How Long Should a Documentary Be?

Determining the ideal length for a documentary is much like crafting a tailored suit: it requires precise measurements and expert consideration to ensure it meets its objectives and expectations. 

To that end, there are several crucial decisions documentary makers need to take. In this blog post, we navigate the considerations that influence how long a documentary should be and explore how the intended message, target audience, and distribution platforms play pivotal roles in deciding a documentary’s runtime. 

These recommendations come from our years of experience working in Washington DC, a city that provides a supportive environment for documentary filmmakers, screenings, and festivals; and bursts with stories to tell thanks to its unique position in America’s sociopolitical landscape.

What is a Documentary?

A documentary is a non-fictional film dealing with real-life events, people, places, and issues, made to educate the audience or simply preserve historical or cultural information. The intent is often to provoke thought, generate discussion, or inspire action. 

Documentaries employ various techniques, including direct interviews, archival footage, voice-over narration, observational footage (fly on the wall), and re-enactments. 

Take, for example, Peace Through Education, a three-part documentary we made about Mohammad Kharoti, a doctor, building a school in his village in Afghanistan. The story is narrated through the words of teachers and students, Mohammad, his family, and Afghan government officials; and a mix of audiovisual footage and still photographs explore the impact the school has on the children, adults, and culture of his village. 

Peace Through Education 3-Part Documentary | Rock Creek (rock-creek.com)

4 Elements Of Filming a Documentary

From the initial concept that sparks its creation to the final touches in post-production, each of the following elements plays a vital role in bringing the true essence of the documentary’s story to life. 

1. Perspective and point of view: Documentaries often reflect a specific perspective or stance on the subject matter, guided by the filmmaker’s vision, interpretation, or argument.

2. Research and fact-checking: Filmmakers employ a rigorous process of gathering information, data, and evidence to accurately represent the subject matter and ensure credibility and authenticity.

3. Narrative structure: Stories are nebulous things, and structure gives them clarity. Narratives could follow a linear progression, a thematic arrangement, or a more experimental form.

4. Visual and audio elements: This includes all the visual footage (such as interviews, archival footage, re-enactments, and observational footage) and audio elements (such as voice-over narration, ambient sounds, and music) used in storytelling.

Common Types of Documentaries

Documentaries come in various types, each offering a unique approach to storytelling. Although they are restricted to facts, they offer a lot of opportunities to experiment.

1. Expository documentaries: These are probably the most common, easily understood types of documentaries. They aim to inform and/or persuade, often through an authoritative, omniscient voice-over style. They are heavily researched and sometimes referred to as essay films. Well-known examples are David Attenborough’s BBC programs “Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth”.

2. Observational documentaries: Also known as direct cinema, these documentaries strive for cinematic realism, capturing authentic moments. For instance, “American Factory” on Netflix, captures real, unscripted moments, offering a fly-on-the-wall view of a culture clash in an Ohio factory takeover by a Chinese company, without filmmaker interference.

3. Participatory documentaries: In these documentaries, the filmmaker actively engages with the subject matter, often becoming a part of the narrative. An example is Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” where the filmmaker is a central figure in the documentary, conducting interviews and offering his own perspective on the events around the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. 

4. Performative documentaries: These documentaries emphasize the filmmaker’s personal or emotional connection to what’s being presented. They often explore personal, autobiographical topics. In the Academy Award-winning feature “Super Size Me,” the director Morgan Spurlock himself becomes the subject of his own 30-day experiment where he only eats McDonald’s food. 

How Long Should a Documentary Be?

If you are planning on filming a documentary, several considerations come into play to ensure it is neither too long nor too short. Here are a few:

1. Subject matter complexity: The depth and complexity of the topic can influence the necessary length. More intricate subjects might require additional time to explore thoroughly.

2. Audience expectations: Consider who your audience is and what their expectations might be regarding content depth and viewing time. Different audiences may have varying tolerance levels for documentary length.

3. Distribution platform: Different lengths work with different platforms. For instance, streaming services like Netflix might prefer feature-length documentaries, while online platforms or film festivals prefer shorter formats.

4. Storytelling pace: The pacing of your narrative and how quickly or slowly you wish for the story to unfold will affect the overall length. A faster-paced documentary can be shorter, while a slower, more reflective piece might need more time to develop.

5. Content availability: The amount and type of content available (interviews, archival footage, etc.) can also dictate the length. More material may allow you to create a longer documentary.

6. Budget and resources: Longer documentaries require more resources, time, and money. Consider your budget and the resources available to you when deciding on the length.

Different Lengths of a Documentary

Ranging from two minutes to several hours, documentaries run in all lengths. Each has its pros and cons, fits into different platforms, and caters to different kinds of audiences. Here’s a rough breakdown, followed by a table for reference:

1. Mini documentaries: These are short documentaries that typically range between 2 and 25 minutes. Mini documentaries are suitable for sharing information on the web and as part of a larger series. They offer a concise way to present the mission of an organization, business, or specific issue.

2. Short-form documentaries: These documentaries are usually longer than mini-documentaries and are limited to one “episode” but are still under 40 minutes long. Short documentaries are often utilized for online platforms, film festivals, or as part of a larger series. They aim to capture the essence of a story within a shorter time frame, providing a focused and concise narrative.

3. Broadcast documentaries: Designed for television or streaming platforms, broadcast documentaries can vary widely in length, from 30 minutes to several hours. The length depends on the specific requirements of the network or platform. These documentaries allow for a more in-depth exploration of the subject matter.

4. Feature-length documentaries: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a minimum length requirement of 40 minutes for a documentary to qualify as a feature film. Typically, features range from 75 to 120 minutes. Feature-length documentaries also have the most commercial potential, as the runtime is popular with buyers and audiences, especially in the context of film festivals and streaming platforms.

5. Mini-series or multi-part documentaries: Mini-series or multi-part documentaries split an overarching story or theme into several episodes, allowing filmmakers to dissect broad topics—such as historical events, extensive biographies, or complex social issues—across multiple segments, providing depth and nuance. For audiences, it offers a digestible way to engage with content at their own pace. These work especially well with streaming platforms.

6. Television slot lengths: Documentaries broadcast on TV have predetermined durations, such as 30 minutes or an hour, to fit into airing schedules, including commercial breaks. Filmmakers must adapt their content to these slots, impacting the documentary’s pacing and structure to ensure viewer engagement within the constraints of TV programming.

FormatLengthPurposeSuitable PlatformsProsCons
Mini-Documentaries2 – 25 minutesOften used to concisely share the story or mission of an organization, business, or specific issue.Online, can be used for brand storytelling.Require less time and resources to produce.May not provide enough context or depth to fully explore a subject.
Short DocumentariesLess than 40 minutesEducational.Online platforms, educational institutions, and film festivals.Concise, easy to distribute online, and lower production costs.Limited time for in-depth exploration, may struggle to cover complex topics fully.
Feature-Length Documentaries40 – 120+ minutes

In-depth exploration of a topic.
Theatrical releases, TV broadcasts, streaming platforms.Comprehensive exploration, wider distribution options, and potential for high audience engagement.Higher production costs, longer production time, and may require more resources for distribution.
Mini-Series or Multi-Part DocumentariesMultiple episodes, 30 – 60+ minutes eachComprehensive exploration of complex subjects, detailed storytelling over several episodes.Streaming platforms, TV networks.Flexible viewing (binge or episodic), with potential for deeper audience connection.Requires significant content to fill episodes, higher production costs, and risk of viewer drop-off.
Television Slot Lengths30 minutes (about 22 min of content), or 60 minutes (about 42-45 min of content).Designed to fit TV time slots, including commercial breaks.TVWidely accessible, fits established viewing habits, and potential for regular scheduling.Constrained by TV schedule and commercial interruptions, may need to conform to network standards.

Hire Rock Creek’s Documentary Video Production Services

Whether it’s a succinct short or an expansive series, the key to a documentary lies in crafting a visual narrative that holds the viewer’s attention. Rock Creek Productions offers video production services in DC, the documentary capital of the world. We bring expertise built over decades in storytelling, and access to invaluable resources owing to our location in the capital. Let us co-create a resonant, impactful documentary together. Contact us today.

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