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3 Ways to Make Money as a Documentary Filmmaker

Documentaries can be more than just a labor of love
Photo of money

Making a documentary is a dream project for most filmmakers. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to pursue an interesting story for years on end? But turning your inspiration into something that will pay your bills is a little more complicated. So, how do documentary filmmakers actually make money?

Documentary filmmaker Luc Forsyth, who’s been making a living off his cameras for the past decade, shares how he does it in the below video.

Forsyth is a cinematographer, director and photographer who has worked for clients like The New York Times, The National Geographic Channel, Netflix, HBO and more. He’s been working as a documentary filmmaker for the last decade, and although his career path hasn’t made him absurdly wealthy, he shows that it is absolutely possible to make a living doing it.

According to Forsyth this is somewhat of a golden era for documentary filmmakers, as big streaming platforms are looking to capitalize on the success of shows like Tiger King and The Last Dance. Although Forsyth has plenty of personal projects on his portfolio site, these passion projects aren’t what pays the bills, but they are what gets him hired for the jobs that do.

Photo of a documentary filmmaker

These are the three main ways Forsyth makes money as a documentary filmmaker.

#1 Working on Other People’s Shows

The majority of Forsyth’s paid documentary work comes from working on a contract basis on other people’s projects. He’s typically hired by production companies to work as a director of photography (DP) and film whatever project has been pitched to a network or streaming platform.

Most production companies don’t have full-time staff but have a variety of contractors that they work with once they receive funding for their projects. For this type of work, Forsyth is typically paid a day rate or weekly for the duration of the shoot.

When the shoot is over, his footage is sent to an editor and his work is done. It’s not unusual for Forsyth not to hear from these companies again until they have a new project.

In an ideal situation he is shooting with his own gear, which the production companies will rent from him for an additional fee. The day rates for this kind of work vary widely depending on the budget of the company that hired you. Forsyth has been paid anywhere between $350-$1500 a day while working as a contractor.

#2 Branded Content

In recent years, marketing companies want their advertisements to look more like documentaries, and to achieve this goal they’ve started hiring people with filmmaking and journalism backgrounds to help tell their stories.

Forsyth has created branded content for National Geographic that was sponsored by a dishwashing company and involved filming a photographer speaking with people about water issues, cut with footage of people using the dishwasher.

Branded content work can pay really well but, ultimately, it’s the client who is calling the shots and if you are interested in telling real stories, the work can start to wear on you. Forsyth says that he likes to pick up a few of these projects a year to help pad the bank account.

#3 Shooting and Selling Personal Projects

The third way Forsyth makes money as a documentary filmmaker is by shooting and selling personal work. It pays the least, takes the most time, and he admits that if it’s the only thing he did, he wouldn’t be able to survive.

The profit margins on personal projects are extremely thin, and Forsyth says that on most of these documentaries he’s lucky if he breaks even. But these personal projects are ultimately what gets him hired for the bigger well-paying jobs on other people’s films and on branded content shoots. Plus, it helps him stay inspired.

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