow one individual for six months, covering the period before, during, and after the operation. And we have found exactly the right person.

Daisy is an employee of the Canadian Film Board, an open, cheerful, and outgoing woman in her early forties. Though still extremely attractive, Daisy feels that plastic surgery will improve her looks and general social well-being. She also thinks it will help her find a husband.

Daisy's experience will provide us with the spine of the film. However, we will also branch out from time to time to show the history of plastic surgery, the way it is practiced in present-day Montreal, and how it exists as a thriving business.

Even without major research, you can often take a pretty good stab at the approach you would like to take and the tentative structure of the film. Some years ago, I was asked to consider doing a film on the British prison system, a subject I knew very little about. My initial feeling, before I had undertaken any research, was that this should be a people film rather than an essay film, a personal film from both sides of the bars. In my first outline proposal, I suggested a film around the experience of five individuals. The first two would represent the administration in the person of a guard and the warden. The other three characters would be prisoners — one about to serve his first six-month sentence, the second a lifer, and the last someone who had served five years and whom we would follow in his first three months of freedom. I was fairly sure that I could find these character types and that the different experiences of the five over half a year would provide an illuminating and moving picture of the prison system.

I set all this out in the proposal and also indicated that there would be minimal narration; instead, the film would hang on the thoughts, feelings, and comments of the five "stars." I was a bit worried about the extended shooting time and its effect on the budget and, therefore, sounded out the sponsors before I wrote the proposal. They agreed to provide a decent budget, and I was free to explore the above approach. Had the budget been a small one, I would have cut down on my characters and shooting time or would have opted for an essay film that could have been shot in two weeks.

Where possible, I like to indicate early on whether there will be formal narration, direct dialogue, or a great deal of voice-over. I also occasionally say something about visual style if I think that will be a major element of the film.

Shooting schedule. The shooting schedule is an optional item in the proposal. You include it when time is of the essence, for example, when you have to capture a particular event or shoot within a particular season of the year. You also put it in when you want to protect yourself, so that you can turn to the sponsor and say, "The proposal says very clearly we would need six months, so don't tell me now that I have to do it in three. It just can't be done."

Budget. I usually include an approximate budget in the proposal. However, I try to put off committing myself on paper until I have had a word with the sponsors. I don't want to scare them off until we have talked about cost and I have received some feedback. Obviously, if you are sending a proposal to a foundation such as the NEH or the Rockefeller Foundation, you will have to provide at least an outline budget proposal.

Audience, marketing, and distribution. A discussion of audience and distribution is another optional item. If a sponsor has requested a film to train factory workers, or if a television station has requested a film for a certain documentary series, then you will not have to say anything about distribution in the proposal. However, when you are trying to sell a sponsor or a foundation on your idea by saying that there will be massive demand for your film, then you have to prove your claim, at least on paper. You also have to talk about getting the film to this massive public. This section of the proposal, therefore, sets out in detail the possible channels of distribution for the film. A section on distribution is invariably required for a major proposal to a foundation.

Below is the section on distribution from Jill Godmilow's proposal for The Popovich Brothers. The film took as its subject a Serbian musical family in Chicago. While it explored their music, it also looked at the sense of family, traditions, and close bonding of the whole immigrant community of which the Popovich brothers were just a part.

We believe that filmmaking and film marketing are two halves of a full circle. A film that never reaches its audience is little different from a film that never gets made. It just costs a lot more.

We have two major goals in the distribution of The Popovich Brothers. The first is to make it available to the Serbian community on all levels—to the churches, to the local lodges of the Serb National Federation, to high schools systems with a large number of Serbian students, to other Slavic groups, and to universities that have community-developed ethnic studies. Our experience thus far indicates tremendous interest and support for this project in the Serbian community, on a local and national level.

Besides the Serbian community, there are four general distribution markets for this documentary film:

1. Television: Television sales — commercial, educational, and foreign—constitute the independent documentary's widest means of exposure to a mass audience and its most immediate and least expensively obtained source of income.

a. The commercial networks can buy up to thirty minutes of footage at one thousand dollars per minute and recut and narrate it for use as one segment of their program.

b. PBS, the national educational network, is also in the market for quality independently produced documentaries.

c. Foreign television sales.

2. Print Sales: Museums, public libraries, and university libraries have begun to buy films for their permanent collections. They are used for public screenings as well as borrowed for home use.

3. Rentals: Every nondramatic film must find its particular rental market, its own special-interest groups. The Popovich Brothers has a good market potential in areas such as music, dance, American history, ethnic studies, social anthropology, Slavic languages, and ethnomusicology.

4. Theatrical: The fourth general area of distribution for Popo-vich is theatrical. It is a limited market but an important one. The success of a theatrical campaign for a film like this one depends to a great degree on being able to open in New York, with the accompanying critical response and public excitement that can create a name for a film.

I have set out Jill's proposal at length because it is one of the best examples I have seen of lucid proposal writing. The Popovich Brothers was eventually made, received wide acclaim, and was followed by other films by Jill Godmilow such as Far from Poland.

Filmmaker's biography and support letters. It helps toward the end of the proposal to give a short biographical description of yourself and the other principal filmmakers involved in the project. You should also affirm your track record by adding letters of recommendation or praise for your previous work. You may also include any support letters from individuals or organizations for your idea and any letters from television stations showing an interest in screening your film.

Miscellaneous additional elements. Your idea is to sell your project; therefore, you add anything that you believe, within reason, will help people to understand your concept and get the proposal accepted. This includes any illustrative materials such as maps, photos, and general drawings. It includes names of academic personnel who are acting as your advisers. And it may include a full revenue plan if your documentary is intended as a commercial proposition for theatrical release.

You should also very seriously consider doing a video teaser when you are thinking of making a long film for TV. By this I mean making a ten- or twelve-minute video that dramatically highlights what your film is about. This obviously entails some expenditure and some shooting before your film is properly underway, but this preview can be one of your strongest selling tools. Thus, though your proposal about the history of Yosemite is very strong, it takes on even greater strength when supported by your video showing the power and magic of the place. And though your proposal on a history of the U.S. Marine Corps is attractive, it will get an even better reception when supported by a strong visual backup.

Another practical reason for the video is that fund-raising for independent videos is often done at parlor meetings. Without a film, these can be very dry affairs, indeed. With a film or a trailer, the situation is entirely different. You clearly show what you are going to do and how well you can do it, given the chance, and generally the response is much stronger.

Film Making

Film Making

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