In its purest form, documentary production does not influence the story or experience of the subject. The camera acts merely as an observer that captures events as they unfold. Most documentarians go to great lengths to avoid influencing the action in any way so as not to influence the behavior of the subject. The camera follows a person or group of people for a period of time during which actual experiences are recorded in order to document whatever happens and subsequently present the resulting storyline to viewers so that they might see the world from a new perspective. Documentaries tell the real stories of real people in real places, as they experience and respond to real situations.
In reality, making money by producing documentary videos is challenging.
While some producers are making some money off of some documentaries, the motivation of the typical documentarian is not the promise of making a lucrative living off of their documentary film. In reality, making money by producing documentary videos is challenging. While it is easier than ever to make a film, garnering a living as a documentary film maker is arguably harder than ever. The field is crowded with a myriad of media makers, competing to get their stories seen and sold. Unlike many other types of productions, documentaries are rarely funded in advance by paying clients. Most are produced first and then sold to distributors as completed works, or funded by supporters of the cause highlighted in the film. Grants and donations are one avenue to consider to help fund the cost of production, but grantwriting can be a long and complicated process. Other producers turn to online crowdfunding resources like Kickstarter and Go Fund Me. Funding can take years to gather and can require cobbling together small contributions from multiple sources. In order to make money producing documentaries you need to be dedicated to making presentations to potential investors. The real job is in fundraising.
Sometimes taking the money isn’t the best idea. If you are able to secure funding, keep in mind the reality that when you produce something funded by someone else, they will likely expect to be involved in the production process. Think about timelines and distribution strategy. Investments and donations come with strings attached, and those strings may bind. If you need to make money, there are faster and easier ways to do so. Wedding and Event video is a great alternative to documentary production. You work in the same style and can hone your skills while earning a decent paycheck.
Fortunately, most documentarians are driven by passion instead of money. Documentaries are by and large, labors of love that grow out of a passionate concern about a cause that the producer feels must be made known. Documentaries inspire as they showcase and celebrate stories of human triumph; they elicit a visceral response as they shine light on social and moral injustices. They expose wrongdoings and celebrate heroics. They raise awareness, shape opinions and incite action. They can be poignant and political and powerful. If the documentary you want to make is a labor of love, it may be best to let it be just that: a labor of love. Produce from a place of passion, at your own pace, so that you can create something that is truly satisfying to your soul.
In the end, the best way to produce the documentary that you want to make may well be to self-fund the process and then pedal the finished production after the fact. Once you have a finished film, you can take it out on the film festival circuit to find an audience, pick up some press and possibly find a field of endorsers to repay your investment, or more. Who knows, perhaps yours will be one of the small few that finds their way into a theatrical release and earns a big payoff. Whatever the case, I’d encourage you to shoot first and ask questions later.
Matthew York is Videomaker's Publisher/Editor.