Fortunately, new technologies like digital video cameras and laptop editing systems are dramatically cutting the costs of producing a documentary. If your documentary calls for a cinematographer, actors to portray reconstructed events, extensive travel, or rights to footage you do not own, these factors will significantly raise the cost of your production. As you seek funding for your documentary, think of yourself as a modern Renaissance artist looking for a wealthy patron. There is someone out there willing to take a chance on you, especially if they feel your passion. Funding can come from the most unlikely sources, so be creative.
Below are some sources of funding for your documentary:
Production Company: Most independent production companies have a development department that accept and review submissions for possible financial backing for your documentary. Many in the industry regard these departments as "black holes," particularly if you are an unknown producer. Owners of production companies generally consider pitches from known sources in the industry, but occasionally do take a chance on a dark horse.
Network or Cable Channel: PBS has a formal submission process whereby they may offer a grant to produce your documentary. They may also have you sign a pre-sale agreement, in which they buy your documentary before it is sold. Other cable networks, like Discovery or the Independent Film Channel, have similar arrangements.
Foundations and Grants: There are countless sources of grant money offered by federal, state and local governments, as well as universities and nonprofit organizations. Target organizations that you believe would have a vested interested in your documentary and how it may help advance their research or cause.
Sponsorships: Many corporations also have foundations, and may regard your documentary as the perfect sponsorship opportunity. If you bring a sponsor to the table, most distributors won't say no to your documentary.
Private Investors: With your idea and business plan in hand, ask for backing from your family, your parents' friends, and other potential contacts you believe could offer you financial support. Why not? As they say, charity begins at home!
Specialized Loans: Most likely a long shot, but it is possible that a bank or another source of private equity could extend you a loan, particularly if you have a business plan that demonstrates how your project will make money.
A business plan demonstrating how your project can generate revenues is just as important as the script. Costs vary from project to project. Even if your project is on a shoestring budget, it is a good idea to get in the habit of putting together a basic budget, so you understand the costs involved. It is also important to understand the impact of time on those costs, the value of different audiences and the forms of distribution you may consider for your documentary. Yes, there is an audience for almost anything, but you don't want to keep making obscure documentaries that keep you on a diet of mac and cheese for the rest of your life.