There are many documentary genres that are worth discussing: true crime, music, political, and family melodrama to name a few, but today I'd like to put the focus on the "issue documentary."
If you haven't seen the Netflix Original "The 13th" yet, you must do so immediately, for two reasons: 1. It is a fantastic film. 2. It is what I will refer to as the quintessential "issue documentary" of the 2010s. The issue in this film is the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution that freed the slaves but also created a plethora of systems from Jim Crow to lynchings to mass incarceration that have made life a living hell for millions of black Americans. The filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, takes a harsh stand against injustices by the American government, putting numerous policies under the microscope. For this, The 13th won the 2017 Emmy Award for Best Documentary. (I'm proud to have lost to this fine film!)
Al Gore's 2006 "An Inconvenient Truth" and his 2017 follow-up "An Inconvenient Sequel" are two further examples of issue documentaries that have attracted large audiences and potentially earned profits for their producers: The first film was made for $1 million and earned $50 million at the box office. The second was also made for $1 million and earned $4.5 million at the box office. (The reason I say potentially earned profits for the producers is there's no way to determine the marketing budget for these films, as they may or may not come out of the listed production budgets.)
Many documentary ideas I hear about are issue documentaries. But here's the big difference between Al Gore's issue documentaries and yours: You weren't Vice President of the United States and don't have millions of dollars from Participant Media's marketing department behind you. Furthermore, you aren't Ava DuVernay and don't have a Best Director Prize from Sundance, a Golden Globe nomination, or the power of Netflix's powerful marketing and public relations departments behind you. This is a harsh reality, but let it sink in for a second, because it is true.
No film is going to be an indie smashing success without millions of dollars of marketing behind it. Of course there are studio films that spend the GDP of small countries on marketing and still flop, but in the indie world, you'll likely only get a mega marketing budget if you're film is awesome.This said, there are many things you can do togreatly increase the value of your indie issue documentary
1. Get celebrities involved: Let's say you're making an issue documentary about colon cancer, and some new treatments for it. Well, simply Googling "colon cancer celebrity" reveals a dozen celebrities who have either had colon cancer themselves or are strong advocates for colon cancer research. Such people include Katie Couric (whose husband passed away from the disease) and former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (whose grandfather also passed away from the disease). Why not reach out to these people to see if they'd be interested in narrating your film or being interviewed for it? That would be one way to inherently boost the value of your production and would make it way easier for you to get distribution down the line.
2. Target people who care: The goal of your issue documentary might not be for it to reach every eyeball on earth; the goal might be to reach specific eyeballs, namely those people who are deeply affected by the issue you have created your film about. So, using the example above, you could organize screenings in major cities and target colorectal cancer patients to tell them about amazing new treatments that they may be able to use. This would be measurable impact.
3. Create an issue related blog to build a community, and brand yourself as an expert. Chances are, if you are making an issue documentary, it is because you or someone you know is adversely affected by the issue. Furthermore, from your filmmaking you likely know quite a bit about your subject. Thus, creating a resource where people can go to discover more relevant information about the issue at hand is a natural way for you to build a solid, caring audience for your film.