Skip to main content

So You Want to Work in Documentary...Tips on Getting Started

By Sheila Curran Bernard

What advice do senior documentary filmmakers have for new filmmakers interested in pursuing internships and first jobs in documentary media? To prepare for a workshop on this topic, I conducted an informal survey of eight high-level independent filmmakers in Boston and New York. All are well-established, with their own companies and major theatrical and broadcast credits. All work with interns and production assistants. And all were willing to take time out of their busy schedules to talk, because they share a common frustration: Good help is hard to find. Which means opportunities are out there, provided you follow a few basic guidelines.



Know who the players are and where you want to be
Watch documentaries, read trade publications and websites, know the players, and know for whom you'd like to work and on what kinds of projects. Is your goal to make multi-part, primetime TV series? Giant-screen theatrical films? Interactive media for museum use? Reality shows? Put yourself in a position to work with and learn from people whose storytelling skills inspire you and whose record of achievement (and professional contacts) are most relevant to you.

Approach each opportunity individually
One size does not fit all. Whether you're responding to a job listing or cold-contacting a company to see if they're hiring, make your approach specific. A generic, "Here's my résumé, I'm looking for film work," is not going to be as effective as a letter that demonstrates some knowledge of the company (or project) and why you think you're a good fit. (There are many online resources with information about how to write effective résumés and cover letters.)

Also, pay attention to the specific instructions of a job posting. Documentary filmmaking is a detail-oriented business, and the care you take with your application-sending a cover letter if one is requested; not calling if the ad says not to call-is a reflection on your future work. Make sure names and titles are accurate, and check your spelling and grammar carefully.

Hone your office skills
The amount of time a filmmaker spends shooting a project is generally miniscule compared to the time spent researching, writing, planning, fundraising, networking, budgeting, reporting, promoting-and so on. All of the filmmakers I queried stressed the importance of office skills (and a willingness to work in an office). You should have better than basic computer skills and experience with major office software, including Microsoft Word and Excel. You should have excellent phone skills. You should know how to set up and manage a filing system. And you should have good social skills, including table manners.

Hone your research and writing skills
A great deal of documentary filmmaking, including vérité, is built on the ability to conduct and communicate research--whether it's accomplished online, in libraries, in person or at archives. Entry-level employees should have solid research skills, from the ability to take notes and keep an organized bibliography and database to the ability to quickly and effectively read through material to discern what's useful and what's not. You should understand the limits of Wikipedia, know the difference between a primary and secondary source, and know how to fact-check both print and audio-visual materials. You should have solid writing and editing skills. (Good writers, whether they're crafting e-mails and business letters or helping to shape project treatments or fundraising proposals, are always in demand.)

What about film skills?
With the group I interviewed, filmmaking experience as a requirement for employment generally came second to (a) a willingness and ability to learn technical skills and (b) mastery of basic research, writing and organizational skills. With that said, experience in basic media digitizing and editing (Final Cut Pro or Avid) is strongly desired, as is knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects. Website-building experience would also often be of interest, along with general IT skills.



Understand that your professional education is just beginning
Some producers don't want to see your production reel; it doesn't tell them whether or not you'll be a team player who can be trusted with basic tasks. Yes, it's frustrating to get out of school and be told that your job now is to listen and learn, but you are not yet ready to compete with industry leaders for top assignments. In applying for entry-level work with more established filmmakers, recognize that you have an opportunity to learn from the masters, get a close-up view of the industry and make valuable connections. As one of the producers said, "Making your own film can be a long, hard, lonely road, even if you know what you're doing. I'm not sure it should be anyone's first introduction" to the profession. 

Find meaning even in the small tasks
Filmmaking is composed of countless tasks, and all of them matter-even those that may seem mundane, such as photocopying, filing or making sure the crew has lunch. Perform these tasks well and cheerfully, and you'll prove you're capable of greater responsibility. Nobody wants to micromanage you, so demonstrate that you don't need close supervision by keeping track of what's assigned (write assignments down; it's a good idea to carry a small notebook), giving the tasks your full attention and reporting back on what you've accomplished. Remember, too, that films are collaborative and are often made in fits and starts, which means that your work needs to be easily shared among colleagues both now and in the future. Organization and a willingness to go the extra step are important. (Conversely, if you're disorganized, sloppy, a complainer or someone who needs a lot of attention-such as sharing a ride to a remote location and then telling the producer you need to leave early-you're not likely to be invited back.)

Show initiative
All of the producers with whom I spoke agreed that the best way to get noticed is to use your common sense, perform assigned tasks well, and then take the initiative to see what else is going on around you and how you might contribute. Ask questions. Read. Be diligent about arriving on time, and if a task needs a bit of extra time, stay to see that it's finished. Don't waste other people's time with half-completed tasks, and don't use office time for personal calls, e-mails or texts; nor should you blog about your employer or work projects unless you have prior permission. Attitude is everything: You want to be the "can do" employee.

Be sure you're getting as well as giving
As an intern or entry-level employee, you may be working for little or no money in exchange for meaningful experience and industry connections. If you find that you're chained to the photocopy machine and not getting any opportunities to learn, speak up. If a solution can't be found with that employer, find another. But be careful not to burn bridges, either with your employer or with co-workers. You never know who will be in a position to help or hinder your career in the future.


Filmmaker Sheila Curran Bernard, author of Documentary Storytelling (Focal Press), is the associate director of the Documentary Studies Program at the State University of New York at Albany, SUNY.