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The Salary of a Documentary Filmmaker

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Documentary films focus on telling the true story of an event or time period. The filmmakers who make documentaries wear many hats. They often produce, write and direct their own work, with some of them — like Morgan Spurlock of "Super-Size Me" fame — even starring in their own productions to ensure the story they want told is conveyed.

Documentary Filmmakers

Documentary filmmakers typically work either as independent artists or for studios in the motion picture industry. As independent artists, documentary filmmakers earned an average salary of $101,240 per year in 2010 with a median, or 50th percentile income, of $70,780 per year. Those working for studios in the motion picture and video industries earned a mean $109,860 per year and a median income of $92,830 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Industry Comparisons

Comparatively, filmmakers working as independent artists and employed by studios fared better than in other industries. For example, filmmakers in the radio and television broadcasting industry earned $72,030 on average in 2010. Filmmakers employed by state governments earned a mean $68,750 annually, while those working in cable and other subscription programming took home $95,380 per year on average, states the BLS.

Location Makes a Difference

Location is a major factor in directors' salaries, including documentary filmmakers. California employed the most filmmakers and provided the highest average salary of $126,360 per year in 2010. New York wasn't too far behind, with a mean $111,930 annually. Filmmakers in nearby Vermont made less than half of that at $52,340 on average, while in Washington, D.C., the average income was $90,820 reported the BLS.

National Ranking

The average salary of an American filmmaker in 2010 was $88,610 per year or $42.60 hourly, according to the BLS. The median or 50th percentile income that year was $68,440 annually or $32.90 per hour, ranking documentary filmmakers in the third quartile or 50th to 75th percentile range, according to the BLS.


Based in Southern California, Daniel Holzer has been a freelance writer specializing in labor issues, personal finance and green living since 2004. His recent work has appeared online at Green Your Apartment and other websites. Holzer studied English literature at California State University, Fullerton.