Big Budgets for Documentary Films and TV series

Looking at the extravagance of shows on channels like HBO, BBC and now even Netflix, it is easy to wonder what it must cost to make these shows?

Before we discuss specific budgets, take a look at the elements that go into making a television or documentary series for the small screen: Documentary films and series can be of different genres like wildlife, environment, social causes, historical dramas and so on. TV series are also of different genres like comedies, crime, action, horror etc.

While one important factor in deciding the cost is the genre (no matter what, wildlife films cost a lot because of the time needed to shoot them, the locations in which they have to be shot, the equipment, the skill of the crew etc), there are many other deciding factors for costs.

In a television series for example, the salaries of the actors can be half or more of the cost.

Let us look at some examples. BBC’s popular documentary series Planet Earth II has some spectacular shooting besides of course, having David Attenborough as the host. Leaving aside that the host in this case is a celebrity, let us look at the other components that went into making the documentary series.

The Planet Earth series reportedly cost USD 25 million. It was shot in 40 different countries, with crews making 117 filming trips. Over 400 Tera bytes of footage was recorded for the series. It is like having 82,000 DVD’s of footage. It took around 2,089 days of shooting, which comes to just over 5.7 years to make the series and the first episode aired on the BBC on November 6, 2016.

The Planet series is a Natural History documentary series and you would expect a small audience to watch a documentary centred around nature.

The first episode of the series titled the Island has the now famous iguana vs snake fight, which has since its upload, had more than five million views on Youtube. It was shot over two weeks of waiting from morning to evening to get the shots.

The first episode Islands, also became the best performing first episode of a natural history programme in 15-years with 12.3 million viewers. Planet earth II was made ten years after the original Planet Earth. Why?

The time needed to shoot the scenes, the wait, the logistics of using multiple cameras, the terrain that the crew has to travel with equipment, the weather all play a role in shooting mother nature.

Filming wildlife is one of the most difficult things to do as the performers are not in anyones control. The crew has to do a lot of guesswork, study the habits of the animals, put up the equipment in anticipation and wait—sometimes for days. To shoot leopards, the crew of Planet Earth set up infrared "camera traps" throughout the area which the leopard inhabited and checked them everyday to understand its routine. Once they became familiar with the animal's habits, they still had to wait every night panning the area with the camera, hoping to get a shot of the leopard.

That is how difficult it is to get good wildlife footage.

Six teams shot across the planet with ultra high definition cameras to get astonishing footage.

One of the most talked about shots was that of four snow leopards together in the wild for the first time.

The team used Gyro-stabilised cameras (these allow cameramen to move alongside the animals at the same speed).

Other equipment used was heat-sensitive cameras, drones and stabilized rigs to get shots that made this the most cutting edge documentary series ever: in use of technology, time taken for shooting it, number of people and the rare footage which had never been seen before.

Shooting such a series also requires a crew not only competent at its work but having the right temperament for shooting a series like this. It was reported that the producer of the Islands episode spent two weeks in the same clothes…in that time a penguin shat on his clothes and another one puked on it. These are part of the deal when shooting wildlife. In the tropical areas the crew was bitten by mosquitos and centipedes through their clothes. They could not use insect repellents in case the animals smelt them. The cameras that got the famous shot of the four snow leopards in action were set up in the Himalayas for a year. Even to get one snow leopard is an accomplishment. Four of them have hardly ever been spotted by anyone, with or without camera.

Filming the series required 42 camera operators, each of them shooting in ultra high definition 4k, this was the first BBC-produced series to do so.

Let us look at a TV series. While historical dramas like The Crown or action series like The Game Of Thrones have large budgets because of sets, costumes and so on, even the popular series like The Big Bang Theory reportedly costs around 9 to 10 million dollars per episode.

This is because the show ratings are linked to the popularity of the cast: Sheldon Cooper, Leonard, Penny, Amy who then charge according to their popularity.

The cast members get anything between $ 750,000 to $ 1 million per episode. So while the cost of sets, costumes is not high, the popularity of a show also contributes to rising costs. This was true of the other popular comedy series Friends as well.

Use of animation technology is another factor that affects costs. One of the most expensive documentary per minute is believed to be the BBC series on Dinosaurs.

As far back as in 1999, the BBC's documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs cost over £37,654 ($61,112) per minute to produce. It showed how dinosaurs lived, how they reproduced and finally their extinction, all made to come to life with computer graphics and animatronics. The background footage was shot in locations around the world to show them walking on the planet. It took over two years to produce and the six episodes of 27 minutes each, cost a total of £6.1 million or $9.9 million in 1999.

So while there are big budgets for shooting with authenticity which is what gives documentaries their viewership and for popularity as the actors in television serials contribute to the growth of a TV show, the work that goes on behind the scenes is arduous and demanding on the people involved.

Here are some estimated budget numbers for some of the most expensive documentary and television series:

The Pacific made by HBO, Playtone and Dreamworks was estimated to cost $ 100 million for ten episodes but ended up costing reportedly $ 200 million which is $ 20 million per episode.

The Get Down produced by Netflix was estimated to cost around $ 120 million for 12 episodes but ended up costing $ 200 million at $ 16 million per episode.

Game of Thrones is speculated to have cost between $ 10-14 million per episode.

Friends season 10 had set a record at that time when each of its episodes reportedly cost $ 10 million in 2003.

Rome, the HBO series on the Roman Empire is believed to have cost around $ 9.7 million per episode.

Marco Polo, a Netflix production, cost around $ 9 million per episode.

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