Licensing, The Right Footage

6 Ways to Optimize your Archive Footage Budget

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Since creating Archive Valley we’ve spoken to hundreds of professional archive researchers as well as producers seeking to either use archive footage in their production for the first time, or to step up their archive research and footage licensing game for a particularly archive-heavy production. Budgeting is a clear concern for anyone seeking to produce unique content featuring archival material and one that can be difficult to navigate, especially for newcomers to this booming genre.

Here are six tips we’ve learned from speaking to archive researchers around the world to help you come in on budget and make it to picture lock with archive footage that brings your story to life.

1. Know your budget. How much can you spend on archive footage and research, all-in?

Knowing your overall budget for archive material is extremely important to your production because it will determine how you allocate resources both for footage licensing and research. Projects in development may not always have a clear archive budget, but knowing what research and licensing costs will help you budget once you secure funding.

Once in production, however, a clear understanding of your budget allows you to avoid spending precious research time and effort with sources whose material you cannot afford to license or for which your project demands a less expensive alternative like royalty-free footage, public domain footage, or even fair-use of material under copyright. This ultimately helps you save production cash for the most important images.

2. Prioritize your archive footage needs.

Which images are the most important to your production, editorially, aesthetically, or otherwise? These are the images that you will be more willing to spend time and money researching and clearing for the production. Sometimes unique archive footage will turn up unexpectedly and change entire sequences or even the whole production. Knowing where each bit of footage falls in your list of priorities and where you can make sacrifices or find cheaper acceptable alternatives will ensure you that the most unique important material makes it to picture lock.

3. Have an idea of your licensing needs before contacting archive sources.

Your licensing needs include the territory(ies) and media in which as well as time period for which you wish to use footage in the context of your production or multiple productions. Any distributor of content from broadcasters and VOD platforms to online media will have their own licensing needs, and these will often determine exactly how much you pay to use archive footage or any other third-party material. Providing the most accurate licensing needs to archive vendors will not only ensure you have a clear view on where you stand in terms of negotiating prices, but will also save you a ton of time. Archive footage vendors are generally happy to walk you through the licensing terms they can offer, but coming with a clear idea saves everyone time.

For projects in development, your licensing needs may change as you secure production funding and distribution deals. Getting a broad picture of pricing for various licensing situations from each source from whom you receive interesting material will save you time in the long run. You may even be able to negotiate preferable licensing rates for particular territories/media in advance and exercise them once you’ve signed a distribution deal.

Request Footage on Archive Valley

4. Understand the additional costs associated with finding and using material.

Beyond the time associated with research and the cost of licensing footage, make sure your archival budget accounts for the eventual additional costs associated with obtaining footage in the right format and clearing other rights associated with material you would like to use.

Depending on the archive, there may be fees to obtain screeners or preview files with which your director and editor can work during the edit. Undigitized analog material – whether on film or video – will need to be scanned first into a suitable resolution to edit, and eventually into a suitable master format. The latter – scanning 16mm or 35mm film to 2K or even 4K digital masters for instance – can be very expensive depending on the medium. Often, however, financing the scanning of unique analog material is a good opportunity to get a good deal on the licensing of such footage – as it benefits both the footage provider and the production. (Check out our interview with James Hunt, who scanned amazing footage of 1960s London for My Generation.)

Besides technical fees, make sure to budget for research if an archive you work with offers research in their collection for a fee, or if you think you will need specialized help from either a professional archive researcher. Sometimes merely tracking down the rights holders (especially when attempting to use material posted on YouTube) can be half the battle, and a professional archive researcher will know what questions to ask to understand the rights you will need to clear and the potential cost.

Whether you’ve found footage on YouTube and tracked down the owner or you’re licensing from a major archive footage vendor, make sure you have a clear understanding of the cost of clearing copyright or any other rights associated with footage you seek to license. This may often decide whether or not you can use the material in the final production.

“Some archive licenses suffer from a blank check problem: the total cost of the license may far exceed the fee specified in the archive’s contract,” the New York law firm of Franklin, Weinrib, Rudell & Vassallo posted on their site in an extract of a Q&A they did with Documentary Magazine. Their post discusses a range of other fees producers may be required to pay and suggests that “producers should ask about potential obligations to third parties and either ensure that they will not be obligated to make further payments or else find other material to use instead.”

5. Cover as much ground as possible when starting your research to get a range of material and pricing.

The key to coming in on budget when using archival material in your productions is giving yourself as many viable options as possible whether from the very beginning of your research while your project is in development, or as soon as you get a green light to start sourcing material. A great way to to this is to break down your archival footage needs into thematic lists that are easily transformed into coherent footage requests that will get you the most relevant results from a wide array of archive footage providers.

Making a footage request on Archive Valley is an easy and fast way to connect directly with archive providers around the world who have relevant footage to propose for your production. Getting initial pricing estimates based on your licensing needs from a variety of sources early on will save you time later once your project enters the edit.

6. If you’re in over your head… Hire a professional!

Sometimes – indeed much of the time – researching and clearing archive footage requires specific experience and access. Hiring a professional archive researcher gives you access to their years of experience and connections, saving you time and often money as well by getting you deals that you may not otherwise be able to access.

Especially when your research requires specialized local access to archives – in another country, perhaps, where production processes are totally different – a professional archive researcher can use their local knowledge to get you the material you need and help you negotiate an agreement in another cultural context.

Archive Valley’s community of professional Archive Researchers is a great place to start, boasting 600+ researchers in over 60 countries, many of whom can be contacted directly through our platform.


If you have questions for us on how to optimize your archive footage budget, you can contact us here. We’re happy to learn about your project and see how Archive Valley can help!

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