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The Secrets of Making Money as a Documentary Filmmaker

Jourdan Aldredge

Here are some insightful tips on how to pitch and sell yourself, land the best gigs, and actually get paid for documentary film work.

I don’t know about you, but for all the great classes I took in film school, and all the information I learned online and from friends over the years, there never was a course in how to actually make money as a filmmaker. Not only was there not a course, but it seems like it’s a struggle for many — especially when you’re first starting out.

Yet, people do have careers in film and video. Yes, it can be hard at times. But it can also be very exciting to combine your avocation with your vocation. Although, with documentary filmmaking specifically, the genre is not always akin to becoming a millionaire.

That being said, there’s plenty of documentary-style work out there. You just have to know where to look.


Traditional Media Channels

The Secrets of Making Money as a Documentary Filmmaker — Camera Person Shooting Scene

Traditional media channels do a lot of their work in documentary-style filmmaking. Image by guruXOX.

I use “traditional media channels” as a loose catch-all term. Basically, I’m talking about newspapers, magazines, alternative weeklies, public television stations, and community blogs that you’ll find in whatever town or city you live in.

Documentary content, specifically, is needed for these traditional and journalistic-style channels. Yes, there might be some crossover into your old school TV news style content. But, many news stations now produce more run-and-gun documentary-style content, aimed more for social media than the 6 o’clock hour.

Land these gigs: To get these gigs, you can cold call or email. However, your best bet would be to network. Try to connect with someone in the newsroom who oversees digital content. Bring a demo reel (or relevant samples). If you have your own gear, let them know. And to really get your foot in the door, bring some solid pitches!


Agency Work and Branded Content

The Secrets of Making Money as a Documentary Filmmaker — Agency Work

Companies are turning toward documentary-style film work in order to attain a more personal touch. Image by TZIDO SUN.

I’ve worked on dozens of different documentary-style projects over the years. So, I can say that if you can manage the corporate bureaucracy, agency work and branded content are some of the most lucrative gigs. Whether you’re working directly with individual companies or organizations, or being hired out from a marketing or creative agency, branded content lends itself closely to documentary filmmaking.

I say “closely” because branded content, at the end of the day, means to sell a product or service (or just generally promote a brand). However, the industry has definitely embraced the documentary-style for many of their more personal — and often longform — material.

Land these gigs: Similar to the advice above, getting your foot in the door for branded content work usually requires connections inside the companies or agencies you’d like to work for. Most companies will be open to you introducing yourself. Some will even take meetings just so you can show your work and let them know your availability.


Nonprofits and Cause-Focused Projects

The Secrets of Making Money as a Documentary Filmmaker — Cause-Focused Projects

Cause-focused documentary filmmaking is not only rewarding but helps implement change to our world. Image by Studio 72.

On the other end of the high-paying spectrum (often, but not always), we find the cause-focused documentary projects championed by nonprofits or action groups. For many of these organizations trying to bring about change, shorts to even feature-length films about specific issues or causes can be great opportunities to really dive deep into a documentary project.

While not always the highest paying, these can ultimately be some of the most rewarding projects for documentary filmmakers. After all, your films can actually help bring about change in the world.

Land these gigs: Finding these projects sometimes takes a bit of luck, though. However, if you’re passionate about any number of major causes in the world, creating cause-focused short documentary projects on a specific subject is a good way to show your passion and expertise if you can find a relevant nonprofit.


Submitting for Grants

The Secrets of Making Money as a Documentary Filmmaker — Finding Grants

Applying for grants is a great avenue when considering funding for your documentary. Image by 2p2play.

Finally, if you’re just looking for funding for your documentary — and it doesn’t fall into any of the paid gigs above — your best bet might be to apply for grant funding.

Be warned though, applying for grants is no simple task and requires a great deal of work itself. Not only can grants be very competitive, they’re also usually awarded to those with the most experience. For documentary filmmakers starting off, you’ll need to work a bit to build out your résumé and past projects to really show you can be trusted with the money to deliver a finished project.

Land these gigs: First, you’ll need to do your research to find grants you qualify for. From there, the application process can be quite arduous if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’re interested in searching for and submitting for grants, here’s a great article that breaks down each step of the process.


Cover image by 2p2play.

For more advice, tips, and tricks for documentary filmmaking, check out these articles below.

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