Description image

Which Genre Gave the Highest Return on Investment in the Past Decade? The Answer May Surprise You

08.20.13 @ 9:30AM Tags : , , , ,

DollarRecently Catherine Rampell of the New York Times published a chart that should make documentary and horror producers smile. Horror has long been known as a cash cow for Hollywood, but documentary is rarely mentioned when it comes to return on investment. Rampell found that in her sample of films released in the past decade, documentary box office returns far outweighed other genres when expressed as a percentage of production budget. Sound surprising? Misleading, perhaps? Hit the jump to take a closer look at the numbers.

Using numbers from OpusData and Box Office Mojo, Rampell looked at films released from 2003 to 2013 that grossed at least $2 million domestically — knocking out (you guessed it) the majority of documentaries. The resulting data shows us that successful documentary films rake in some killer returns, averaging 12 times the production budget domestically and 27 times the budget internationally.

Should we conclude that if you want to turn $1 million into $27 million, you should invest it in a great documentary film? Only if you’re pretty dang sure the film is going to be successful. 55 of the 78 documentary films in Rampell’s data set didn’t disclose their production budgets. So her doc numbers are skewed towards the brag-worthy — or at least those committed to transparency. Rampell notes:

Of course, documentaries are generally much cheaper to make than other genres, averaging about $2.6 million in production budget versus $95 million for action films (unadjusted for inflation). So it makes sense that for the small subset of documentaries that do well (remember, these averages include only those films with domestic grosses above $2 million), the R.O.I. can be enormous.

Horror film numbers were a bit more concrete with 113 out of the 129 films disclosing their production budgets. The average successful horror film in the past decade earned six times its production budget domestically and double that internationally by Rampell’s calculations.

It looks like far more successful dramas, comedies and thrillers were made in the past decade, with 357, 373 and 170 disclosing their budgets respectively. All three achieved between 300% and 500% of their production budgets in global box office returns, which is not too shabby for such a large number of films reporting budgets in each genre. As Rampell points out, she’s only looking at box office numbers, which of course only represent one piece in a film’s revenue puzzle.

Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 1.02.34 PM

The data going into this graph is patchy at best, but it could indicate that major studios are spending less money than they should on major documentaries. Not to say that Universal’s next tent pole should be a $20 million doc — but perhaps 10 relatively major documentaries would accumulate a better return than recent Hollywood narrative releases.

What do you think?  Should documentarians target the thrill-seekers of the investment world for a risky but possibly quite lucrative ride?

Link: Hollywood’s Biggest Bang for Its Buck — New York Times

[Dollar photo by Flickr user MakeShiftPhoto]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 29 COMMENTS

  • Just gotta finish my horror-doc-concert film and I can finally go to the bank!

  • I think with doco’s it can be harder to have a clear picture of how much it costs to make as in some cases it can be one or two people filming a particular issue over a period of time whilst working other jobs to support themselves etc. As opposed to perhaps a drama that has numerous ppl working on it for hourly or daily rates.

    What I think it shows is that doco’s can be made cheaper than other genres and if they appeal to a niche audience can make enough money back to sustain themselves.

    This is partly why I think crowdfunding works better for feature doco’s than narratives, as generally speaking they can be made cheaper and pay a small number of ppl a liveable wage (especially if there aren’t re-enactments ). Of course it’s all relative to the project.

  • I can understand why this is as with most action movies for example the budget tends to be fairly high and compared to the budget of a documentary its like David vs Goliath. Although the documentary may not take no way near as much money as a big action movie, the money in/out ratio is far greater in favor of the documentary. I do wonder though if this chart was based on fair research, say 50 random movies of each genre?

  • Hmm… it seems to me that they may have only factored in “live action” – I seem to recall reading somewhere, that the most successful genre is children’s animated films. Something crazy like 85% of them make their money back and if you look at the yearly box office they tend to be astoundingly well represented in the top 10 given that there are only a few each year.

    That said, they are also incredibly labor intensive and the upfront costs are enormous so maybe for sheer profit ratio they aren’t as good.

    • I think its more based on actual percentage of profit for example a $5000 project had a return of say $10,000 so the profit was 100% unlike a big budget $20,000,000 that had a total return of say $30,000,000 which although is huge is still only 50% profit.

  • To me, this sounds like an inadequately researched data. First of all, a lot of horror B-flicks are in the “straight-to-video” category with no box office revenues whatsoever. Simultaneously, most docs are never even shown to anyone. A small portion of horror movies and docs are indeed well made and can generate high grosses off small budgets but, in order to be ideologically honest, one must include every horror film and doc made and only then add up the niche totals. To claim that successful movies grosses divided by the successful movie budgets is representative of a genre would be just as simplistic as taking the expensive blockbusters and counting only their grosses vs. their costs, whereas in reality, the blockbusters will have ancillary revenues that are usually kept out of the public eye (and often, off the books entirely).

    • Agreed. Looking at just the winners doesn’t give you any real data on what genre gives the highest ROI. Wall Street’s numbers would great, too, if they only ever looked at the returns on successful hedge funds or stocks. To get a true sense of the whole picture you can’t declare arbitrary data floors and thus chop off the bottom end of your data curve. Basically the headline for this post could read:

      Successful Films Are Successful

  • Clearly Catherine Rampell of the New York Times has never made a documentary. The current media fetish for stats to explain certain phenomena does not pay off here. Money back from theatrical distribution split many times by distributors, exhibitors, investors almost never leaves an American independent producer with enough to buy breakfast. To many bills to pay. You know the rule going into a documentary project, budget in a living reasonable wage as there will be no back end. TV sales might kick in and some point if your film is a success but inevitably those go to back wages or poured into development of future projects. That is the life.

  • Anthony Marino on 08.20.13 @ 2:07PM

    It would be Interesting to hear from actual documentarians such as the few I know, Alfred Spellman and Billy Corbin from Rakontur productions. They’re responsible for Cocaine Cowboys I II, the U, Limelight just to name a few. They’re both big on twitter and FB and manage a great website, I’m sure they would welcome an interview. They’re hot right now, I’m sure they can provide us with tremendous insight into the realm of modern documentary production. I gave them some old footage of Miami from the 90′s, very cool dudes, interesting characters themselves. They’re great at marketing too. The information would be invaluable. Thanks, Just thought I’d share Laura.

    • Laura Gamse on 08.20.13 @ 11:25PM

      Thanks Anthony! Get in touch with details and we’ll do it:

      • Anthony Marino on 08.21.13 @ 1:15PM

        Good to go Laura, should be very insightful. I know we’re all in for a treat. Thanks for all your hard work.

    • Jorge Cayon on 08.21.13 @ 11:44AM

      Billy Corben was one of the best Professors I had while at Film School. His independant production class didn’t have books. It was all about the way he dealed with Magnolia Pictures, Netflix, Showtime, etc. he brought in all his contracts, though all the juicy stuff was blacked out of course.

      Do enough to get noticed and most likely the big leagues will come a knockin’

      • Anthony Marino on 08.21.13 @ 1:21PM

        Lucky you Jorge. The guys at Rakontur are great reaching out into the community to share their experiences. Good people, very talented and deserve all the success they have and more. Hopefully we’ll see them in a NFS article soon. Thanks

  • This graph misses a lot of context. I think the biggest thing is that this is based off production budget. If you spend $50k on your doc and $5m in P&A costs then your ROI doesn’t look as good. Of course, once you factor in P&A, Distro, etc, everyone would go down all around the board, but ROI on Docos would get hit the most because you’re looking at smaller numbers. Docos are around $500k and actions is $50m+. A $2m P&A budget is going to do very different things to the ROI to both of those.

  • I remember when spending 25 million on an action flick was considered to be extravagant ;)

    • For some reasons, I still remember Steve Martin coming on the Merv Griffin show in 1979 and proudly announcing that he and Carl Reiner managed to film “The Jerk” for $5M, while “these days in Hollywood”, nothing was made for under $10M.
      Those were the days, my friend.

      • Well, according to various inflation calculators $5MM in 1979 would be the equivalent of $16+MM today.

  • I’m not a big fan of the “hit the jump” phrase that you use here and is used regularly elsewhere on this site. It is slangy insider-speak that comes off like a self-conscious attempt to be cool, which is always a drag.

    Anyway, I do understand it to basically mean “click on the link at the end of this post for more info” and this seems to be the way you are using it.

    So why not have the courage of your too cool for school convictions and label the hyperlink in question as “jump” and not “link” as you have. Hedging your bets worried you are being too cool by half? Lame.

    • It has nothing to do with the link at the end of the post, it refers to clicking the more tag on the front page to go to the actual post. It comes from newspaper speak, “the jump” is when a story jumps from one page to another. If you know all this already, feel free to ignore. Just a silly thing to get so upset over. I’m sure we’ve done other things that are more worth your time.

      • Thanks, Joe. Interesting to learn the phrase is newspaper speak. Still, it’s insider-speak and that’s the problem. It’s poor writing and if I am not exactly “upset” about it I do feel free to point it out.

        There is only one other link in the post and it goes to where the link at the bottom goes to. They are, then, one and the same, so, yes, the phrase has everything to do with the link at the end of the post.

        • It’s not really referring to that link though. It’s most applicable when you’re reading the site from an RSS reader, to indicate that there is more to the story, that you actually have to click a link to read the rest.

          However, it also applies to looking at posts in the homepage view. While you can get to posts by clicking the title, they all have the more tag at the end of the brief snippet. “Hitting the jump” is clicking on a hyperlink that brings you to the rest of the story. In this case, it’s the more tag at the end of every snippet on the home page. If you’re in an RSS reader, that more tag is also there, and by clicking it, you’re jumping to the rest of the story.

          It’s hardly insider, as many tech sites and others have been using the term for well over a decade or more.

  • Where’s science fiction in the scheme of things? Maybe it’s lumped in with horror… I seriously doubt it performed so poorly as to drop off the chart.

  • wait so if studios invest in documentaries then they are costing more to make then they are getting a lower percentage return then they really don’t look any better on the graph than any other genre…

    So i think it’s a fallacy to say a film is successful based on its percentage of cost to yield.

    To simplify: if my movie costs $2 to make and I sell it enough to make $20 thats like 1000% return, and I made 18$
    Then, If my movie that cost $100 to make sells $200, thats only 200%, but I made a $100
    So should studios invest more in docs? probably not.
    But should you use this info to try to get your doc funded? yep

    • Also, studios used a bit of “creative accounting” where they allocate portions of the non-related overhead to the successful movies in order to limit the payouts to the next profit participants. In other words, if they don’t want a movie to show a profit, it won’t.

    • Laura Gamse on 08.25.13 @ 7:25PM

      I agree with all the comments here emphasizing the unreliability of this data…but using your own hypothetical numbers, Daniel ($2 docs make $20 and $100 narratives make $200), you would be better off making 50 docs with your $100 than 1 narrative — you would end up with eight times the profits! I’m not suggesting that studios start making mega-budget docs — just that they hedge their bets with more of them.

      Admittedly my point in the penultimate paragraph got muddled when this piece was edited…damn the censors! When I turned in the post, the sentence above read, “Not to say that Universal’s next tent pole should be a $20 million doc — but perhaps 10 relatively major documentaries would accumulate a better return than another R.I.P.D.” (

  • Everybody want huge profit from his investment. So they should be aware about their investment place. There is a free consultation about investment.