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.
- 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