Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Sundance’s Bank-busting Economics: $862,500,000 spent on documentaries that miss the cut

A Sundance campaign is a license to lose money.

Lots of it!

Here’s why:

  • Let’s assume that the average production cost of all 1,774 Sundance submissions for 2020 is $500,000.
  • Actual budgets range from around $200,000 up to $5+ million.
  • $500K is a conservative average for a feature, according to D-Word‘s Doug Block.

Production Cost:

  • 1,725 documentaries were “Not Accepted” in 2020.
  • The production expense of all the “Not Accepted” films would be $863 million!
  • And that doesn’t include marketing, press and all the other outreach costs.

Source: Sundance Film Festival,

Takeaways: Zeitgeist versus Economics

  • The documentary feature gains ever more popularity and prestige as a medium of creative expression and investigation.
  • It attracts funding from broadcasters, cablers and platforms, governments, foundations, corporate sponsors, the hyper- hyper-wealthy, U.S. presidents, A-list celebs, crowd-funders, BF’s, the mortgage on grandma’s beach cottage, personal overdrafts, and more.
  • Few productions ever recoup these ‘investments’ from later commercial distribution efforts.
  • However many projects do succeed by non-commercial measures: for example by exposing injustice, inspiring social change, or advancing the careers of their filmmakers.
  • And BTW, some of the terrific films that are not accepted at Sundance later find recognition and acclaim at other festivals and markets.

Channels: A Different Risk

  • Realscreen Summit opens soon in New Orleans, reminding me that producing for channels involves a different type of funding risk than for feature docs.
  • Producers create sizzle reels to pitch their projects to network buyers.
  • These trailers typically cost in the tens of thousands, a fraction of the cost of a completed feature documentary.
  • The cost of each pitch is rising as channels shift development costs to the producers.
  • Discovery is also moving the cost of financing production to producers, paying them for completed films instead of for phased deliveries, e.g. for the rough cut.
  • Listen to my podcast on the “Pitching Arms Race” with veteran factual producer Michael Hoff.

More on the Sundance Economy

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