Documentaries can seem like a cost-effective genre to work in. They don’t need expensive special effects or famous faces. You don’t have to feed a huge crew. In fact, many documentaries can be made by one or two people with a camera and sound equipment.
But once you start following a story, hidden costs can pop up left and right. That includes how much it can cost to chase that story from state to state (or even other countries!). Suddenly, your small documentary can become a complex and expensive endeavor.
That’s where Wrapbook comes in! We’ve put together a guide to help budding documentary filmmakers wrap their heads around what it takes to produce a multi-state documentary.
Once you start making a documentary, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of the work. That’s why it’s helpful to decide where it’s essential to film before you even turn on your camera.
If your documentary is rooted in the story of a specific place, like Michael Moore’s Roger & Me and Flint, Michigan, this can be a pretty easy decision. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s not that easy.
For instance, if you were making a documentary about Kanye West, you might have a tough time deciding if that story should be told in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or even Montana where Ye spends most of his time now.
On a limited budget, decisions must be made. So if your doc is going to focus on how Kanye got his start, you’ll probably want to limit your shooting to Chicago and New York.
If your doc is more interested in what he’s been up to since splitting with Kim, shooting in LA and interviewing people who live near his compound in Montana might be more important.
It can be frustrating to limit yourself to shooting in just one or two states. However, once you stop to consider the expense of flights, lodging, food, car rentals, and gas in just a few different states, you’ll see why it’s important.
For a documentary with a grander scope - say, an examination of our country’s endangered species - this kind of spendthrift mindset may not be possible. You may have no choice but to travel state to state to capture all the wildlife footage you need.
In a case such as this, it’s even more important to do your research. Narrow down which animals and which states you specifically need and budget how much that footage is going to cost.
One way to look at solving a problem like this might be to capture as much talking head footage as you can in one state (at a zoo or natural history museum) and use that as the backbone for your whole narrative. Put together a rough cut with borrowed stock footage of the animals you want to feature and then budget and plan for each shot you’ll need to replace.
This will help you determine which locations are essential and which are expendable well before you start to travel.
If your film’s subject matter doesn’t require you to shoot in a specific state or states, the next thing you’ll want to research are financial incentives available in different locations.
Many states offer different kinds of benefits to attract productions. These can significantly impact the budget of your film by funneling cash back into your pockets. Choosing your location wisely can make a huge difference in the finished product.
A few of these incentives to be aware of include:
Tax credits are one of the most common incentives that states offer film productions to attract their business. These credits typically offer a percentage rebate on qualified production expenditures, including wages, equipment rentals, and post-production costs.
Exemptions are waivers on certain taxes, like hotel occupancy tax or state sales tax.
They might not seem like a huge deal if you’re a one-person production team, but if you’re traveling state to state with a full crew, these exemptions can make a huge difference. The room tax savings on a crew of 10 at a local hotel is nothing to scoff at.
Some states offer grants to production as a way of encouraging economic development and job creation. While not usually as rich as incentives or exemptions, grants can provide funding for various aspects of production, including location scouting, equipment rentals, and post-production.
In stark contrast to fiction, where you can plan almost every shot, documentary filmmaking is a much more fluid beast. It’s important to plan as much as you can, while remaining flexible to the places interviews or research might lead you.
What if your interview subject in California is only available on the same day that you need to shoot a festival in Idaho? Or maybe you have to capture essential footage of a scientific demonstration in New York City on the same day that an opposing team of scientists is presenting in New Mexico.
Filming in these states simultaneously can be tempting. In addition to getting what you need, you’ll speed up your production window - and thus save you money on how many days you need to pay your crew or rent equipment.
Keep in mind that those savings will be offset (or exceeded) by hiring the extra crew or equipment needed to shoot in two places at once!
Plus, shooting in multiple states simultaneously could leave the door open to miscommunications and mistakes. Too many balls in the air usually results in one being dropped. Plane tickets, hotels, transportation: the difficulty is upped on all of them.
Especially if you have a skeleton crew, you may want to space out your production so that you’re better focused on one location at a time. Try to solve problems in ways that won’t leave you spread too thin.
If an interview overlaps, can you make yourself available on a different day? Or fly an out-of-state subject to you on a day that’s more convenient for your production?
Again, some documentary shoots are so bare bones that the filmmaker is virtually everything: from producer to director to cinematographer to sound guy.
If your film requires additional crew, do the math to figure out whether it makes more sense for your budget to hire locally or bring your crew with you.
To do this, you’ll need to make sure you have a firm grasp on a couple of details.
First, consider what financial incentives (as discussed above) might be available on a state-to-state basis. If you’re a particularly clever producer, you may even find a way of stringing together various states’ incentives to super-charge your budget.
You’ll also need to do the math for travel and accommodations as your documentary shoot moves from state to state. Will incentives offset any of these costs? Or will each stop incur additional charges?
If travel and lodging costs too much, look into hiring a local crew in each location. Because of successful incentive programs, many states besides New York and California have vibrant film production communities with experienced behind the camera talent. Georgia, for instance, has a stellar incentives program.
Be aware: complying with employment regulations on multi-state film shoot can be a daunting undertaking. You’ll need to make sure your budget can handle the differences in minimum wages state-to-state, and that your liquid cash flow is extremely well managed in case you find yourself having to cut checks in multiple states at once.
Even with the information we can provide, we still recommend hiring a payroll professional to guarantee that all your “I”s are dotted and all your “T”s are crossed. Making payroll mistakes can result in stiff penalties and fines that can sap your budget - not to mention sully your multi-state documentary’s reputation.
Additionally, your multi-state documentary shoot might want to look into budgeting for unit production managers (UPMs) in each state.
UPMs are in charge of many “below the line” costs, and need to be well versed in local regulations so that they can negotiate and hire crew members without running afoul of any legislation.
So while a UPM in Nevada will know their way around the rules in their slice of desert, that same UPM might find themselves out of their depth if your shoot hits the road to work in Mississippi and Florida.
Once you’ve decided on which states you’re shooting in and whether you’re hiring locally or not, the next thing you’ll want to look into are permits. Even if you’re a small operation, that doesn’t mean you can just set up and shoot wherever you want.
If your crew consists of yourself, a camera, and a microphone, you may be able to get away with shooting inside your subject’s home or apartment without a permit. For a crew and/or locations beyond that, states require shooting permits.
These permits help local authorities plan for your presence and lay out the specific guidelines and regulations your shoot must obey at each location. Filming in more than one state -or sometimes just more than one city - means having to understand the permit laws in each filming location.
If this all sounds complicated: fear not. We’ve put together free handbooks that walk you through the permitting process in New York City and Los Angeles. But don’t feel this is something you have to handle all by yourself!
Permitting is a complicated and time-consuming endeavor - especially on a multi-state film shoot - and we would recommend hiring someone with the proper expertise in permitting to undertake the responsibility.
Failure to get your project permitted could mean your shoot gets shut down or fined by local authorities. Those are costs that are going to come out of your production’s pocket!
Just like regular film shoots, documentary shoots need insurance coverage, too. This coverage should include general liability, equipment, workers' comp, and errors and omissions. As with everything when you’re shooting in more than one state - the details and requirements will vary depending on where you are.
Even if you are operating as the sole crew member, you will still want to make sure your equipment is insured in case of an accident or unforeseen circumstances. Like getting lost during travel.
We’ve put together an essential guide to film production insurance to get you started, but we also recommend consulting an insurance expert before shooting. Why not give Wrapbook’s in-house production insurance team a call?
Shooting a documentary in multiple states can be a difficult undertaking but, Wrapbook has more resources to support you on your way.
If you’re starting at square one, check out some basics on how to make a documentary. Or maybe you’re looking to grow and want to craft an entire docuseries. And no matter what kind of documentary you’re making, make sure to brush up on the best ways to get it funded.
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