How to Make Money as a Documentary Filmmaker

How to Make Money as a Documentary Filmmaker

More than an art form, documentary filmmaking is also a profession where one earns money to make a living and also to sustain the practice of his craft.

A filmmaker in the United States (including documentary filmmakers) earn an average of $37, 170 a year. Top-tier filmmakers would earn more than $100,000 annually.

Aside from directing or making films and documentaries, these filmmakers can also assume other professional roles in productions they might be able to work as cinematographers, production designers, editors or paid creative consultants.

Potentials for growth

film potential for growth

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics the employment of film producers and directors, a category which would include documentary filmmakers is expected to grow by 30% from 2020 to 2030. This is attributed to the recovery of the film industry after the recession of 2020.

Many filmmakers in the United States are benefiting from the increasing consumer demand for media such as films and documentaries as it would mean more production projects.

Also, the internet coupled with the presence of streaming platforms has provided a growing audience for these media.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also forecast increasing demand for specialized creative personnel like writers, cinematographers, editors, and sound designers.

According to documentary filmmaker Luc Forsyth, today is the golden age of documentary filmmaking as streaming companies are looking to capitalize on the growing market of documentaries with the popularity of documentaries such as the Last Dance, and Tiger King.

There are also streaming channels that feature documentaries aside from Netflix and Amazon Prime Video there are also Magellan TV, Hulu, Curiosity Stream and many others.

Making money in documentaries

There are several ways of making money from documentaries.

  1. Shooting and Selling Personal ProjectsNowadays, a documentary filmmaker is also a content creator, producing personal projects as contents that are patronized by the audience. Several filmmakers have used YouTube to upload content and then are monetized. To get started one has to create something (a documentary), then build an audience.

    The traditional route would be shooting a personal story and then selling it to a distributor. These type of productions takes time yet earns the most little money. However, these personal projects are a stepping stone for bigger commissioned projects.

  2. Branded Content workIn recent years marketing companies are looking at promoting their products through documentary-looking films. The rise of corporate Audio-Visual Presentations or AVPs which are informational and instructional (many in the form of videos similar to documentaries) have become an additional form of economic opportunity for filmmakers and other creatives and can be likened to a corporate job.

    Several companies are producing branded content that usually utilizes the creative people behind documentaries.

  3. Working for other ShowsThis is a popular way of earning money as a documentary filmmaker. That is working for another production company. Freelancing in productions is usually the bread and butter for most filmmakers as it provides them with a more steady income than waiting for resources to work on their documentaries.

    Many productions do not have a full-time staff but rely on freelancers to do specialized jobs like writing, shooting, and editing.

The Freelancer

Young man filming with camera and gimbal. Videographer standing against city at sunrise. Prague, Czech Republic

Many filmmakers start out as freelancers in several productions. A person would do it for several reasons

  • Steady income- Frequent freelance work in productions will provide you a steady filmmaking income sort of a day job while waiting for your big break in making a documentary. Aside from productions they can work in other gigs such as wedding videos and events documentation.
  • Learning the ropes- Aspiring filmmakers can apprentice with seasoned filmmakers to know the crafts and to learn how to make films.
  • Networking- Working in productions would enable you to meet people that could be helpful in your endeavor.
  • Generate resources- You could earn enough money in your jobs to save for future passion projects.
  • Testing the waters- You might want to try the environment and experience the process of making a film.

As a freelance here are the top five high-paying work in film productions ( I will exclude above-the-line production people)

  1. Steadicam Operator- Would earn an average of $2500 to $4000 per day. However, you have to invest in Steadicam rigs or have your own gear to fetch a high amount of pay.
  2. Sound Mixers- Are hired for their proficiency in recording good audio in productions. They usually make $1,000 for labor alone. Or $1,200 to $1,800 for a sound package and it depends on how many logs they have during the day of the shoot.
  3. Assistant Directors can demand $1,000 to $1,500 as their day rate.
  4. Prop stylists can get $1,000 to $1,500 per day. These are high-demand jobs for commercial videos.
  5. Director of Photography- These are hired for their competence in composing shots, and working with lights. They average $1,200 to $4,000 per day of shoots.

Can documentaries make money?

A conceptual image focused on the movie industry and the money it can produce using a clapboard and American cash as a background.

Documentaries do not make much money. Unless you’re Michael Moore there is not a much-paying audience for documentaries as compared to those for fiction films.

Nowadays aspiring filmmakers can make a little profit with their documentaries. Uploading it on YouTube and monetizing your traffic is now a common business model.

If you want to monetize on YouTube you must have at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours in the past year. If you can achieve that you can apply to YouTube’s partner program to monetize your channel.

To get that needed figures you must produce content, upload it and build your audience. Others would sell merchs such as shirts, caps, and hoodies. If you have built your online brand this merchandise could reflect its personality and would generate added income aside from the YouTube revenues.

Another is crowdfunding. You can promote your next project and jumpstart crowdfunding thru your network on YouTube.

The secret to getting those revenues is making regular content on YouTube. You would need to upload three to five videos a week on YouTube. By uploading these amount of videos on YouTube you would rank higher on searches.

If your creative process in making documentaries could not produce those recommended number of uploads on YouTube, you can try uploading on Amazon or Vimeo Pro where people would pay to watch your documentary.

However, uploading on Amazon usually is not the end of the road as there are so many films on that channel your documentary might end up lost in the sea of films. You might want to consider getting a distributor that could help you market your films in Amazon.

Selling your Documentary

Another way to make money as a filmmaker is to sell your film or your documentary.

If you just have an idea, you can pitch it in several film festivals. Usually, these entails applying for a documentary grant where you pitch your story or idea.

If you have a finished documentary film you can sell it to a distributor. Finding a good distributor is as hard and challenging as producing your documentary.

If you have an exceptionally great idea, Pitch your film to Alamo Pictures

Tips for Selling your Documentary

Female insurance mortgage broker agent consult young couple showing online presentation on laptop in office cafe, insurer financial advisor make business offer to interested clients look at computer

One tip is to know your audience and from there you can build awareness. Start by identifying the core audience which will help spread the word and will be the first to watch it. I would be making a documentary about the Korean boy group BTS the core audience would be its hardcore fans called the Army.

The second tip is to try looking for an executive producer or a person who invests in your project. The EP aside from providing you with capital will also help you in networking around film circles that could help you in distribution.

Another tip is to go find a sales agent that can effectively sell your film and knows the who’s who. Usually, they have personal relationships with distributors and know how to utilize those connections.

One great tip is to find a film festival that would make your film stand out and get noticed. Study the many film festival abroad which can generate great buzz about your film and provide you exposure to potential distributors.

The next tip would be to go with a trustworthy distributor. You can ask other filmmakers for their experiences in working with a particular producer.

The Guerrilla way of making money from your documentary

Making films (including documentaries) is a costly adventure. The cost of producing a film (pre-production, principal photography, post-production) is just another phase of budgeting. The second and perhaps more expensive phase is marketing and distribution.

Expenses would include making copies of your films, posters, placement of ads/trailers, media expenses, etc, etc.

Thus for an independent documentary filmmaker without many resources, there are several ways to market and make money from your documentary.

  • Set up a website, and a strong social media presence– Thank God for social media, you can bypass traditional media channels to help promote your documentary.
  • Create a viral trailer- A viral trailer can help you spark interest online.
  • Partner with local film groups- These film clubs or groups can help you in marketing your film or reach your niche audience.
  • Community screenings– These community events aside from being fundraisers can help generate buzz, spread awareness, allow community networking, and educate the audience among many others.
  • School visits- School screenings are also a good avenue to market your film. Often this is followed by a meet-and-greet, Q&As (Question and Answers), and other discussions with the student audience.

Making it on Netflix

Netflix is a streaming platform that has several popular and award-winning documentaries on its roster. The company has a team of documentary buyers located in Los Angeles and major cities such as London and Paris.

They do not have a formal submission process but there are ways where your independently produced documentary can enter the channel.

Option 1 is to pitch your film directly to Netflix. However, you must first establish a connection at Netflix as they do not entertain unsolicited submissions.

Option 2 is to find an agent that can pitch your film to Netflix. They can guide you to the Netflix buyers and help you with your pitch.

Option 3 is to work with distributors. These distributors have connections to Netflix buyers where they pitch to them their portfolios of completed productions to still in development.

Option 4 is to tie-up with an established A-list producer. Netflix is studded with celebrities and top Hollywood A-list-produced films and documentaries. One disadvantage of this option is that you would be losing some creative control of your project.

Building a critical mass

Getting a distributor or being accepted on Netflix is not a reason for you to slack off.

You need to get that critical mass. This is the point where your documentary gets enough views to start showing up as a suggestion for similar films (documentaries).

The secret here is to be CONSISTENT in promoting your film. Keep on churning your social media machine to promote your documentary. The key in making money is promoting your work.

Even if you have a distributor or you are already in Netflix or in Amazon Prime if you stop working on promoting, your documentary will just get covered in the many films that are shown on these online channels.

Applying for PBS


Public Broadcasting Service is known for providing educational programming to public television stations across the United States.

For emerging filmmakers, PBS has a call for proposals where these filmmakers can receive funding support. Broadcast Long Form (60 mins to 90 mins) can get up production or completion funding of up to $50,000. While Digital Short Form ( 8 mins to 25 mins) can get production or completion funding of up to $15,000.

Importance of joining film festivals


Film festivals are an important avenue for marketing and promoting your films/documentaries. They provide much-needed exposure to small independent documentary filmmakers, they provide opportunities for the films to connect to distributors and buyers, and they provide also a test screening platform where filmmakers can gauge the reaction and response of the viewers.

Among the popular documentary film festivals include HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festival, one of the largest documentary film festivals in North America, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana, South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and Sundance.

Don’t Give Up

Perseverance pays off when you are a documentary filmmaker. And this does not just apply to the phase of producing your film but also goes beyond distribution and promotions. The industry has unlimited potential. If you want to make money you have to work harder for it.