Is becoming a documentary filmmaker right for me?

The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:

What do documentary filmmakers do?

Still unsure if becoming a documentary filmmaker is the right career path? to find out if this career is right for you. Perhaps you are well-suited to become a documentary filmmaker or another similar career!

Described by our users as being “shockingly accurate”, you might discover careers you haven’t thought of before.

How to become a Documentary Filmmaker

There are no strict educational requirements to become a documentary filmmaker, as the field values creativity, practical skills, and real-world experience above all. However, many successful documentary filmmakers have pursued formal education in film, media production, or a related field to gain foundational knowledge and technical skills. Here are some educational pathways to the career:

High School Diploma or Equivalent
Earn a high school diploma or equivalent. High school education provides a foundation in basic communication and organizational skills, and it lays the groundwork for further learning.

Throughout your high school years, watch documentaries and study the work of established documentary filmmakers to understand different styles, approaches, and storytelling techniques. Analyze how they structure their films, conduct interviews, and use visuals to convey information and emotion.

Bachelor's or Master’s Degree in Film Production or a Related Field
Many aspiring documentary filmmakers choose to pursue a degree in film production or screenwriting. These programs provide a comprehensive education in filmmaking techniques, theory, history, and practical skills. Students may learn about storytelling, screenwriting, directing, cinematography, editing, sound design, production management, and other aspects of film production.

Alternative degree options include visual and performing arts, multimedia arts, or journalism.

Film School
Attending a dedicated film school or film program can provide intensive hands-on training and mentorship from industry professionals. Film schools often offer specialized courses, workshops, and access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities for students to develop their skills and create portfolio-worthy projects. Some well-known film schools include the American Film Institute (AFI), New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts, and the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts.

Programs dedicated to documentary production may be available at some institutions. These programs focus on the unique challenges and techniques of documentary storytelling and also address documentary filmmaking ethics.

Online Courses and Workshops
For those unable to pursue a degree or attend a traditional film school, there are numerous online courses, workshops, and tutorials available that cover various aspects of filmmaking. Platforms like Coursera, Udemy, and MasterClass offer courses taught by industry professionals on topics such as screenwriting, directing, lighting, cinematography, editing, sound recording, and more.

Internships and Practical Experience
While formal education is valuable, gaining hands-on experience through internships, apprenticeships, and entry-level positions in the film industry is also essential for aspiring filmmakers. Interning at production companies, film studios, or media organizations; working as a production assistant; or volunteering with film festivals and events can provide valuable insights into the industry, build professional connections, and help develop practical skills.

Build a Portfolio and Develop Your Voice
Start building a portfolio of your work by creating short documentary films, video essays, trailers, or demo reels on issues and topics that resonate with you. Your portfolio should showcase your creativity, technical proficiency, and storytelling ability. Consider collaborating with other aspiring filmmakers or local businesses to gain practical experience.

Establish a professional online presence by creating a website that contains your portfolio, resume, and contact information. Use social media platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, and Vimeo to share your projects, connect with potential clients, and demonstrate your expertise.

Specialize and Define Your Niche
Identify your areas of interest and specialization within documentary filmmaking. Whether you choose to adopt a particular filmmaking style or focus on one or more specific documentary subject areas, defining your niche can help you concentrate your efforts and build a reputation in your chosen field. For a complete list of specializations, please see the What does a Documentary Filmmaker do? section in the career overview.

Networking and Professional Development
Building a strong network of industry contacts and mentors is crucial for success in the film industry. Attending industry events, film festivals, workshops, panel discussions, and networking functions can provide opportunities to meet like-minded individuals, fellow documentary filmmakers, industry professionals, and potential collaborators.

Stay abreast of industry trends, new technologies, and emerging platforms in documentary filmmaking. Continuously expand your skills and experiment with new techniques to remain competitive in the ever-evolving film industry.

The following are some industry-recognized credentials applicable to documentary filmmakers:

  • Software Training and Certifications – Many documentary filmmakers use industry-standard software for editing, visual effects, and other post-production tasks. Software companies like Adobe (Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects), Apple (Final Cut Pro), and Avid (Avid Media Composer) offer training programs and certifications to validate proficiency in their software tools.
  • Film Festival Awards and Recognition – Winning awards or receiving recognition at film festivals can serve as a form of validation of a filmmaker's work and expertise. Many film festivals have competition categories specifically for documentaries, providing opportunities for filmmakers to showcase their work and gain industry recognition.

Professional Organizations
Several professional organizations and associations cater to the interests and needs of documentary filmmakers, providing resources, networking and professional development opportunities, advocacy, and support for professionals working in various aspects of the field. Here are some notable examples:

  • International Documentary Association (IDA) – The IDA is a non-profit that promotes nonfiction filmmakers, and is dedicated to increasing public awareness for the documentary genre. It offers the Getting Real conference and other educational events focused on documentary filmmaking.
  • Documentary Producers Alliance (DPA) – The DPA is an organization focused on supporting independent documentary producers. It helps documentary producers navigate the challenges of funding, production, and distribution.
  • POV (Point of View) – POV is a non-profit media organization that produces and distributes documentary films. It supports independent filmmakers through its flagship PBS television series, digital initiatives, and filmmaker support programs, including workshops, fellowships, and funding opportunities.
  • London Documentary Network (LDN) – LDN is a London based group committed to the creation and appreciation of documentary films.
  • National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) – NALIP is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and supporting Latino/a/x content creators in the media industry, including documentary filmmakers.
  • Asian American Documentary Network (A-Doc) – A-Doc is a collective of Asian American documentary filmmakers working to increase the visibility and representation of Asian American stories in documentary film.
  • Directors Guild of America (DGA) – The DGA represents directors, assistant directors, and unit production managers working in film, television, and other media.
  • Producers Guild of America (PGA) – The PGA is a professional organization for producers working in film, television, and new media.
  • Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) – IFP, the US’s oldest filmmakers' non-profit, believes independent films broaden the palette of cinema, seed culture with new ideas, and foster activism.
  • Sundance Institute – The Sundance Institute, a non-profit organization founded by Robert Redford, is committed to the growth of independent artists. The Institute is driven by its programs that discover and support filmmakers, theater artists, and composers from all over the world.
  • Film Independent – This is a non-profit arts organization that champions the independent filmmaker.

Persistence and Resilience
The path to becoming a successful documentary filmmaker can be challenging and competitive. Be persistent, resilient, and dedicated to honing your craft, building your network, and pursuing your passion for documentary storytelling.

Develop proposals for documentary projects you would like to pursue and pitch them to production companies, broadcasters, and funding organizations. Be prepared to articulate your vision, target audience, and the potential impact of your project.