Budgeting a Documentary Movie

You Don’t Need a Second Mortgage For a Documentary Budget

movie camera
So you’ve got an idea. You’ve learned the necessary film-making and storytelling skills. The next step is to think about financial matters. It’s possible to create groundbreaking documentaries on a shoe string but that doesn’t mean you can forget about budgeting. More often than not you’ll need some kind of financial backing and in order to get it you’ll need to wow the all important funder. Anyone you go to for funding is going to expect you to know what you’re doing and be able to demonstrate your knowledge in a number of ways. One way would be to create a realistic documentary budget.

So what exactly do you need to make a documentary? Let’s look at some of the things you’re going to be spending your documentary budget on.


If you’re lucky enough to have everything and everyone you need very close to hand this won’t be an expense. But let’s be honest, there probably aren’t too many of you that has everything you need in your home town. Which means you’ll need to be travelling to different locations and sites. The costs might include airfares, rented cars or fuel costs if you’re planning to use your own vehicles. If you’re planning on flying anywhere don’t forget about the cost of taking all your luggage. Making a documentary requires a certain amount of equipment. Also include lodging, food and other daily expenses, such as fuel for the car. You’ll need to figure in the cost of entertainment for those days when you’re taking a break from shooting. And let’s not forget about medical expenses, because you never know what might happen. Insurance is another important expense, both for yourself, your equipment and any crew.

Legal costs and usage fees

If your documentary is going to feature a number of interviews, or there are going to be people on camera, you need to figure in the cost of having legal waivers drawn up. You can find various waiver forms online, but you should still consider getting the legal paperwork checked by a qualified lawyer. Make sure you have the rights to use everything that is going to be going into your documentary. Including photos, audio, film and video clips. If you’re planning to use photos or video clips from an editorial service you’ll need to add the cost of this. Which could range from a few hundred dollars on up. There may also be restrictions as to how they can be used.

Permits and access fees

For certain locations you may need to obtain a permit. The cost of which can add up to a significant amount, if you’re shooting in several places. Access fees may also have to be paid if you’re shooting in government-run parks and memorials, for example. The cost of these might be just a few dollars but could add up and therefore it’s important to include them in your budget.

Documentary Movies


Are you going to need any actors to play certain parts in your story? Principles in your documentary may no longer be alive or you could require actors to represent younger versions of those people.

Interview fees

Don’t expect anyone you’ll be interviewing to offer their services for free. Many people expect you to pay for their time. If the interview is taking place over a meal or a cup of coffee you’ll need to add the cost of that too.

Promotion and distribution

Once you’ve finished filming and the documentary has been edited you’re going to work out how you’re going to get it out to the audience. It’s very unlikely you’ll get much from word of mouth and YouTube may be a good platform but you’re still going to need to think about promoting your documentary. Think about hiring a professional PR company as well as using your own time and energy with social media campaigns. It will be a good idea to have a website for your project. And unless you’ve got the knowledge and time to develop one yourself you’ll need to hire a website designer.

Film festival entry fees

A good way to grab your audiences attention is to enter your documentary into various film festivals. This won’t be free so add in the cost to your overall budget.

Variable costs

One final consideration is to add a set percentage, for example, 10-15%, to cover unforeseen eventualities and to cover variable costs.

These are just a few of the costs you might incur when making documentaries. If you’re funding the project yourself or looking to bring in backers one important step is devising a budget and preventing any unwanted surprises. Budgeting realistically will mean you can sit back and enjoy watching your audience fall in love with what you’ve created.