By John Jackman

VP, Comenius Communication, Inc.

One question I am often asked is how to go about selling a documentary

to The History Channel or Discovery or PBS. The question usually starts out asking whether DV is “good enough” for these venues; the questioner then proceeds (with dollar signs in eyes) to speculate on how much they could “get” selling a doc to one of these channels. I really dislike this question, because I hate to rain on anyone’s parade. But they are asking for the legitimate answers, so I don’t sugar-coat the answers.

The answer to the initial question is that yes, DV is “good enough” for the big time. There are a lot of shows running that were shot on DV. ITVS, one program funding arm of PBS, has a category of funding specifically for DV programs. But that’s not the whole answer. The hard part is that DV is good enough ”“ if you are good enough. Of far greater importance are production values, careful lighting, good audio, finesse in editing, and skill at storytelling. It ain’t the format, friend, it’s the skill with which it is used.

OK, the format is good enough. (Editor’s Note: Some shows are requiring HD.) OK, you’ve learned your craft and your production values are up to par. How much can you sell your doc for? One answer I could give is “it depends.” But the blunt answer is “not much.” Docs are not like wedding videos or industrials. In most cases, the “client” is not going to pay full freight plus a profit.

Making a great documentary is tough enough. But the documentary business is even tougher. Low budget docs are unlikely to make the grade unless you’re a real genius or your topic is so hot nobody can turn you down. Even pinching pennies, if everyone working on the doc gets paid something reasonable, and you buy all the appropriate insurances (you did buy E&O – Errors and Omissions Insurance – didn’t you? See How To Buy Video Production Insurance) and all the graphics and other visuals are properly licensed (you didn’t pilfer any stills from the internet, did you?) it’s quite easy to spend $100,000 creating an hour long doc. Remember, you’ll have to certify in writing to the broadcaster that you have full legal right to use every frame of video and every measure of music. Of course you can do it for less if you keep your day job and everybody volunteers their time, but you’ll still have some pretty large hard costs that can’t be reduced.

When selling a finished doc to a broadcaster, you aren’t really “selling” it at all, you’re licensing them certain broadcast rights for a specified period. Very rarely will a channel buy full rights to a finished program that has been brought to them. You will continue to own the intellectual property. Say you spent $100,000 to make a doc on the world’s largest widget collection. It’s interesting, production values are good, and it fits in the profile of The Widget Channel.

So you do a deal ”“ for example, they have exclusive first-run rights for two years, during which time they can run the program as many times as they want. For this they pay you a license fee of $10,000. That’s right, $10K. If you’re lucky. Since The Widget Channel is new and only has a smaller audience, it might be $2K. But even with the big guys, it is unlikely to be higher that $10,000.

So how can you make your money back? By selling the program again and again to multiple markets.

Sell to other broadcast markets: Every country is sold separately in most cases, since their television networks are national. License fees will vary from country to country.

Sell to cable/satellite outlets: Some of these are huge, other networks don’t have many more viewers than a big local station. License fees will vary accordingly.

Get a distributor: unless you’re ready to go into the retail distribution business, find a DVD distributor that specializes in your topic or type of program. The distributor may be willing to give you an advance on royalties as part of the deal. This will be based precisely on the distributor’s guess as to how many DVDs they will sell. It may be as high as $10,000 or as low as ”“ well, nothing. Royalties will also vary, typically from 10% to 20% of actual sales price. Bear in mind that means the price the distributor gets, not the list price. Some distributors operate a retail website, but many sales are also to bookstores and other outlets where they sell at wholesale. If you have a popular topic that is suitable for mass market (Target, Wal-Mart) find a distributor that specializes in that placement. Here’s the harsh reality: the DVD will probably retail for $9.95, and Wal-Mart keeps half of that. You’ll probably see only 50¢ from each DVD.

Sell to distributors in other markets: first find DVD distributors in other English-speaking countries. Focus on areas where there is an audience for your topic or type of show. Then look at non-English speaking countries. Since the distributor will have to foot the bill for translation and subtitling or dubbing, advances are likely to be lower or nonexistent.

Try to negotiate a DVD sales tag as part of broadcast deals. You know, “You can buy a copy of the program you’ve just seen (because you were too dumb to slap a DVD in the player) for only $19.95 plus $75 shipping and handling.” This will typically have to be part of the program running time, and some networks won’t do it. Others will want a hefty slice of the DVD sales revenue, or will insist on distributing the DVD themselves. However, the “tag” is free advertising every time the show runs, so try really hard to get this. Make sure the DVD distributor is up and running before the program and the sales tag are broadcast! Don’t laugh ”“ it’s happened more than once!

Sign up with a documentary distributor who will do all of the above for you. The doc market is quite limited, and these guys basically know everywhere they can sell one and how the deals are done. In exchange for their work and knowledge, they’ll keep a goodly chunk of all the license fees. But on the other hand, do you know where to sell a documentary in Brazil?

Please don’t go to any broadcaster or distributor until you’ve checked to make sure that your idea is in their “profile.” Every network and every distributor have a type of program they deal in. Don’t take you vampire flick to The History Channel and don’t take your educational video on oral hygiene to Kultur/Whitestar Video. They’ll just think you’re an idiot (they’ll be right!) and won’t take you call next time.

So don’t these channels ever pay the full cost of a doc? Sure they do ”“ mainly when it’s their idea. And then they’ll go to the small circle of tried-and-true production companies they always use. You have just about zero chance of breaking in that circle. The network has absolutely no reason to take a chance on some untested but enthusiastic newbie. Hate to be blunt, but that’s the way they see it.

You have a better chance of selling them a program concept. Say you have an idea for the best doc ever ”“ and you have developed special access to the subject, or knowledge of the topic. If you just go make it and bring the finished product to their door, they’ll pay you $10K tops. Why would they do otherwise? There it is, in the can and you hopping on one foot to get it broadcast. They don’t have to buy the silly thing!

But ”“ if you bring it to Discovery or The History Channel in its concept phase and pitch them the idea, you might have a chance. It had better be a really spiffy idea, one that you are uniquely qualified to produce. Otherwise, (trust me on this) they’ve already had twelve similar proposals, had thought of it themselves already, and have one of their trusty inner circle working on it. In that situation, they don’t need you or your idea. But if you have unique knowledge of the subject, or special access to the subject that you have cultivated, you may have a chance. All networks like to be in from the beginning so that they can shape the program to their needs. (Translation: expect compromises!) Here’s where you have a chance at full funding. But if they fund it fully, they will usually want to own it and kiss you goodbye. You should think long and hard before doing that. You want to retain part ownership of the intellectual property.

If you do not have a broadcast production track record, you’ve little chance of receiving full funding and being in charge of the production. More likely they’ll team you up with one of that “tried-and-true” circle to do the production. Or they’ll let you do it under the watchful eye of a trusted executive producer who will eat up a large chunk of the money.

Much more common today are co-productions. This is where (for example) A&E funds 1/3, BBC funds 1/3, and the producer funds the other 1/3 through investors. Or make up some other combination, the sky’s the limit.

One last sad and difficult note. If you had your eyes on PBS, you have a lot of work cut out for you. As one Hollywood producer said to me recently, “There’s no upside to it.” PBS expects you to come to them with your program fully funded in most cases, and the politics are byzantine. If you approach through your local PBS affiliate, don’t be surprised if they demand a slice of all your funding “to get the program through the hoops.” Your best chance here is to go through one of the funding programs like ITVS ( or cultivate deep and meaningful relationships at your local public television station.

Good luck. Remember, a great program and perseverance wins out!


Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry : From Negotiations to Final Contracts by Mark Litwak

Silman-James Press, 1994; ISBN: 1879505150


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JOHN JACKMAN has over twenty years of experience in video production and technology. He is widely known in the industry for his contributions to several industry magazines including Digital Video Magazine. He is an active member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).You may reach him by Email