Sundance and the Single Documentary Economy: The $1.3 Billion Cost of Missing Out

The documentary niche has remarkable financial scale, as measured by the films seeking selection at Sundance.

  • Let’s assume that the average production cost of all 2,649 Sundance submissions for 2019 is $500,000.
    • Actual budgets range from around $200,000 up to $5+ million.
    • $500K is a conservative average.

Production Cost:

  • 2,600 documentaries were “Not Accepted” in 2019.
  • The total production expense of the “Not Accepted” films would be $1.3 billion!
  • My 2018 estimate was $800+ million in unsuccessful production costs.

Source: Sundance Film Festival,


  • The documentary feature gains ever more popularity, celebrity and prestige as a medium of creative expression and investigation.
  • It attracts funding from broadcasters and platforms, governments, foundations, the hyper- hyper-rich, A-listers, crowdfunders, BF’s, the mortgage on grandma’s beach cottage, personal overdrafts, and more.
  • Few productions ever recover these contributions from their commercial distribution efforts.
  • However many projects do succeed by non-commercial measures: for example by inspiring social change or advancing the careers of their filmmakers.
  • And BTW, lots of terrific films are not accepted at Sundance but go on to find recognition and acclaim at other festivals and markets.

Features vs Specials for Channels

  • Realscreen Summit launches in New Orleans on January 28, reminding me that the channels business involves a different type of funding risk.
  • Producers create sizzle reels to pitch their projects to network commissioners.
  • They rarely complete a pilot before receiving buy-in from a channel or platform.
  • These trailers cost in the tens of thousands, a fraction of the cost of a completed feature documentary.
  • The cost of each pitch is rising as channels shift development costs to their suppliers.
  • Listen to my podcast on the “Pitching Arms Race” with veteran factual producer Michael Hoff.
  • BTW, good luck to all my readers who are attending Realscreen!

More on the Sundance Odds

A Comment from Nadia Gill

Hi Peter, I love your content. Something caught my attention though in this post and I thought i would give you quick feedback.  I think you’ve grossly overestimated the production money spent on doc features that apply to Sundance.  I think that the average amount is probably the equivalent to 150K in USD of cash spent, and the production value itself probably around $300K for all the people working for free or deferred, etc.  I think this particularly matters because of your $1.3 billion estimate.  The info I’m getting is anecdotal from being an emerging filmmaker who knows about 15-20 other filmmakers who have films on the reasonably top tier circuit and who has a good understanding of the value of the films they make.  Just my two cents!
Many thanks Nadia, I appreciate feedback based on real experience. My back-of-envelope estimate is based on the budgets of more than a dozen Sundance submissions that I know are as low as $200k, but most are in the $500 to >$2 million range.  That’s why I called it “conservative.” But even if you’re right and $300k is the average production cost, the “cost of missing out” just on Sundance in 2019 is $.8 billion. The scale of the global feature documentary niche is still remarkable!