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Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker Is Harder Than Ever. Here's Why.

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire June 11, 2014 at 9:54AM

Making a documentary film is easier than ever. Making a living at being a documentary filmmaker is harder than ever.
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"112 Weddings"
"112 Weddings"

Billed as "the world's most exciting documentary & digital media festival," Sheffield Doc/Fest lives up to those unreasonably high expectations. Certainly, with a lineup featuring the latest projects from some of the biggest and best names in documentary filmmaking, lively panels about the future of nonfiction filmmaking as well as Interactive at Sheffield showcasing the most innovative projects, Sheffield Doc/Fest is full of excitement and energy.

"No offense, but there are too many filmmakers, too much competition, too many stories being told."

With so much enthusiasm for nonfiction filmmaking, more affordable filmmaking tools, and a plethora of compelling content, it might arguably be the best time in the history of film to be a documentary filmmaker. But, as many of the filmmakers at Sheffield Doc/Fest have pointed out, it might be the worst time to make a sustainable career of it.

"It's the best time ever to become a filmmaker, but one of the hardest times to make a career of filmmaking," Marshall Curry, who is at Sheffield Doc/Fest with his latest film, "Point and Shoot," told Indiewire. "The same things that enabled me to make my first film [the Academy Award-nominated "Street Fight"] -- cheap cameras and editing software-- mean that the market is flooded with good films by first-time filmmakers who don't care if they get paid."

READ MORE: How to Win an Oscar for Best Documentary (Or At Least Try)

Fellow Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger echoed Curry's sentiments at his Master Class at Sheffield Doc/Fest. 

"The lesson is it's hard to make a good living as a documentary maker just with documentaries," said Berlinger, whose latest film, "Whitey: The United States of America v. James L. Bulger," had its European premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest. "Even with the relative success I've had, I couldn't have supported myself without advertising. Every year, I do one or three or four TV commercial projects." 

On the upside, filmmaking is cheaper than ever. Berlinger recalled how expensive it was to shoot on film back when he was starting out two decades ago. "Today, we shoot on a card. There's no cost for the footage. A $3,000 camera, you can do more with it than you could have dreamed of 20 years ago, non-linear editing on your laptop is amazing," he said.

WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
"WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger"

But with the lower cost comes another cost: Supply outstrips demand. "It's much easier to make a film today than it was, but that's the seed of the problem," said Berlinger. "No offense, but there are too many filmmakers, too much competition, too many stories being told in order to make a living. It's just grown exponentially and because of that networks are under pressure to cut costs, particularly because there's a glut of filmmakers and an ease of technology. The cost of what they'll pay has been greatly reduced."

Of course, being a documentary filmmaker has never been an easy or lucrative trade. From early on in his filmmaking career, Doug Block realized he'd have to support his work with side jobs. Initially, he did freelance camera work including corporate videos and shooting other people's documentaries. But when a friend inquired if he might be interested in shooting wedding videos, he jumped at the chance. "The great thing about weddings is you can set your own rate - my first wedding was three times my day rate and it went up from there," said Block, who is at Sheffield Doc/Fest with his latest film, "112 Weddings," which follows up on some of the couples whose weddings Block filmed to see how their marriages have fared.

The film opens in the U.K. this Friday and will premiere in the United States on HBO on June 30.

Filming weddings was the ideal gig to support his documentary filmmaking career because not only did it pay well, but it also helped him hone his craft as a documentarian. It also eventually culminated in a feature film.

Director Marshall Curry
[Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute] Director Marshall Curry

"In practical terms, it was something that I could do that paid far more money than I would otherwise make and that kept me sharp and practicing my craft. I would tell the couples I am making a feature documentary about your wedding day and that's how it was crafted," Block told Indiewire at Sheffield Doc/Fest. "It really got me to hone the craft of shooting with the edit in mind because I was always thinking about how one shot would cut to the next."

Block, who has been filming his own projects since 1987, agrees with Berlinger and Curry that making a livelihood out of documentary filmmaking is becoming increasingly challenging.

"I'd say that making a living based on being paid and paid decently to make a film is harder than ever. It's easier than ever to get a low-budget film made. It's harder than ever to sustain a career doing it," said Block.

Despite the outliers like Academy-award winning "20 Feet from Stardom," the theatrical business for nonfiction films is fading as audiences stay home to watch documentaries on TV and VOD platforms.

"There's a lot of great distribution platforms online, but those distribution platforms, by and large, aren't monetizing vehicles for filmmakers. So we have a situation where there's a lot of filmmakers -- way more than when I started by about 10,000% -- all competing for the same reduced dollars. It's a challenging environment," said Berlinger. "On the other hand, for first-time filmmakers or people just starting their career, it truly is easier to get into the business. It's easier to make a film than it used to be."

But how many of those first-time filmmakers will be able to make a second film or sustain a career?

This article is related to: Sheffield Doc/Fest, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Marshall Curry, Doug Block, Joe Berlinger, Documentary