How To Make A Full Time Living As A Documentary Filmmaker

How To Make A Full Time Living As A Documentary Filmmaker

Guest Post by: Jilann Spitzmiller, Philomath Films
Documentary Instructor

“Can I make a living with documentary filmmaking?”

This is a question I hear all the time from my students and clients. It always really touches my heart deeply.

What I hear within that question is, “Can I make a living doing this important thing that I love doing and that truly helps the world?”

It’s a complicated answer, to be sure. I think the core of the answer is “Yes”, but there are many caveats and pitfalls along the path to self-sustainability.

In the documentary world, there is a small handful of filmmakers making a living just on their own films. Most people in the field diversify and do a number of different things to pull in what they need.

Having been working in this field for 30 years, I have created sustainability for myself in numerous ways that have shifted and changed over time as I grew more experienced and as my personal life changed.

For example, when I was first starting out, I did a lot of free-lance researching and associate producing to supplement my income. (I also learned a great deal doing this.)

As I got a few good credits of my own under my belt, I was able to freelance as a writer and director. Now that I have kids, I do more teaching to supplement my filmmaking income, as I can more easily create my own schedule. As my kids grow older, I can see myself shifting slightly once again in the near future, back into more production.

Jilann with filmmaking partner and husband Hank Rogerson "on set"
for their documentary STILL DREAMING [2018 PBS Release]
Photo Credit: Genevieve Russell

My Top 10 Tips For Making A Living With Documentary Filmmaking

1. Make the commitment

Being a documentary filmmaker is a very rich endeavor that takes a lot of fortitude, tenacity and resilience. You have to really want it and take a “no excuses” approach. You also have to be willing to dig deep when the going gets tough.

2. Become a great fundraiser (or hire one)

If you can raise the money, you can keep yourself working as long as you’d like. You need to diversify your fundraising methods – learn grantwriting, crowdfunding, pitching to commissioners, approaching private donors, and even holding events such as my favorite – the mega-yardsale. You’ll need all of these methods and more for true sustainability.

3. Learn DIY Distribution

Learn the powerful current DIY distribution methods. Keep up to date on all the ways that you can monetize your projects. These days, you don’t need to go through the distribution gatekeepers. You can reach out directly to your audience and build a self-sustaining community of fans who will support you if you keep doing work that they need and love. 

4. Monetize Old Projects

Monetize the old projects that you may have sitting on your shelf. Even older projects have new distribution opportunities with all the changes in the marketplace. The key is to have as many income streams from your work as possible. 

5. Pay Yourself

As soon as you raise some money, or earn money through distribution, pay yourself. Also be sure to set aside the amount you think you’ll need until the next monies are due to come in.

6.  Work with Established Production Companies

Work with already established production companies to learn the many facets of the business so that you don’t spend time re-inventing the wheel. This will save you money on production in the long-run, and will also help you learn a number of the myriad tasks associated with filmmaking. You can then perform some or many yourself without having to hire others. (It’s great to hire crew and other professionals that you might need to collaborate with, such as an accountant, lawyer, color correction artist, sound designer, composer, etc…when you have enough funding.) 

7. Learn production skills

Learn a skill so that you can hire out as a member of a crew to bring in extra cash while you’re making your own projects. For example, you might find that working as a free-lance editor is highly satisfying and financially rewarding.

8. Be Flexible

Make the films you want to make, but also look for ways to make films for others that will bring in money that sustains you. Are there NGO’s or non-profit organizations in your area that need a promo video? Are there companies that need marketing videos for social media, etc? Can you shoot extra footage or make an extra video for a group that’s working within the subject matter of your film?

9. Find a great "day job"

This is something that can be really helpful as you are working your way towards sustaining yourself with a documentary career. You want to find something that makes you good money, while still being enjoyable and not too draining. If it’s freelance, that works well because you can work for several days or weeks and build up a cushion to allow you to work on your own projects for awhile. What are you already good at that you can parlay into a flexible “day job”?

10. Be good with your funding

Learn strong money management and budgeting so that you can make your money go as far as you can.

I hope all of these tips help you. The stories you have to tell are important, and we need them in the world now more than ever!


About The Author

Jilann Spitzmiller has been producing documentaries with her husband Hank Rogerson since 1987 through their production company Philomath Films.

Their documentaries have won dozens of awards including Audience Award at AFI Fest, Best of Show at BendFilm, and many Best Documentary Awards. Their documentary SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS premiered in competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, as well as their new media project CIRCLE OF STORIES.

They have successfully raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their projects including 3 ITVS funding awards and two Sundance Documentary Fund grants.

In addition to making documentaries, both Jilann and Hank enjoy teaching documentary filmmaking at their local universities and here on Desktop Documentaries.

Browse Jilann's courses including her FREE Documentary Budget Cash Workflow Worksheet and Mini-Course.

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