Docuseries Mini 102: How to Budget for a Docuseries or Video Series

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Note: the audio version is more conversational. The content of the written version below has been modified for reading purposes. :)

This is part of a mini series called Docuseries How To.

What is this episode (#102) about?

How to budget for a docuseries or video series

Who is this episode for?

People who want to make a docuseries or a video series, but not sure how much their ideas will cost? If you haven’t listened to our Docuseries Mini 101, make sure to first check out that episode and begin putting together a high level plan and ideas together. Without it, this budgeting episode is still good information to have. However, you won’t be able to make too much progress on budgeting without the planning information. 

My background in project management:

It’s worth noting that I did work as a project manager and digital producer for about 10 years. In other words, I’m someone who gets a kick out of working in spreadsheets. Don’t be intimated by budgeting if you are “not a numbers person”.  You can still budget for a documentary the same way you’ve budgeted how much you can spend on coffee, weekend trip, a wedding and your kid’s college tuition. We have included two different spreadsheets to help you get started and complete the budgeting process. 

Budgeting is a process and can be learned quickly. Some people prefer the back of an evelope, some prefer Excel. For me, Google spreadsheets is always the way to go. (What is Google Spreadsheet?

Your goodies to download (below)!

In this blog post, we provide you with access to both a simple budget spreadsheet with all the elements, questions you need to think about to produce a documentary, and a much more detailed spreadsheet (resource from Documentary.org) you can move onto once you’ve completed the simple version. 

This more detailed spreadsheet is sometimes required for sponsorship and film festival award submissions. I have to admit, the detailed version can be daunting at first as it’s extremely detailed. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the setup, you’ll noticed that not all questions/fields are mandatory. Hence you can skip the sections and fields that do not apply to your docuseries/video series. 

So, how much do documentary/docuseries typically cost?

According to PBS POV’s article written in 2011(which has been archived and no longer available), documentaries cost between 300K on the low end to over a million dollars. 

The range is significant. You can probably imagine some of the Netflix, Hulu original documentaries cost more than a million, and John Smith’ no budget documentary likely costs a lot less than 300K. 

But how much should your documentary/docuseries cost? 

Factors that impact documentary/docuseries budget and actual cost 

There are a number of factors that impact budget increase/decrease. Here’s a short list what comes to mind: 

  • Location (Where city and specific locations will the shoot be held? How many locations)

  • Travel (When and how are you traveling to different locations?) 

  • Film Crew (Compensation for the film crew - producer, director, camera operations, production assistant, sound engineer, etc.) 

  • Other Talent (Are you compensating any other on and off-screen talents)? 

  • Accommodation (Where are people staying while traveling? Hotel, airbnb?)

  • Meals (How are you ordering food? Which meals are you covering during the shoot? Don’t forget coffee and snacks.) 

  • Entertainment (Outside of production, what are other expenses you should consider? i.e. for Feisworld, we budgeted some massages for the film crew to distress and recover from long days.) 

  • Equipments (Do you already own, or need to rent the equipments?)

    • Camera

    • Monitor

    • Focus unit

    • Lenses

    • Batteries/Grip

    • Easy rig

    • Sticks

    • DIT

    • Recording media

    • Reflector

    • More… talk to your producer and director

  • Gas/Ground transportations (How are you getting around in a city? Uber/Lyft, cab, rental car?) 

  • Incidentals, insurance, etc. (If you don’t know what they are, consider budgeting at least 10-15% of the entire budget to give yourself enough buffer when things don’t go the right way) 

Who are the core team members involved in the documentary filmmaking?  

Producer 

A producer is responsible for

- Reviewing the initial budget with you and refining it during pre-production. Maintaining the budget throughout the course of production and post production 

- Hiring and overseeing cast and crew

- Working closely with you (the client) 

- Working closely with the director 

- Oversees the writing and editing content

- Creating agenda for team meetings and ensuring the creative execution is according to plan. 

Average cost: $500-1500/day* 
Note: we won’t keep repeating this but you can always find people who charge more (a lot more) per day. There’s no ceiling in how much people are able to charge. The numbers we provide are based on what we have experienced in the market as of 2018.

Director 

The director of photography, also known as the DP or the cinematographer

- Assists the film production by establishing the visual look of the movie. 

- Works closely with YOU and the producer to tell the story through the artistic and technical decisions regarding lighting, film stock, shot selection, camera operation and other elements. 

Average cost: $500-1000/day 

Sound Engineers

Yes, you got it. This person helps record sound according to the direction of your producer and director. The job is very, very important. Hence it’s also reflected in the cost. 

Average cost: $700-1200/day 


Other film crew members you may need to hire per location (or as part of core team) - it’s a decision you make with your producer based on your project needs and budget

  • Camera Operation

  • 2nd Camera Operation

  • Production Assistant (PA) — for organization, coffee, possible b-roll

  • Technical PA - someone who can do above, plus operate a camera

  • Editor - for post production

Cost for these resources may vary depending on experience and location.

What’s in the next episode (#103) of Docuseries Mini?

In the next episode of Docuseries mini, we’ll discuss how to put together a schedule (yes, a timeline!).

DocuseriesFei Wu