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43 7. Writing Your Winning Proposal THE IDEAS HAVE BEEN MILLING around in your head for some time, and there is no shortage of them. One is about the writer who grew up in your community and became a world-famous novelist. Another is about three veterans who’ve returned from Afghanistan and the effect the experience has had on their lives. Another idea you particularly like is to do a film about two musicians, father and son. The father is well known as a teacher and performer, and the son, although only fifteen, has proved himself a prodigy on the jazz guitar. You know the film will have to be shot over a couple of years, but you’re willing to devote the time and effort. You are also interested in the members of the Vietnam circus who’ve made a base in your town. All these ideas are good and potentially saleable. However, you know there are too many to pursue in one go, so you settle on two of them and shelve the rest for the moment. You are eager for action. You want to get the ideas off the ground. You want to find a sponsor and money. What’s your next move? You have to write a formal proposal that will define your thinking and then publicize and get people interested in your project. A proposal is, first and foremost, a device to sell a film. It can serve many other functions, such as clarifying your own thinking and showing your friends what you want to do, and it will provide information useful to all sorts of people. It will show your working hypothesis, lines of inquiry, point of view on the subjects, and all the wonderful dramatic and entertaining possibilities. The proposal can do all those things, but you should never lose sight of its main goal. The central purpose of your proposal is to convince someone, maybe a television commissioning editor or some organization head, that you have a great idea; that you 44 / Writing Your Winning Proposal know what you want to do; that you are efficient, professional, and imaginative ; that you have a great team working with you; and that their financial and general support will bring acclaim and honors to you all. Proposals are also used to sell film ideas at film markets, but I want to leave a longer discussion on that topic till later, in chapter 10. Similarly, a proposal might be called for after a film has been awarded to a producer. The next few pages are about the general writing of a proposal when its prime purpose is to get your foot in the door and sell your film idea. Style and Main Topics In most film schools and documentary classes, you are asked to write a short film proposal for Documentary 203 or Filmmaking 301. You do this, get a few superficial comments from your instructor, and are off and away. Very often, and I mention this from sad experience, the film you eventually produce has no relation to your proposal at all. Your answer is, “Well, things changed during research.” Your instructor grins and bears it. What can he or she do? Give you a failing grade? No way, in this modern, enlightened, liberal age. Yet, your failure to follow the guideline of the one-and-a-half-page document you turned in to the instructor doesn’t reach to the heart of the problem. The real troubling issue is that you have never been taught to write a proper proposal in a professionally acceptable form. And unless you can write decent proposals, your future as a filmmaker will be limited. But all is not lost. Now’s the time to gird up your loins (an old English biblical expression that I love for its picturesque directness), get down to business, and learn how it’s done. There are no cast-iron laws as to how to write a proposal—only some good hints and sound advice. My main rule, and I expand on this later, is to write one or two very strong opening paragraphs. Somehow, you have to grab the immediate attention of a jaded commissioning editor. You use your strongest hook or bait. Below is the opening of a proposal I did for a film called Waves of Freedom. One night, shortly after the end of the War in Europe, twenty-yearold Paul gets a mysterious call at his Brooklyn home...


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