Creating a documentary budget is great way to think through every aspect of your film. Even though you may be eager to get started shooting your documentary right away, creating a budget can often be an enlightening experience, revealing factors that may otherwise slip under the radar. A budget forces you to think through every detail and can save you the agony of an unexpected surprise down the road.
In addition to being a great tool for the filmmaker, a documentary budget is essential if you hope to raise money for your film. A budget is usually a must-have item along with your documentary proposal when pitching your documentary idea to potential funders or supporters. A documentary budget provides an important snapshot of how you plan to shoot your film, the locations where filming will take place, how many people are involved in the project, what kind of equipment you’re using and your distribution plan among other things.
Whereas your documentary proposal describes the story and vision for how your documentary will look on screen, the budget is your nuts and bolts plan behind the scenes.
Here are the three primary steps in creating a documentary budget:
Research – This is THE most important aspect of creating your budget. Without research, you have a blank slate. This is where you need to make phone calls, search the internet and ask for advice. You’ll need to decide such things as what kind of insurance (if any) you need, how much a van rental will cost in the city you’ll be shooting, how much your cameraman charges for three days of work, what’s the cost of renting a lighting kit, what does the animation guy charge, will you need to pay copyright fees for stock footage, etc.
Build Your Budget – It’s highly recommended that you use a spreadsheet program such as Excel or get your hands on a documentary budgeting template. You can certainly jot down your budget items using a plain text document, but this is not a professional (or efficient) way to do a budget. Having a spreadsheet with formulas allows you to make changes to individual items and it automatically updates the totals for the whole budget. As you conduct your research, begin inputting the various budget items including crew salaries, production equipment rental, stock footage fees, administrative costs, etc. Input everything you can think of!
Refine Your Budget – Once you’ve created your budget, you will surely be shocked by the final total cost. At this point, you will need to refine your budget to come up with a realistic final cost. Ask yourself the amount of money you realistically believe you can raise for your project? If you think you can raise $10,000 and your budget came out to $250,000, then you will need to make some hard decisions. Is there anything in your budget that is not an absolutely necessity? Or is there a way to get some items donated?
Creating your documentary budget is not a one-time event. The budget will need to be constantly updated and modified as you go.
One item you’ll want to include in your budget is a contingency (usually 8-10% of your total budget). This is especially helpful if you’re new to budgeting. A contingency provides a buffer in case items in your budget end up costing more than you expected.
In summary, if you are pitching your documentary idea to potential funders and trying to raise money for your film, you will more than likely need a detailed budget. It’s absolutely critical that you create a budget that is as realistic and accurate as possible. Since many of your funders will be business-minded individuals, they will know if you fudged on your numbers. So do your research and put together the best possible budget that you can. As the filmmaker, you are probably eager to start shooting and making your film, but taking the time to think through every detail of your budget will pay off in the end.