Creating a successful documentary is no easy feat. It requires a compelling subject, a keen eye for story, and a talented, committed crew. The best non-fiction filmmakers know that there’s one other element to consider: hiring a documentary researcher.
But how do you find a documentary researcher? And what should you be looking for in the perfect candidate?
It’s important to begin your search by defining some broad parameters up front. These will help to make sure you’re looking for your researcher in the right places.
What kind of time commitment are you going to need from your documentary research hire? What will you be able to pay them? What kind of collaboration are you looking for? How much experience will they need to have? And what kind of research will you be asking them to do?
This will likely be based on the intensity and scope of the research needed for your documentary. When hiring a doc researcher, some questions you might ask yourself are: does the research involve easily available information, or will your researcher have to gain access to specialized tracts of data (eg. submit FOIA requests)?
Does the research require gathering data over long periods of time (eg. crop yields year-to-year)? Will your researcher be on board for the entire production, or are you looking for a researcher to work only during a specific phase, such as pre-production?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions yet, that’s okay! Just be upfront with your candidates. You’re hiring them for their expertise, so let them into your process and make decisions together if need be.
Similarly, define your budget before hiring a documentary researcher. Be realistic about what your documentary can afford and set your expectations accordingly. If you’ve never done a budget before, you can get started with our free budgeting breakdown and template.
Once you’ve determined a number that you’re comfortable spending, consider the level of experience, expertise, and qualifications you require from a researcher and set a realistic budget range for their compensation.
If your budget and that compensation don’t match up, consider ways to raise more funds for your documentary.
Finally, be sure to keep in mind additional expenses! Your researcher may need to travel or require access to special databases like JSTOR or Scopus. Those are additional costs you have to factor into your research budget.
It’s equally important to consider how you want to collaborate with your researcher. Do you want them to be your partner, leading the charge? Or do you want to employ them more as a tool to gather data and report back?
For instance, if you’re making a documentary about a refugee crisis, will your researcher be expected to travel to the location of the crisis and make connections themselves? Or will you be providing interview contacts and specific questions to your researcher?
Many researchers are happy to do as much heavy lifting as expected, but you have to be clear about what those expectations are in order for the collaboration to go smoothly.
Clarify your needs regarding communication, progress updates, and decision-making to find a researcher who aligns with your preferred level of involvement.
Another important factor to consider is how experienced you need your researcher to be. This determination is probably best made in concert with other parameters, such as budget and level of commitment. For instance, if you require a highly experienced researcher but don’t have much of a budget, then you might not be able to ask them to make a long-term commitment.
But maybe you don’t need someone with extensive experience in documentary research. Are you open to working with someone who is relatively new to the field? Depending on how complex the research is, you may be able to hire a college student or a part-time fact checker.
If your documentary just needs someone to confirm the names of state representatives or double-check the scientific names of different whales, that might be an appropriate direction to go.
That same approach wouldn’t be appropriate for hiring a doc researcher on a project about controversies within nuclear physics. That would require a researcher with much more experience and professional expertise.
Much like deciding on what kind of experience level you’re looking for, it’s important to know what type of research you will be hiring a doc researcher to do.
Does your researcher need to be an expert at interviews? Should they have a background in a specific kind of art or media? Is the research scholarly - requiring an understanding of specialized knowledge - or is it more general?
Defining these parameters early on will help make sure you hire the documentary researcher who is right for you.
Determine whether the researcher needs to be local or if remote work is an option. If the research requires access to specific resources, an eyewitness, or a subject that requires the researcher to be physically present, travel may be necessary.
Depending on where your researcher needs to go, this can be an expensive and complicated undertaking. We recommend giving our article on international film fixers a look to make sure everything runs smoothly.
However, with advancements in technology, remote collaboration is not out of the question and may expand your pool of potential candidates.
One of the first questions you might have when hiring a doc researcher is where to begin your search. It’s a very specific role, and it might seem intimidating to hit Google and hope for the best.
Here are a few places you could start:
You might begin by reaching out to your personal network of filmmakers, producers, agents, or documentary film programmers.
Just like every other aspect of the film industry, the doc world is a tight knit community and many filmmakers are happy to recommend talented collaborators.
Wrapbook’s All-Crew Database makes keeping track of the people you’ve worked with in the past incredibly easy. Simply review your personal crew database of everyone who’s worked on your productions.
If you decide you want to work with the same researcher again, Wrapbook makes that even easier. We’ll store their information and re-enter it for you. All with a few clicks of a mouse.
If your connections come up dry when hiring a documentary researcher, try contacting universities or colleges with programs relevant to doc research:
In addition, you could consider contacting the department of the subject you’re researching to see if they have any candidates that come to mind.
Professors, career centers, or alumni networks at these schools can be excellent resources for identifying promising documentary researchers. Recent graduates or students seeking freelance opportunities may possess relevant skills and fresh perspectives.
Not to mention, graduate students in these programs will generally be well-versed in how to conduct extensive research through reputable sources.
If all else fails, turn to the ocean of talent on the internet. Online platforms dedicated to freelancers and professionals in the entertainment industry, such as Mandy.com, EntertainmentCareers.net, and LinkedIn, offer access to a vast pool of people.
These platforms allow you to review candidates' profiles, portfolios, and ratings from previous clients. You can post job listings detailing your research requirements and directly invite potential candidates to apply.
Even better, leveraging the wide reach of these sites provides access to researchers from diverse backgrounds and locations.
Your favorite candidate might have the right connections and enthusiasm for your project, but do they have the proper qualifications for the job? Determining the answer is as easy as conducting a thorough interview.
The key to a successful collaboration with the doc researcher you hire is clarity. Here are some questions you may want to consider as you interview potential documentary researchers:
A question like this could get your candidate to open up about specifics that clue you into the success they’ve had on previous projects. Not everyone has worked on high-profile, Oscar-winning documentaries, but you’ll want to evaluate the general quality of their previous experience.
If the candidate hasn’t worked on documentary films, have they collaborated with the local library on a history project? Done some consulting for a museum? If nothing else, their answers will provide you with some names to follow up with to see how effective, professional, and personable the candidate was in their last role.
If you are interviewing experts, this may not be as important to ask - but if you’re hunting for a diamond in the rough, it’s essential.
Just because someone is new to a field doesn’t mean they won’t conduct good research, but you want to dig in on how excited they are by the story you are telling. Documentary research can be a difficult and time-consuming task, and it’s best not to hire someone who doesn’t demonstrate at least an interest in the subject.
It may not matter which specific resources they use, but a question like this will give you insight as to how much experience the candidate has. If you’re looking for a highly experienced candidate, but their go-to answer to this question is “Google,” they might not be the right fit.
They should know where the highest quality information in their field exists and how to access it.
This is one of the most important questions you can ask. The candidate’s answer will give you a sense of how well they navigate the unexpected hurdles that arise during production. If they know where to dig, but not what to do when production takes a turn, they might not be a good fit for documentary filmmaking.
Alternately, if they’ve never worked in production before, their answer will give you a good sense of how prepared they are to face those bumps in the road. You’ll want to listen for answers that display tenacity, resourcefulness, and the ability to think on their feet.
Now that you’ve found your dream doc researcher to hire, it’s easy to get excited and forget that nothing is official until you get the details down on paper. Even if the researcher is a friend or an industry contact, don’t underestimate the importance of a contract.
While you’ll want to consult with a legal professional or contract specialist before seeking signatures, there are a couple deal points to keep front of mind when hiring a doc researcher.
First, define your project’s scope. Clearly detail the specific research tasks, deliverables, and deadlines expected from the documentary researcher. This should include the duration of the engagement and any milestones or key project phases.
Make sure to bake a clear compensation structure into the contract. Outline the agreed-upon payment amount, frequency (whether it's an hourly rate, per project, or a flat fee), and any additional expenses or reimbursements covered by the production.
Depending on your project, you may want to include language surrounding ownership rights of the research materials and findings in the contract. Clarify whether the production company or the researcher retains ownership of this work. Additionally, determine the researcher’s on-screen credit in the documentary, and whether it will appear in the opening or closing credits.
A well-drafted contract will protect both parties' interests, ensure clarity, and help to maintain a professional working relationship throughout the documentary research process.
Hiring a documentary researcher is a critical step in ensuring the accuracy, depth, and credibility of your project. By determining your expectations, knowing where to find candidates, asking the right questions, evaluating qualifications, and finalizing a well-drafted contract, you can increase your chances of finding the perfect candidate.
For more information on how to make a documentary, check out our article on how to choose the best format for your narrative doc. And before your cameras start to roll, make sure to take a look at our producer’s guide to running payroll.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.