How to Budget for Documentary Production


The True Cost Of A Documentary

How much does a documentary cost to make? It depends a whole lot on the documentary in question. The true cost of a documentary depends on many different factors so it's hard to know how much YOUR documentary will cost until you've nailed down some of them.

Some documentaries are made for a pittance. Others cost millions to shoot, edit and distribute.

That said, let's look at the factors that go into the true cost of a documentary.

What's the Average Cost of a Documentary?

You can start with an estimate expressed in terms of cost per finished minute of video. As a rule of thumb, a lot of producers assume that a finished corporate production or high-quality YouTube video will cost about $1,000 per finished minute of footage. From there, you can extrapolate the final cost based on length. A 60-minute documentary will therefore cost $60,000.

If you're making something of higher quality, say a project that will run as a feature that will show in theaters or festivals, then you might be looking at production costs ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 per finished minute...or possibly more, depending on the various factors involved.

That said, those baseline estimates - $1,000 to $10,000 per finished video - will give you something approaching an idea of how much a documentary will cost to make. A public television documentary may cost several hundred thousand dollars, even upward of $1 million to make.

Here are some of the factors that will influence that final cost.

Shooting Costs

The first of the costs is the shooting costs. This includes the cost of the crew, which can cost $1,700 per day for a small crew to $1,700 per HOUR for a larger, more experienced crew or even more, depending on the size of the crew needed. The more cameras, lighting and so on are needed, the greater the costs.

Shooting duration will also impact the cost. The longer you're shooting, the more you're running up the tab, so to speak. As will talent costs if doing dramatizations/recreations or using on-camera talent.

Then you have location costs. Filming exterior shots and other outdoor locations can involve permits, travel and so on, which can be quite expensive depending on the specifics. Interview documentaries can be shot fairly easily, with only a studio or hotel room needing to be rented for the duration of filming.

Then you'll have the cost of any graphics if you wish to include them, which can be costly if being professionally done through a studio.

Post-Production Editing Costs

Editing, much like shooting, will increase in cost the longer it goes on as well as the greater your editing needs are. A professional editor will usually cost $1,000 to $2,500 per day, depending on the experience of the editor, the quality of the work as well as the amount of editorial control that you feel you need over the project.

Post-production expenses, such as graphics, soundtrack and any sound effects, will likewise increase cost.

Third-party material, such as music or video footage, clips and so on, will also need to be licensed should your project have any commercial intent whatsoever. This licensing can cost a lot to acquire, especially if multiple copyright holders are involved.

To manage those costs, try to find public domain images, video and music. Those from the creative commons resources, which may require credit though not payment, are also good resources for third-party content that don't require payment.

Distribution And Marketing Costs

After you've shot and cut your documentary, another component in the true cost of a documentary is going to be the costs of distribution and marketing, if applicable. Some documentaries, after all, are three- to ten-minute shorts and others are feature-length. Additionally, some are for corporate purposes, others are for other reasons entirely.

If you need to get this film distributed, into festivals and so on, you'll likely need to pay a distributor to get the film where it needs to go, and especially if producing the documentary on actual film stock.

Then you have marketing. Traditional marketing campaigns - trailers, posters and so on - have been superseded by those on YouTube, Facebook and other channels, but there are still costs for these activities, unless you plan on doing this yourself.

So, how much does it cost to make a documentary? It really depends. You could make one for a few thousand dollars, or it could cost a few million. It all really depends on the documentary in question.

If you need assistance getting a documentary created and produced, feel free to contact us.

Wide Awake Films