Budgeting a documentary

A good story, a video camera, some editing software, and a lot of motivation. What else do you need to make a documentary? Not much.

What else do you need to make a great documentary, without spending endless nights sobbing into a rapidly dwindling bottle of Jack Daniel’s or Bombay Sapphire? A lot more. Let’s cover some of the top expenditures you could incur to make this dream a reality.

Travel: Unless you’ve got everything and everyone you need right in your hometown, plan on travel expenses. That’s transportation to and from the sites as well as local transportation when you’re there, so we could be talking airfare and rented cars, or a whole lot of gas if you’re driving to various locations. DON’T FORGET BAGGAGE FEES! This is very important when you plan on checking a lot of equipment.

Make sure you cover every base in your documentary budgets, including travel expenses

Make sure you cover every base in your documentary budgets, including travel expenses

Don’t stint yourself on time. You’re going to need to shoot a lot of b-roll for your documentary. You can’t just keep showing the same shot of the house where the subject of your piece was born. Include a least a couple of days devoted mostly to shooting b-roll, and plan ahead for the types of shots you’ll need. You’ll be surprised how quickly you use up the available footage when you start editing.

Your travel budgets also should include lodging and food, and daily expenses such as gas for the rental car, light entertainment if it’s a long stay, and possibly even medical costs if you have an accident and need to get stitched up. Speaking of medical costs, you do have insurance, right? Not just for you but for your crew and your equipment. If your crew doesn’t have their own insurance and you can’t cover the costs for their time of employment, they’ll have to sign waivers. Which brings us to….

Legal costs: You’ll probably be doing a lot of interviews for a documentary. Anyone who is on camera, even if you just use audio of their interview, has to sign a waiver giving you full rights to use the material as you see fit. This includes using it in promotional material. The good news is, you can find a lot of standard waiver forms on line. You should still consider having a lawyer go over it. More importantly, you need to ensure you have the rights to use everything you plan to in your documentary. Photographs, video clips, audio clips, film clips. Everything. If these are coming from personal sources, it means more waiver forms granting you the right to use the material not just in the documentary, but in any promotional materials you put out. If any of these elements are not coming from private people who have full rights to give you permission to use them, then get ready for….

Usage fees: If you need a photo or video clip from an editorial service such as Getty, be ready to pay for it. The costs can range from hundreds of dollars on up for a single item, and there may be restrictions on if and how you can use it outside the documentary. Some items can be used within the documentary but can’t be used for promotional purposes, for example.

Permits and access fees: You may need to obtain permits to shoot in certain locations, which can add up. You also may need to pay access fees to shoot in certain places like government-run parks and memorials, and you may need extra permission to shoot a video there. Access fees are sometimes no more than a couple of bucks for parking, but again, they can add up and you should include them in your budget.

Don't forget to include access fees to parks and other locations in your budget

Don’t forget to include access fees to parks and other locations in your budget

Interview fees: Some people, including experts you need to interview, may expect to be paid for their time. After all, they’re professionals, and if they’re sitting down talking to you it means they’re not working on what brings in the bulk of their income. If you’re doing the interview over a meal in the local café, be prepared to pay for their meal as well as yours, and that’s on top of any fee they may charge.

Actors: Are you going to include re-enactments in your documentary? If the event took place decades ago, even if the principles involved are still alive, it would make more sense to have actors representing younger versions of them. Of course it goes without saying that if the real person involved in the event is dead, you need an actor if you want to do a re-enactment. If you’re using differentiation techniques such as having that scene in sepia or black and white, your editor may charge you extra for that.

Promotion and distribution: There’s a long gap between having the finished documentary in your hands and getting an audience for it. Word of mouth is unlikely to get you much farther than filling up the local art cinema, and even if the response is positive it’s very likely the project will die there without serious promotion. That means hiring a professional PR company, as well as putting in a huge amount of time and energy doing your own social media campaigns. You really need a website for the project as well, although if you already have an established website for yourself that gets a lot of traffic, you can use that as a vehicle to promote the documentary. You’ll also need to consider how much it will cost to distribute your prized project across the country.

Entry fees: One of the best ways to generate attention for your project is to enter it into various film festivals. But that, too, can cost money. Sometimes the fees are nominal, but even so, they should be included in your overall budget.

Fringe: This doesn’t refer to any eccentric people you may have to work with on the project. This is basically a set percentage, usually 10-15%, of many of the above categories that could potentially have variable costs, such as travel, promotion, and legal costs.

These are just a few of the costs you can incur when doing documentaries. Whether you’re funding the project yourself or plan to bring in backers, a thorough budget will save you a lot of grief. Hencar can help you devise a budget for your project to prevent unwanted surprises, so that you can enjoy the satisfaction of watching audiences fall in love with your project.