I'm a college student thinking of becoming a documentary filmmaker. How do I get into the business? Should I go to film school, or what?

I don't know much about an education in documentary filmmaking. I got into the business from television news, like a lot of commercial documentary makers. My only advice, for what it's worth, would be to stick with a general undergraduate education (I was an English major myself). My opinion: Do not go to film school as an undergrad. Film School teaches you technique, but technique is useless if you have nothing to say.

If you want to go to graduate film school, make sure they have a good documentary curriculum. I've heard that USC and NYU both fit that bill, but of course, you'd want to check for yourself. You could also apply for work as a researcher or production assistant with any documentary production companies in your area. (Check the credits at the end of a documentary to see which production company made it, then send 'em an email.)

Bottom line, I'll tell you what I tell everyone who asks: documentary making is still show biz, and making it in show biz requires a thick skin and huge amounts of patience and persistence. Don't get into it unless it's your dream, because there are a lot of easier ways to make a living. Seriously.

I'm not too interested or experienced in TV production, but I'd like to get into the conceptual and research side of documentary-making. What should I do?

If I'm reading you right, you're more interested in the research than in field production. If so, I'd say you're going to have a difficult time finding a documentary job that's limited just to research. Such jobs do exist, but they are few in number. Mostly, in the commercial documentary world, everyone wears many hats. I do much of my own research, as well as write the script, direct the shoots, conduct the interviews, and supervise the edit (among many other things). The rest of the research is usually done for me by the Associate Producer, who also serves as production coordinator, production assistant, receptionist and secretary (among many other things).

You may be too early in your education and career to have firm ideas about specializing. I suggest you get out there and try to do some production PA work to see if you like it.

I'm a thirty-eight year old man thinking of making a career change. I don't know much about documentary production, but think I'd be a good researcher. I have an interest and expertise in military subject matter.

As noted in the previous answer, there are a small number of jobs for researchers in documentary-making. More of them are in L.A. and New York than in D.C., and the number of jobs for documentary-researchers specializing in military subjects is even smaller. Most commercial documentaries today are researched by the writer and/or associate producer. But those jobs are on career paths that would require you to start from the entry-level (assistant producer), at $30,000-a-year or so.

I realize I'm not being very encouraging here. I would say that, if its always been your dream to make documentaries, and you're willing to make the sacrifices that go with being in show biz, you should go for it. Check out the job listings at and (among numerous others), and apply for one of the entry level positions. But it sounds to me like it's just an idea you're toying with, and—I gotta be honest here—the entertainment business is not a good place to have a mid-life career crisis. Among other problems, you're competing for jobs against all the people for whom it has always been a dream.

I'm sorry my tone here has been so relentlessly downbeat, but I figured you asked because you wanted an honest answer. I'm certainly not saying you can't make it in the documentary business, but I am saying you'll have to get past "I have no clue" and decide that you're gonna do it because you absolutely have to and you're willing to make the sacrifices.

How much money does a documentary filmmaker make?

The range is so variable that there's almost no way to answer this question. Mainly, it depends on whether you are working in the commercial or non-commercial (i.e. public television) realm. At the time of this writing, experienced commercial documentary makers like me can average anywhere from $50,000 to $90,000 a year—but because it's mostly a freelance business, it can be less in a bad year, or a bit more in a good one. Non-commercial documentarians generally earn less, but I've never been one, so I don't really know how much less.

What might be the typical salary range and educational requirements for a video editor?

Capable editors are highly in demand, and the pay scale and experience requirements reflect that. Generally, an experienced editor can earn about $60-80,000 in a major market. The only 'educational requirements' are experience with nonlinear editing systems (mainly Final Cut Pro or Avid), or—to start out—an editing class at a community college or university. Obviously, someone starting out would probably have to take work as an assistant editor or on corporate-industrial-marketing projects, for a lot less money.

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How did you get into this business? Was this a childhood dream?

I had always wanted to work in television, even when I was in grade school. When I was in college, at UC Berkeley, I started working at the university's radio station, and that led to many years working in TV news as a reporter, weatherman, news cameraman, and editor. Eventually, by the early '90s, I was bored by local TV news and wanted to do more. A newsroom friend who had quit earlier offered me a chance to produce and edit an episode of MTV's "The Real World," so I quit the TV newsroom I was working in, and left news for good. Sort of (see below). After one episode of "The Real World," I moved to Washington, DC, where a lot of documentaries are made, and began writing and producing documentaries for a lot of different cable channels, such as Discovery and History Channel. For more details on my career, see my resume.

How has it been since then?

After I edited/produced that episode of "Real World" I mentioned earlier, I moved to Washington, DC. While I was working in DC, I got a call from the company that makes "Real World," asking if I would like to come back to LA for a few weeks to edit/produce a pilot for a new show they were trying to sell to MTV called, "Road Rules." After twelve long, hard weeks, I finished that pilot, and it was so good that MTV bought the show, and carried it for many seasons. That was the last time I worked for MTV, but I stayed very busy doing shows for other networks like Discovery and Travel Channel and History Channel. In 2002, I was invited to go back into news as the news director of the first all-gay radio channel on Sirius Satellite Radio. It was just too exciting an opportunity to pass up, so I took it, leaving television for more than a decade. 

What made you interested in doing this kind of thing?

The great thing about documentaries is that I get to tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This is different from TV news, where the stories are so short that there's less opportunity to use my storytelling skills. The other thing I like about documentaries is that they are usually about something that really matters, like war or history or science.

Do you enjoy doing this sort of work?

Making documentaries of all kinds is a lot of fun. I got to learn about a lot of different subjects, and then turn what I have learned into a story that a lot of other people can enjoy and learn from. There's a lot of variety in the job. Some days I did a lot of reading, other days I wrote. Some days there was planning and meetings, sometimes I got to direct a shoot or conduct an interview, and some days I spent editing all the footage down to a short program. Every day was different.

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How do you come up with ideas for shows?

More often than not, I didn't think up the ideas for the shows I worked on. Usually someone who already had an idea came to me and paid me to make their idea into a TV show. But once in a while, the idea came from me—or, more likely, from me and my producing partner, a guy I have worked with for many years named Dan. Dan and I just had long conversations over the phone (he lives in Florida; long story), and sometimes these conversations led to show ideas. If they were really good ideas, ideas that excited both of us a lot, then one of us wrote a 'proposal,' which is kind of like a 5 page term paper that explained what the show is about. Then we sent that proposal to all the TV channels that we thought might possibly, maybe be interested. Nine times out of ten, they politely said, "No thanks." But once in a while, the network liked the idea, too, and then they paid Dan and me to make the show. A show we made for Discovery called "Sweetheart Swindlers" got made just that way.

I've heard documentary-making is very freelance oriented.

True. There are not too many staff jobs, especially for those new to the business. Frankly, that's one (lesser) reason I signed up for the staff job with Sirius.

As a freelancer: How would you describe your lifestyle/typical work week? Weekends/time off?

One of the best things about being a documentary filmmaker is the flexibility that freelancing affords. Generally, you determine your hours and schedule. Within the limits of deadlines, which are generally pretty long in the documentary end of the business, you can work when you want as long as you get the job done.

The bad news comes in two parts. One is that it's difficult to arrange for vacations longer than a couple of days. Either you're working, and can't take a week off and still meet your deadline. Or you're out of work, and can't leave town because a) you can't afford to and b) you don't want to miss any job interviews. The widespread availability of wireless communication (meaning that you can be reached anyplace, anytime) has somewhat reduced the importance of that last factor, by the way.

Speaking of "can't afford to," that is the second part of the bad news. Irregular hours means irregular income; sometimes you're flush, often you're not. It requires quite a bit of discipline to sock money away for a rainy day, but that's what you have to do.

There are some differences depending on the size of the projects you get. For most of my documentary career, I worked on long-term projects lasting upwards of six months. But as I said, when I was looking for staff work, that precluded contract work which would interfere with accepting a salaried job. To pay the bills, however, I took quite a bit of short-term daily hire work through the early 90's. This had a lot of disadvantages, exaggerating the irregularity of the schedule and income, but it was the only thing I could do to still be available to grab the brass ring when it finally came around.

Do you find self promotion/seeking new clients to be very time consuming, or are you able to pick and choose your projects?

Well, I generally had a pretty good mix of clients, including a few bread-and-butter clients who often had more work for me than I could do. So I didn't spend too much time promoting myself. But I've been in the business for many years and have a lot of experience and some reputation. It would be different, obviously, if I were just starting out.

Did you frequently travel in order to collaborate with other members of the production crew? Or were you pretty well set in your own city?

The travel comes in waves, usually for a couple of days up to a week, in the middle of a project. I'd go months without any travel, and then suddenly have to spend, say, 12 days out of three weeks on the road. Grand total, I probably traveled 30-40 days a year.

What is the time frame for making a one-hour TV documentary?

Highly variable. A cheap-and-quick hour can be done in a few weeks; a good quality cable documentary usually takes 4-6 months; and public television documentaries often take years, either because the budgets are so high they support it, or they're so low that the shows are made on part-time basis.

Are directors able to specialize in, say, documentaries, TV shows, or is their work spread across the board?

Sure, most people specialize. In fact, the marketplace wants you to specialize, so they don't have to think "out of the box" about your capabilities. But oftentimes, jobs come along outside of one's specialties (corporate or sales, or some documentary genre one hasn't previously worked in), and one takes the job because it's new and interesting or, well, ya gotta eat.

Can you live anywhere in the country or is it important to live near LA and NYC?

This is a kind of tricky question. There are modest documentary industries in Chicago, Atlanta, Knoxville (don't ask), Nashville (ditto), and other cities around the country. But most of the work nationwide is done in LA, NYC and DC, and for someone just starting out it would be a lot easier to find work. Of course, if you plan to self-finance a documentary for the love of the game, you can do that anywhere. But if you want to make a living starting out in the industry, I'd say LA, NY or DC would be your best bet.

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[This section, written in 2001, is by far the most out of date one in this FAQ, and is the priority candidate for an update. The barriers to entry in terms of technology (cheap cameras, desktop editing), distribution (YouTube) and financing (Kickstarter, IndieGoGo) have completely transformed Getting Your Documentary Made.]

I know you don't want people to submit show ideas to you, but I do have a great idea for a documentary and I don't know how to get it made into a program. Can you give me any advice on finding someone to help me produce my idea?

You ask a very good question with no easy answers. It's even harder because I don't know anything about your idea (as I note elsewhere, just as well), and I don't know anything about your skills and background. But I'm going to be brutally frank: in a nutshell, you have only a couple of options.

If you have any kind of entrepreneurial or fundraising skills, you might be able to raise a little investment money (if your idea has any commercial possibilities, or if not, grant money), then hire a professional producer like me to develop the idea into a something ready for pre-sale to a network, which would then raise the rest of the budget.

The point here is that you need a professional at some point in the process, and professionals don't generally work for free. If you really, really think it's a great idea, and that anyone can see is a great idea (i.e., it could make some money, not just is a "story that needs to be told," etc.) then there's always a tiny chance you could interest a professional in investing his time for free in the hopes that he could sell the idea to a network. But in this latter circumstance, you should be aware that there's virtually no chance that you will get any money out of the deal. It's the professional's time and effort that are the investment which eventually earns a return—an idea alone is worth next to nothing.

If you want to maximize the tiny chance that someone like me might decide to take the project on as our own (with all that entails), then your best bet is to create a brief 1-3 page pitch, outlining your idea, and including any compelling articles, clippings, photos, etc. that will help sell it. Put together your best pitch in a document, then prior to sending it, write a very brief letter or e-mail to a few professional producers, stating the idea in a sentence and asking if you can mail or e-mail a brief proposal on the idea, and releasing any commercial claim on the idea. Something like this:

Dear Mr. Smith—

I have an idea for a documentary which I believe is perfect for the XX network/festival circuit/whatever-marketplace, about (insert your one-liner here). I have developed a very brief proposal which, with your permission, I would like to send you. I am not interested in making money from this idea, and would gladly release any rights which I may hold should you decide to take up the project.

Thanks for your attention.



Now, if you're not comfortable with the kind of terms I've outlined here, then all I can suggest is that you go back to the first alternative I outlined. Basically, as I said, the idea alone plus four bucks will get you a frappuccino. If you want any kind of creative control or financial interest, you must bring something more to the table, like money, investors, an interested network (very difficult to achieve if you're not experienced in the documentary marketplace), etc. These are the hard truths about the documentary business that no one is eager to discuss.  And of course, there's always the chance that you and your idea might be the exception, in which case... forget everything I just said.

Are there more reliable ways to secure funding other than seeking investors, grants, studio financing, lender and completion deals and personal funds?

Well, the way most cable documentaries are made is with co-production financing from the network, which might come under the heading of "studio financing," I suppose. The network (say, Discovery) puts up perhaps 60% of the budget, with the production company or its investors putting up the balance in anticipation of making it back (along with a profit, of course) in ancillary sales such as foreign markets, home video, etc. This is the end of the business in which I've made my living for the last eight years. I don't know much about funding public television or film festival docs. I wish I did, actually.

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Can you send me some information on the history of MTV and music videos?

Weirdly, this is the number one most frequently asked question. But sorry. I freelanced for MTV a couple of times in the early nineties. I don't know any more about its history than you do. (Oh, except for one thing: the first video on MTV was "Video Killed the Radio Star," by the Buggles.)

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Last Update: 15 Nov 2012