Documentary filmmakers are talented storytellers who often pour their heart and soul into their projects. They may not always get the recognition they deserve, but their films can have a profound impact on viewers. Given the time and effort that goes into making a documentary, it’s only natural to wonder how they earn a living.

So, how do documentary filmmakers make money? With the cost of equipment, time, and travel, it seems like documentary filmmaking is more of a passion project than a way to actually make money.

While creating interesting and compelling stories through documentaries may not prove to make people very wealthy, there are different ways that filmmakers can earn a decent living doing what they love.

Let’s find out how.

How Do Documentary Filmmakers Make Money?

Documentary filmmaking is a career filled with learning and interacting with others to tell important stories. They often don’t get the same recognition or pay as feature filmmakers, but there are still different ways that they can make a living.

Here are the top 5 ways in which documentary filmmakers make money:

  1. Filming and Commercializing Their Personal Projects
  2. Shooting Branded Content
  3. Working with Traditional Media Channels
  4. Cause-Focused Work
  5. Distribution

Let’s look closely at each of these income sources for documentary filmmakers.

#1. Filming and Commercializing Their Personal Projects

Documentary filmmakers often spend their personal money on equipment and travel film projects that have meaning to them. As a result, these passion projects can sometimes become lucrative if they are of commercial interest to someone usually a network or streaming service.

While this isn’t the biggest money maker for documentary filmmakers, it can help them get noticed for bigger projects that may earn them more money. In addition, keeping up with their craft improves the filmmaker’s skills and keeps them relevant.

What’s also encouraging is that the target audience for movies includes people with a strong attraction to documentaries. In recent years, there has been an uptick in the number of people consuming documentary films because they are seen as a form of entertainment and education. Many people who feel passionately about a certain subject matter are willing to pay to watch a documentary that covers it.

#2. Shooting Branded Content

Working for a company with a large budget is another way that a documentary filmmaker can make money. While it isn’t always the dream that a documentarian may have envisioned for their career, corporations look for experienced filmmakers to help sell products using documentary-style advertising.

Shooting branded content means that the documentary filmmaker is using less of their creative ideas and instead working within the confines of what the company wants. However, it can still be a great way to make money while getting your name out there.

Shooting branded content can be one of the most reliable sources of income for a documentary filmmaker.

#3. Working with Traditional Media Outlets

 Documentary filmmakers can make money by working with local media outlets that need content for their news shows and social media accounts. By networking with a traditional media channel, filmmakers can find themselves getting steady work by chasing down news stories and providing continuous coverage.

This journalistic style of shooting stories is close to the typical work of documentary filmmakers and provides a good opportunity for networking. In addition, documentary filmmakers can use their own gear, making them even more valuable.

#4. Shooting Cause-Focused and Non-Profit Projects

 While cause-focused work is on the lower end of the pay scale for documentary filmmakers, it can still prove to be an important part of the job. As storytellers, filmmakers who shoot cause-focused projects for non-profits get to represent important subject matter and potentially implement forward-moving change in the world.

Sometimes, these projects are distributed widely and earn recognition, allowing for a bigger payday for the filmmaker. Other times, the films can be more of a grassroots effort that works to mostly educate a small number of viewers.

Some cause-focused projects can win the backing of major companies, celebrities or charitable foundations, or even political action groups. These projects have the potential to generate good money for the documentary filmmaker.

#5. Distribution

The best way for documentary filmmakers to make money is by having their work distributed by a distributor or sales agent. The filmmaker sells the rights to their film to have it distributed for viewing in theatres, streaming services, and television.

In addition to selling the rights, the documentary filmmaker can make royalties from the film depending on how successful it is. While this opportunity is not easy to come by for the filmmaker, it is a sure sign they have made it as a documentary filmmaker.


So, how do documentary filmmakers make money? In this article, we reviewed the top 5 ways how they can earn a living doing what they love most.

These include filming and monetizing their own projects, shooting branded content, working with traditional media outlets, shooting cause-focused and non-profit projects, and distributing content.

While each of these opportunities has its own benefits, most documentary filmmakers would prefer to make money by filming and monetizing their own projects as this option lets them choose the topics of their documentary films and the way they monetize them.