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,
DocumentaryBusiness.com

Takeaways

  • 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 Correction from Sundance

The Sundance Press Office provided and confirmed the data in this post. I later received a correction, as follows:

Peter– I don’t believe we’ve met, but I read your piece on Sundance documentaries today and I couldn’t help but notice that there are some statistical inaccuracies that you might want to be aware of. I am in charge of our entire submissions process, and we received 771 U.S. Documentary Features and 954 International Documentary Features. I’m not sure where you got the number 1,882 for the latter, but that is 928 more than we actually received, so you listed nearly twice as many as the real number. I don’t know if there is some source of information on our website or elsewhere that is simply incorrect, but the numbers in your article aren’t right. If you let me know where you got those from, I would love to try to correct them if they are coming from Sundance directly.

Additionally, we are playing 47 documentary feature films, not 49. I believe this is because you included both Share and The Last Black Man in San Francisco in your documentary numbers. Neither of those films is a documentary– both are U.S. Narrative Feature films that are playing in our Dramatic Competition program. Please let me know if you ever need any of this information from me directly. We are very transparent about the number of submissions we receive each year, and I am the keeper of all of that information, so I’m happy to help!

Adam Montgomery
Senior Manager, Festival Programming
Sundance Institute, Los Angeles

(Mr Montgomery provided the attached corrected data: 2019 Sundance Submissions Statistics.)


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!