10 Keys to Making a Low-Cost Documentary Feature

Making a documentary can be much less expensive than making a feature film, and if you do it effectively, you are likely to find a major distributor to take your film. There are a number of reasons for the low costs. One reason is that you don’t need name actors, which distributors commonly want in a feature. Another is that you can work with a smaller crew and have lower expenses for food, as well as for lodging, if you film away from home. Of course, certain kinds of documentaries can be superexpensive, such as a documentary that takes you around the world, has multiple locations and set-up costs, or is a nature documentary requiring long waits in the field for the animals to show up and requires expensive equipment to do the shoot.

But I’ve done a series of documentaries with under $50,000 budgets, 10 to 15 day shoots in one to a dozen locations, and a crew of three to four people. I’ll describe my approach, so you can use this as a model for your own low-cost documentary shoot. I’ll focus here on organizing the project and being in charge of the funds as the Executive Producer.

The basic format of these documentaries I produced was a series of interviews with a dozen to two-dozen individuals, consisting of mainly interviewees talking about their experiences and some experts sharing their views on the subject. My role in these documentaries was designing the overall project, recruiting the participants, developing the questions for the interviews and experts, raising the funds, and assisting with finding distributors after the film was created. I turned the actual production over to a production team that handled both the production and post production. Here are the main takeaways you can use in creating your own low-cost feature-length documentary.

1) Determine a marketable topic that you can produce for a budget of $25,000 to $50,000, based on the length of the film, the number of shooting days, and logistical considerations. A first step is deciding on the topic, based on what you are interested and what would appeal to your target market. Look on IMDB and do a Google search for films on your topic to make sure your proposed film hasn’t been done recently and successfully. If so, choose another topic. For possible topics, think about your hobbies and passions, subjects that really inspire you, popular trends, and recent news. If you pick a current trend or news item, consider if this is likely to be a long-term trend or subject in the news for 9 months to a year, since this is how long it will generally take to handle post-production, finding a distributor, and releasing the film. (For details on distribution, see my article: “10 Ways to Pitch Your Film to Get a Distributor.)

2) Decide on the location where you plan to film — near where you live and work is ideal. Also, select the main questions you want to ask interviewees and experts in your film. Whoever is asking the question during the filming can ask them, along with additional follow-up or probing questions. Write down these questions as a guide for the interviewer, who can always expand on the number of questions. Figure on the interview with these questions being about 15 to 20 minutes, plus an additional 40 minutes for setting up and taking down the equipment.

3) Determine the types of individuals you want to interview as interviewees and as experts and how to find them using in-person and online resources. For example, I have found contacts through networking and making announcements at various business networking and referral groups I belong to, sending emails to associates I have met over the years, and posting an announcement in my neighborhood Next Door forum.

Other possibilities include posting an announcement on Craigslist, getting a listing in a local paper, and posting information in your online Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts. Think about sources for contacting possible sponsors with related products or services and investors who might be interested in your topic or open to supporting someone new in the industry. Family and friends are often a possible source for funds.

4) Create flyers about your project. I have found it helpful to create four types:

· An overview the project, in including a short synopsis of the planned documentary, your own background, especially as it relates to the topic of the film, your expectations for where the film will be distributed, and a list of possible ways to participate, such as being an interviewee or expert, being a sponsor and obtaining promotional opportunities including a 60–90 edited clip of your feature product or service in the film, and) being an investor, which can include a sponsorship, plus an opportunity to get your money back plus 20% from the first moneys out and a chance to share in the proceeds forever.

· A flyer for prospective interviewees and experts

· A flyer for potential sponsors, describing promotional opportunities

· A flyer for potential investors, describing potential returns and promotional opportunities.

You can hand out these flyers at events, put them on display, or send them as attachments to those who express interest in your project and want to know more.

5) Obtain contact information — both phone numbers and email — for those interested in participating in your documentary in any way. To follow up with prospective interviewees and experts, call or email them to schedule short 3–5 minute preliminary interview with those still interested in being interviewees or experts in the film. It’s important to make this follow up a phone interview, because you want to assess how the person comes across in an interview, and you are particularly interested in someone who is articulate, friendly, authoritative, and enthusiastic.

Create a form to write down this information for each category (interviewees, experts, sponsors, and investors), where you include basic information about the person’s name, address, phone number, email, and their experience or expertise that relates to the film. Then, unless you will be directing and producing the documentary yourself, pass these forms on to the director or producer, so they can select the individuals to be in the film based on their responses as noted on these forms.

Generally, figure on doing interviews with twice as many prospective interviewees and experts as you plan to use in the film, so you the director/producer can choose the best participants. For instance, I typically interviewed 40–60 interviewees and experts, and the producers/directors I worked with selected the top 20 or so out of this list.

6) When you contact individuals about the project, explain that you need about 3–5 minutes for a short interview, and if this is a good time, do the interview now. Otherwise, schedule a time in the next week or two weeks to do the interview. Some people will use calendar software, so you have to select an available date and time in their calendar; others will be more informal, since they don’t have the latest and greatest phone software aps.

As needed, if you haven’t already explained this when you first contacted the person, provide more details about the subject of the documentary and the type of interviewees or experts you are looking for. Explain how the interview process will work — generally the time for the interview will be about an hour, which includes about 20 minutes for the interview, plus 40 minutes for set up and taking down the equipment. Plus there will be about 20 to 60 minutes for what is called B-roll, where the person is shown engaging in relevant activities, such as doing exercises for a film on fitness or taking a walk with their dog in a film about owning a dog.

Then, sections of their interview will be used as a voice over. This approach is used so the film doesn’t feature only talking heads, but provides visuals to go with their interview.

Also, if relevant, explain that there is no charge to be in the film and that you are not paying anyone to be in the film. Generally, this no-charge no-pay arrangement will be fine with everyone.

You might also need to explain when the film is likely to be released — in about 9 months to a year, and how they might see it. Note if you are planning any local screenings for people in the film or if they can get it on Amazon.

If interviewees or experts ask about getting promotional clips, explain that these are available for sponsors for the film, and if they are receptive, explain how they might be sponsors and get a clip they can use for promotional purposes. Generally, I found that the interviewees and experts were not interested in being sponsors or investors, and they were fine with the no-pay no-clips arrangement. They just liked the idea of being in the film, telling their story, getting a credit in the film, and telling others that they would be in it. I only had one businessman who was involved in marketing who turned down being an interviewee or expert, because he said there was no value for him in doing an interview if he didn’t get free promotional clips and he wasn’t interested in paying to be a sponsor.

Keep track of the forms of completed interviews, and unless you are handling the scheduling, submit these forms to the directors/producers or whoever will be selecting the final participants and setting up the time, date, and location of their interviews.

7) One way to raise funds for the film, aside from self-funding, is to set up opportunities for sponsors. Think of a sponsorship like a product placement, except that the individual is getting a featured message of about 60–90 seconds in the film.

You can include the message in the film if it relates to the topic of documentary — for example, it can be included if you are doing a film on new findings about health and nutrition, and the sponsor is a wellness and fitness coach or has a line of healthy nutritional supplements, as long as the message is informational and doesn’t come across as a commercial. If there isn’t a natural match between the sponsor’s message and the film’s subject, the message can be included at the end of the film, just before the credits.

The sponsor can also get a clip of their feature in the film once it is edited — usually about 2 months after filming. Plus sponsors will get national publicity and star treatment at local VIP events.

As for pricing a sponsorship, this can vary depending on your budget for the film, but figure that it should be at least $2000–2500 to not only contribute to the budget of the film but cover the cost of editing the film clip for the sponsor. And as a selling point, you might point out that the cost of such a clip created by a videographer would be about $3000–5000. In our films, we offered 5 to 6 sponsorships for $2500 each — about 7–10% of our budget for each film.

To find sponsors, you can contact individuals or companies with products or services in the same category as your film. In my case, I found them primarily through business referral and networking groups.

8) Another way to raise funds is from investors. The basic formula I used is setting a minimum investment at $1000 for a $25,000–35,000 film; $2000 for a $36,000–50,000 film. In addition, an investment of $3000, $5000, or more, depending on the budget of the film, includes a sponsorship. The investor then gets their money returned from the first moneys out until they get back 120%; thereafter they split the proceeds based on the percentage of the funds they have contributed to the investors’ 50% share of the returns.

To find investors, you can contact individuals or companies who are already involved in or interested in getting into the film industry, as well as small business owners in local business referral and networking groups. As an incentive for being an investor, you can include a credit in the film and on IMDB based on their contribution as an Assistant Producer ($1000–2000), Associate Producer ($3000–4000), Co-Producer ($5000–9000), and Executive Producer ($10,000 or more).

9) Create a release form that everyone in the film has to sign. This release should state that the person gives you permission to release the film with their appearance with the understanding that they will receive no compensation in return. Also, create a contract form that you and the sponsors or investors sign stating what they will be receiving in return for their contribution.

The agreement for sponsors should state how much they paying in return for a promotion for their company, product, or service in the film, and indicate that they will be receiving the 60–90 second clips in the name of the film and the dates it will be filming.

The agreement for investors should indicate how much they are investing and indicate that they will receive their investment back plus 20% from the first moneys out and then share in the proceeds forever based on their level of participation. It should also indicate the credit they will be receiving in the film and on IMDB, as an Assistant Producer, Associate Producer, Co-Producer, or Executive Producer, based on their contribution.

10) Create a spreadsheet to keep track of who has contributed what funds to the film as a sponsor or investor. Include their emails and phone numbers for follow-up. Also, create a spreadsheet of all of the individuals interviewed to be in the film as an expert or interviewee. Later, indicate those who will actually be in the film. This way you can email everyone involved in the film in the future to let them know the status of the film’s production and advise them about film showings. You can also use the listings in the spreadsheet to contact participants who might want to put on a showing for those involved in the film and their family, friends, or others in the community. Eventually, you can use these listings to pay investors when the film starts earning money.

After completing these steps, your role in setting up the documentary, finding participants, raising funds, and keeping track of what you have done is completed. The next step is the actual production and post-production/editing, which you can turn over to your producer or director or producer/director team, unless you are doing the production yourself.

If others are handling the production or post-production, you can either set this up as a partnership, where you share in the proceeds, or you can hire the producer, director, or producer/director team yourself to manage the production and post-production, where you receive all the funds yourself.

Gini Graham Scott is a screenplay writer, indie producer, and TV game/reality show developer, plus a nonfiction writer who has published over 200 books, 50 for traditional publishers and 150 for her own company Changemakers Publishing. She also writes, reviews, and ghostwrites scripts and books for clients.

She has written scripts for 20 feature films and has written and executive produced 10 film and TV projects. These include Driver, distributed by Gravitas Ventures, a distributor of over 100 films, Death’s Door, a TV series based on a book she co-wrote At Death’s Door, published by Rowman & Littlefield, The New Age of Aging, distributed by Factory Films, and Infidelity, distributed by Green Apple. All of these films have won awards at various film festivals.

Three other projects recently released are Reversal, about love in a time of social turmoil; Me, My Dog, and I, comparing owners of big and little dogs, and Rescue Me!, about rescue organizations and the owners of rescue dogs, cats, and birds. She recently developed a TV series The Neanderthals Return, based on books about the Neanderthals coming back into modern society.

She has written and produced over 60 short films, including dramas, book and film trailers, TV show pilots, documentaries, and promotional videos. Her IMDB resume is at http://imdb.me/ginigrahamscott.

She is the author of four books on filming, including The Complete Guide to Writing, Producing and Directing a Low-Budget Short Film and Finding Funds for Your Film or TV Project, both published by Hal Leonard. Other books on the film industry are The Complete Guide to Distributing an Indie Film and Marketing Films to Millennials and Baby Boomers.

She has been hired to write over two dozen scripts for clients, adapted from their novels, memoirs, or script ideas. She reviews books for film potential and writes treatments and scripts for two major companies that publish books and showcase them at major book fairs.

Her scripts include action/adventure scripts, suspense thrillers, psychological character films, and contemporary dramas. Some recent scripts are the sci-fi suspense thrillers Brain Swap, Wild Child, Dead No More, Deadly Deposit, and Reverse Mortgage; the crime action thrillers Rich and Dead and Deadly Affair; and the suspense thriller Bankrupt.

Scott’s books on self-publishing and marketing including: Self-Publishing Your Book in Multiple Formats, Self-Publishing Secrets, How to Find and Work With a Good Ghostwriter, and Turn Your Blogs and Talks into a Book.

Scott has been a featured guest on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including Good Morning America, Oprah, CNN, and many others. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, a JD from the University of San Francisco Law School, and five MAs from Cal State University, East Bay, including an MA in Communications.

Her website is at www.changemakerspublishingandwriting.com. She has profiles on LinkedIn.com and Medium.com.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Gini Graham Scott

Gini Graham Scott


GINI GRAHAM SCOTT, Ph.D., J.D., is a nationally known writer, consultant, speaker, and seminar leader, who has published over 200 books.