How Much Does It Cost To Make A Documentary?


If you plan to make a documentary, you must be pondering whether you can afford it. If you approximate the cost it demands to make the documentary, wouldn’t it be wonderful. So let’s talk about how much does it cost to make a documentary.

By industry standards, a documentary costs between $750 -1250 per minute of the duration. However, you can easily make a low-budget documentary under $15000. A big-budget documentary can run beyond $2 million in production.

But, when one poses the question, it is only fair that you give them a good answer. In this case, there is no definite answer since there are many aspects that determine or influence the cost. No wonder some are achievable for free. Others cost peanuts, whereas others mean having to break the bank. 

In this article, our focus is on the various factors that lead to discrepancies in the cost of multiple documentaries. 

We will also look at the average price of making one and how much to expect from the final product after the distribution stage. With such answers, it becomes easy to determine whether you have what it takes to make one in the first place.

Also, your documentary budget will determine if it is a viable project. So, let’s dive into how much it costs to make a documentary and much more.

Documentary Budget

Just like any other budget, a documentary budget entails the approximate cost of producing the entire thing. It will differ from one documentary to the other because of the following reasons.

  • The Level of Quality

Just like any other product out there, a high-quality documentary comes at an additional cost. Therefore, if you want an excellent story, sound, flow or look, you should be willing to spend more on that top-notch quality. 

The fact that the sky is the limit in terms of film quality means you could end up spending as much as you can to achieve it. In most cases, the quality of the documentary is directly proportional to the amount of money you spend on it. However, never make a mistake of exceeding what you can afford because it will eventually have repercussions as you try to balance the expenditure and sales. 

Also, don’t assume that you can’t reach your audience when working with a tight budget. People will overlook quality when you have an original, gripping, and thought-provoking documentary, no doubt.

Quality demands more money because you need to settle for the best gear. The equipment will make a huge difference in audio and visual quality. Equally important, the professionals need to have the experience to operate such equipment.

  • Your story’s scope and scale

How many people will you need for your documentary? Would there be a need for events, and how many will they be if the answer is a yes? How much time do you need to tell the story? What’s the number of locations that you will need for the same. 

The higher the figure of these questions is, the more you should expect to spend. If there is a need to travel for long, then that’s an additional cost.

  • Third-party copyrights

A need to use material you don’t own may arise when making your documentary. You may want to use photographs and films by other people. Background music may also not be your original song. 

To use them, it goes without saying that you will pay for the license. Again, that means digging deeper into your pocket.

  • The necessary amount of editing

Editing is not just essential but also takes a huge chunk of any documentary budget. Since there are no or little rehearsals, a documentary’s reality aspect makes editing necessary for a great final product.

What people say or do is out of control, and as much as it is exciting, it could quickly become a problem. Usually, documentaries don’t have seasoned actors. The players are real. They are naïve in front of the camera, and sometimes in investigative documentaries, they are oblivious of the cameras. So, all you do is shoot, shoot and shoot. Random footage piles up to a ton of extraneous work for editors. This has an effect on the costs as well.

Since you have your initial plan, you will need to edit it accordingly to achieve what you were looking for from the beginning. The intense review and evaluation require strenuous efforts, time, and money.

Therefore, expect one documentary budget to be different from the other because of such factors.

The Average Budget of a Short Documentary?

The rule has always been for producers to spend approximately between $750- $1250 to produce a footage a minute long. If that were to be the case, creating a short documentary ( under 20 mins) documentary will require under $15000 – $25,000. However, average quality is never enough most of the time. Consequently, you will need to spend more, ranging from $1000 to $10000 for the one-minute footage.

 How much does it cost to make a 30-minute documentary?

According to the industry’s unspoken rule, a 30 minute documentary should cost between $ 25000 to $40000. But depending upon the production quality, we know that the approximate cost can soar much more than that for every finished minute of a video. 

It can be anything between $1000 and $10000, so you can estimate the budget of making a 30-minute documentary will cost between $30000 to $300000. 

After all, the length of a documentary is directly proportional to the cost of production. However, the total cost figure can’t be a constant because of the other factors discussed above. The cost of public television documentary can be anything from a few hundred thousand dollars to $1 million. The budget can be subdivided into several categories as follows.

  • Shooting Budget

To shoot, you need lighting, cameras, locations fee, travel costs, and crew, just to mention a few. The price is approximately $1500 – $ 2000 daily if the number is small. Nevertheless, that can be only the hourly rate if the crew is large. The cost may differ depending on the crew’s experience and the amount of time you will spend shooting.

  • Editing Budget

You might need to hire a professional editor, and their fee can be anywhere between $1000 and $2500 daily. Sound effects, soundtrack, and graphics mean more money. It may also be necessary to pay for rights to use third-party clips, footage, or music.

  • Distribution and Marketing Budget

Once the documentary is ready, distribution follows, and hiring a distributor is the best approach. There is also marketing, which can be in the form of posters and trailers. There is also social media marketing, and it is not free either unless you do it yourself.

How much does Netflix pay for a documentary film?

So far, Netflix doesn’t have a specific amount of money to pay filmmakers for a documentary film. They have an algorithm that automatically determines what you get. 

They hardly buy rights from individuals but instead do to distributors and aggregators. 

Netflix prefers purchase rights for some time. It is important to note that they pay more for exclusive rights than in the case of non-exclusive agreements.

How much do documentaries really sell for?

If your documentary costs $100000, you should at least sell it for $200000. However, it would help if you always strived for 3X -4X of your costs because documentaries may not sell quickly unless you have been commissioned. So, it is better to have a nice buffer between the making costs and the selling price.

The truth is that as much as you can make money from a documentary film, it is usually not that much in most cases. How you distribute them determines how much sales you will make. 

One of the options is uploading it on YouTube, where you get paid from the ads. Vimeo Pro and Amazon’s likes pay you depending on the people who watch it.

VOD and DVDs, primarily through distributors, are also a great option. The best options are clinching a broadcast deal from the likes of Netflix, TCM, and HBO. You get to make money depending on your audience’s size, sales, views and subscriptions, and the value of each. 

Final Words

How much does it cost to make a documentary? You now have an idea of such a question. You also know how the cost differs from one film to the other. 

When making your documentary budget, you have an idea of what to include as well. How to sell and what to expect solely depends on viewership and downloads in most cases. But, keep in mind, these are not hard and fast rules. It also depends on your negotiation skills.

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