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How to make money as a documentary filmmaker

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Sebastian Solberg - Documentary Filmmaker

Are you struggling to make enough money as a documentary filmmaker?

Do you dream of getting paid to travel the world, making films for brands that you care about?

Well, I know what this feels like, as that's where I was 10 years ago. I now get to make films for brands such as Canon, Google, and Red Bull. Filming all around the world, from Istanbul to Tanzania.

But getting to this stage took a long time and it was filled with frustration and painful mistakes. And I could have gotten there a lot quicker if I'd known all the tips I share in this blog.

So to start with, why should a brand or business hire you as a documentary filmmaker?

Well, a client will hire you because:

  • You provide a good service, which basically means you’re great to work with, you’re reliable and you deliver or overdeliver on your commitments.
  • And you’ll be hired because you can create a great product, a film, or a piece of content, that will help your client sell their product or service.

Ok, so now that you know why a client will hire you, how do you get and keep clients?

The secret to having a consistent flow of work coming through when you start out as a filmmaker is to diversify your income stream by offering your filmmaking services to different filmmaking industries, such as commercials, corporate, wedding, and action sports. Filmmaking is a feast or famine job. But if you have a diverse portfolio of great work and offer a diverse range of services and products, you will increase your chances of succeeding.

As you get more experienced you can then focus on a niche. But to start with, you'll have more work and you'll also discover what you enjoy filming by working in a diverse range of filmmaking industries.

So here are my 6 steps for how to get and keep clients:

1. First up is, to master your skills: You’re only going to get hired if you can make good films. So start by practicing your filmmaking skills whenever and wherever you can - go out and film your friends and family at social gatherings, or on holiday or film events happening in your local community. Go to different environments that inspire or challenge you and practice until you feel confident filming with your camera or phone. Also make sure you watch films, content, and series that move you and study how these stories are told to work out what makes them engaging and interesting. It’s important to ask yourself, what separates you from the competition? Lots of beginner filmmakers think it's their camera, and yes it makes a difference, but what will really make you stand out is your filmmaking skills. And mastering these skills takes time. If you go to film school. It will take two or three years. If you go the YouTube route, like me, it will still take several years too, and some of our Documentary Film Academy students have been able to go from amateur to expert in a matter of months. But more realistically it will still take a year or two. But the point is, it’s going to take time to develop your skills and during that process of development, you’re going to have to go outside your comfort zone, by attempting to do things that make you feel uncomfortable and the best way to do this is to...


2. Create your own films which I like to call Personal Projects and this is step number 2: For me, this has been the most effective way to win new clients and to get paid for work that I’m excited about. The key with these projects is to create the kind of films that you want to get paid to do. A client will only hire you if you can show them that you’ve already made the type of film that they want for their brand. This is because a client wants to see a proof of concept and wants to know what the final product will look like before they commit to spending money on hiring you. It’s like seeing a menu before ordering out at a restaurant. The client likes to know what they’re getting. So if you’re trying to get work as a wedding videographer, how about filming a few wedding videos for free in exchange for being able to use it on your portfolio. Or if you’re wanting to make, say, a food commercial, go to your local food market and find a small business owner whose products you like and offer to make them a film for free in exchange for being able to use it as a portfolio piece. I spent a year in New Zealand filming action and adventure videos and because of these portfolio projects, I was hired to make a number of action sports films for clients, including a global campaign video for Canon. So it’s a super-effective way to get new clients as a filmmaker. But where do you host these films when you’re ready to share it with a potential client?


3. Well, this leads me onto step number 3 which is to build your online portfolio: Put together a website - you can use platforms like Wix, Squarespace, and Vimeo to help with this, as they all offer great portfolio templates for filmmakers. On your website, showcase your best work and when you send a potential client your portfolio, make sure you only send them work that relates to the specific service and product you’re providing them. For example, if you’re offering to make a wedding video for a client, only send them examples of wedding videos. Otherwise, they’ll just get confused if you include a documentary you’ve made on say, penguins. A good tip is to create several portfolio pages on your website for the different industries you work in. That way, when you send your portfolio to a potential client, you can just send the videos that are most relevant to the industry that they’re in. Tailoring your portfolio for your audience will increase your chances of getting hired, as it better communicates how the service and product that you offer, fits what they’re looking for.


4. Step number 4 is to market yourself: Now that you’ve mastered your skills as a filmmaker, filmed some personal projects, and created a website, it’s time to reach out on social media, via email, in person, and offer an insane amount of value upfront to production companies, brands and experienced filmmakers who may want to hire you. But, the key to successful marketing, no matter the industry, is to add value first before trying to sell your product or service. This is where I see a lot of filmmakers going wrong when trying to win a new client. They ask to be hired, before offering value, and the secret to getting a new client is to always add value first before asking for somethingYou want to give as much value as you can first, so they know what you’re worth and that they can trust you. So how can you provide value to a potential client? Well, there are lots of ways. The most effective way would be to make a free film for them, or you could give them some free marketing or video advice. This could be through a Zoom call with them or by creating an ebook that you send them. It’s important though when adding value that you have no expectations that they’ll hire you, as this strategy doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hired, it just greatly improves your chances. Some of our members have worked on incredible documentary projects such as Planet Earth II for the BBC, Night On Earth for Netflix, and One Strange Rock II for National Geographic because they successfully marketed themselves and networked with the right people. You can also market on Facebook by sharing your portfolio and behind the scenes of your films on Facebook, Instagram & Linkedin. This will also help to build trust and credibility with potential clients because if they follow you they’ll be exposed to your work and think about your work more regularly. The key to sharing your work on social media is to consistently keep it up to date. I find a good starting point is once a week and then overtime try to post more regularly, say 3 or 4 times a week on these different platforms as well as sharing relevant content your audience might be interested in.


5. Now we’re onto step number 5 which is to team up with filmmakers who already have clients. This is something I did when I started out and still do, as it saves you so much time and you can spend more time on making films rather than spending it on trying to find clients. Look up advertising agencies or more established filmmakers who have a database of clients. You won’t make as much money per job as you would going direct to these clients but it saves you a lot of time. And this will give you more time to make films and practice your filmmaking skills.


6. My last step, step number 6, is to nurture relationships:  The biggest way I land new jobs is through word of mouth and this happens through nurturing relationships with previous clients. You can do this by arranging a time for a zoom catch-up or for a coffee and by continuing to add value to their life. For example, the way I managed to get a job on the Oscar-nominated film The Eagle Huntress was by regularly keeping in contact with the producer. So after we’d first spoken on the phone I kept in touch and as I knew they were looking for funding for their project, rather than just saying I want to work with them, how do I get involved? I first started by giving value and sending links with the latest funding opportunities that I’d heard about. And then eventually a position opened up and because I’d consistently kept in contact with the producer I was in the front of his mind when an opportunity finally came.


If you love making documentaries but struggling to make enough money to support yourself and your family.

Then Documentary Film Academy is here to help you learn the business and marketing skills you need to get paid to travel the world and make films for brands you care about.

Documentary Film Academy

A step-by-step guide to creating cinematic documentaries.

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