Do I need a business plan?

Dear Doc Doctor:
I’ve been asked for a business plan for my documentary. I thought those types of things were only for fiction films. Do I really need to write one?

Documentary makers are finally seeing the effects of the recent growth of the documentary market. It’s a unique moment in history. Similar to independent fiction films over the last 30 years, docs have climbed the distribution and exhibition ladders and their current box office success is a hard-earned blessing—but one that means they now have to step up to certain business demands.

“The continuing success of documentaries at the theatrical box office—most recently of March of the Penguins, which is now the second highest grossing documentary of all time with $70 million—has shifted the perceptions and expectations of those who invest in independent films,” says Reed Martin, the author of numerous business plans and a professor of film marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Years ago they might have donated money to support the cause or ‘invested’ with little hope of ever seeing a return. However, today, documentaries are increasingly seen as potentially viable investments and because there is the potential of significant profits, investors increasingly want to see projected revenues listed in formal business plans.”

The good news is that the rise in popularity of documentaries isn’t a passing fad. The downside, having to write a business plan, is not as bad as you might think, especially if it means your pool of potential investors and their respective investments will increase. And if you have ever applied for a grant, you already know quite a bit about business plans. Louise Levison, business plan consultant and author of Filmmakers and Financing: Business Plans for Independents, says, “The business plan format for a doc— exec summary, company, synopsis, industry, target markets, distribution, financial analysis—is the same as for any other film and similar to much of the information that you need for a grant request. Whereas one prospectus (including an investment memorandum) can go to as many investors as you like, the grant request has to be tailored specifically and separately for each granting source.”
The prospectus’s comparative financial analysis can be a bit of challenge because there aren’t yet a lot of documentaries with theatrical releases to use as a comparison. But as more and more documentaries hit theaters, even this aspect of the plan will seem simple.

Dear Doc Doctor:
I did quite well with my previous documentary, and now I’m being offered a lot of projects. I already know what my next documentary will be, but I don’t want to burn bridges with those who had such high expectations about working with me. What’s the best way to decline their offers?

Spotlights can be blinding, and I commend you for having kept your focus in the myriad of tempting options. Even more kudos to you for wanting to figure out how to decline involvement in a respectful, friendly way. Success in the film business often involves knowing how to handle these small details. Surely you have been turned down many times, but we rarely realize that we have our own share of nos to deliver. We tend to say no the way it was said to us, thereby perpetuating a cycle of bad etiquette.

Let’s start by mentioning what not to do. Not returning phone calls is the worst possible option, yet the most common one. Some might think being unavailable is a sign of their importance, power, or a tight schedule. For me, it shows a lack of time-management skills, combined with cowardice. Whether it is a prospective DP, editor, or filmmaker’s proposal sitting on your desk, answer their calls. After all, they talked to you when you requested it.

The next no-no is drawing a blank face or giving a half-hearted compliment such as “Good, looks good!” followed by a change of topic. Not as bad but equally non-conducive is, “Let me think about it,” followed by never returning a call and/or hiding in the corner when you bump into that person at a party.

Having to say no builds anxiety and might propel you into a monologue of all things wrong with the project or the person. Be spare with your words—the things you see wrong with the film might end up being the reasons it wins an Oscar.

Instead of criticizing, ask questions. Maybe you are missing the point. Maybe the person doesn’t pitch well or doesn’t represent their producing or editing skills well. And if it’s still a “no way, Jose,” then stay away from comments like: I proclaim you unworthy of me, my company, and everything I touch. A more accurate representation of the situation would be something like: “At this moment, given these particular circumstances, this is not a good match.” If in addition you can offer some resources and/or recommendations of other doors to knock on, then you have really paved your way to filmmaking sanctity.

Fernanda Rossi is a filmmaker and story consultant, and the author of Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.

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