Beginner’s Rules to Making Documentaries on a Budget

Documentaries are having a moment. It seems that every time Netflix puts out a new one, it becomes an instant viral hit. The public seems to have an unquenchable thirst for true stories, especially true crime, and pieces that offer new perspectives on age-old institutions.

Naturally, lots of new videographers seem to be interested in getting into the genre, but it’s not easy. Documentary makers are paid very little and hardly ever get to make a living out of just shooting documentaries. This doesn’t mean amateurs should entirely abandon the idea. If you have your heart set on making a documentary, by all means, do so, just make sure you follow this rule to make it as sustainable as possible.

Prepare to Be in It for the Long Haul

Documentaries aren’t made in a day. If you have a compelling story, chances are you’re going to have to schedule interviews, ask for permits, confirm your information with various sources, and then go into post-production. The best you can do is get started on a timeline as soon as you can. Figure out where you want your documentary to be in a specific time period. This will allow you to track your progress, help with financing, and keep you focused.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

If you’re only working on your documentary, it will be a long time before you see a paycheck. The wise thing to do is to keep your day job. That can mean having a formal 9-5 in someone’s office or freelancing at graduations, christenings, bar mitzvahs, weddings, really any event you can think of. The point is to keep bringing money in for your personal needs. Not only will that help you get through any roadblocks you find in your journey, but it will keep the pressure off your documentary project.


Documentary filmmakers are a tight-knit group. They all know how frustrating and difficult it can be to get a documentary project done, let alone released. The best thing you can do when you’re first starting out is to get to know others in your same position or those that have already been at it for a while. You might meet someone who knows someone that works with someone who can help fund your project. Even if you don’t, you get to meet others, workshop ideas for funding, see how the more experienced ones have gotten grants, and get a general idea of the field you’re now a part of. Always go to networking events and make a point of meeting someone new every time.

Think About Getting Institutional Support

There are institutions interested in funding documentaries. In fact, if your documentary is about a socially important subject, you might get lots of organization to help. Make sure to continually check whether you qualify for grants or funding at different institutions, even if you don’t think you might. Most documentaries get made and released thanks to institutional support.