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Do Documentary Filmmakers Actually Get Paid in the US and Europe?

Do Documentary Filmmakers Actually Get Paid in the US and Europe?

One of the most interesting filmmaking panels at the Sheffield Doc/Fest this past weekend asked a very popular question amongst filmmakers, aspiring and new:  “How Do Filmmakers Get Paid?”

The question, of course, changes from context to context, from film to film, from deal to deal.  But the panelists were able to make some worthy comments about their own experiences and the experiences in their home countries that were helpful for all.

Joining the session’s chair, the Canadian producer Mark Johnston, were Roy Ackerman, who works on series for Jamie Oliver’s Fresh One company; Motto Pictures’ Julie Goldman (“Buck,” “God Loves Uganda”), an American; and Dutch producer Femke Wolting, who works on films and interactive projects.

The answer to the question at hand was, of course, that filmmakers get paid when there is money to pay them.  While much film funding comes from grants and donations, much of it too comes from investors, who will need to get paid back often before producers see much of anything.

The panelists’ wisdom came sometimes in broad, sweeping statements and sometimes in small tidbits about their individual films, so here are just a few of the things we learned:

“Buck” may have had a huge theatrical run, but the filmmakers didn’t see much of that.

Speaking of her big doc hit “Buck,” which recently aired on BBC’s Storyville as “Buck: the Real Life Horse Whisperer,” Goldman said that of the $4 million in US box office receipts, 65% went to the exhibitors and 25% went to the distributor.  Even after the 200,000 DVDs they sold, according to Goldman, “we’re just starting now to get money in.”

Making non-theatrical/non-broadcast content for an eager audience can help you make the money back.

One way “Buck” director Cindy Meehl thought she could make some extra money off of her time with Buck was to make videos about seven horse clinics to sell to horse enthusiasts.  Those DVDs have been selling quite well online.

When you’re going to big funds like the Ford Foundation, do your homework ahead of time.

Speaking of her experience “cobbling together small grants” for Roger Ross Williams’ “God Loves Uganda” (which screened at the festival), Goldman said that when she went to the Ford Foundation, they wrote in their application that they would be especially eager for a sub-fund for films about LGBT Rights.  “They can combine forces internally and it’s the best of all worlds.  Check out their website!”

You don’t need an executive producer to make an American documentary that makes money.

Goldman said of her experience cobbling things together for “God Loves Uganda,” “it’s seen as successful.”  While the producing team wasn’t able to get a single major donor, they did get a lot of grants, from Tribeca Gucci Fund, Tribeca All Access, the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations.  They presold the film to Denmark and Dutch television.  They also had an equity broadcast deal from “Independent Lens” through ITVS.

If at first you don’t succeed with a fund, don’t let it slip out of your view.

Though ITVS didn’t fund “God Loves Uganda” through its traditional auspices, PBS documentary series “Independent Lens” did come up with some discretionary funds that they put forward for the project through ITVS.

When you’re getting tax breaks through European deals, those are often done for labor, so you have to be sure that you can find appropriate labor in the funding nations.

Wolting gave the example of a project on Somali pirates that want to get out of that world that she’s working on.  The funding, which came from 20 different sources, took about two years to cobble together.  Because of funding stipulations and the fact that a Somali crew was used to cut costs (and therefore the breaks couldn’t come from production), the post-production labor is dispersed throughout Europe.  Animation’s being done in Ireland.  Arte is helping with interactive for the film, so that labor is being split with the Netherlands and Germany, where the composer is based.

In the UK, documentary filmmaking is no longer a career, it’s becoming more like being an artist.

Previously, UK documentary filmmakers were treated as employees of the networks, and the sentiment among British filmmakers is that they want those days back.  Ackerman now hires a producer full-time to go after the money (so does Wolting).  This may seem obvious, but Ackerman made the point that he goes after the “softest money he can.  But there’s a relationship between the softness of the money [the amount of restrictions and stipulations and whether or not it needs to be paid back] and the difficulty of getting it.”

If you’re making films for two major funders, make sure you make a film they both would want.

Ackerman explained how, when making docs about Richard Pryor and Gaddafi, this was a major consideration — making only one version saves much money.

Standing up to broadcasters can be scary, but sometimes it’s the right thing.

Speaking of a film she made with a first-time director, an HBO co-production, Goldman explained that HBO Documentary head Sheila Nevins thought the film needed to be recut, so she was going to take it in-house.  The filmmaker resisted, which miffed Nevins, but when the filmmaker brought back the cut Nevins ended up liking it.

Finally, and this one’s tough, sometimes taking the money isn’t a good idea.

As the panel ended, a series of horror stories about how hard it was to balance all the needs of various funders came up.  Make sure you’re talking to a lawyer and carefully considering whether or not you want to follow the guidelines set out in the deals before you sign.

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