something they care about enough to find the time and money to see it
through to completion. The idea may be self-generated, happenstance,
or from a third party who brings an idea to a filmmaker.
Some documentary films are commissioned by a network, corporation,
organization, or advocacy group. With rare exceptions, these are
actually public relations films. Documentary filmmakers take on these
assignments because they need to earn a living.
Funding for social issue documentaries comes from foundations or
individuals within that specific community circle.
Most documentary filmmakers have a sliding fee scale based on value
and pain. Their highest rates are reserved for commercial clients
who usually demand editorial control and copyright ownership. Most of
us work for free on our projects hoping to get paid after the film is
finished assuming it gets distribution. Less than 10% of the
documentaries made get any kind of distribution. Theatrical release is
likely less than half a percent. Television or on video is where most
high-quality docs end up. It's a complete crapshoot so most treat
doc filmmaking as a hobby and do other things to pay the bills.
It's my guess that there are less than 100 people in the United States
who earn their living solely from making documentaries.