Jane Mote • Consultant Editor, The Whickers
"It remains clear that in 2020 documentary filmmakers are not able to make a healthy living from their work"
- Jane Mote helps us to grasp the changing landscape for documentary filmmakers, with an eye on the post-Covid / post-Brexit world
Whickers Foundation recently published an edifying study titled "The Whickers Cost of Docs Survey" which tackles the changing landscape for documentary filmmakers. Jane Mote helps us to grasp the transformation of the sector, with an eye on the post-Covid / post-Brexit world.
Did you survey different types of professionals?
The majority of respondents to our survey identified as directors or producers with a smaller number of editors, cinematographers, camera operators, production managers and other roles. The number of people carrying out multiple-roles on documentaries has risen significantly – partly because the technology makes this easier but largely for financial reasons.
Can documentary filmmakers live from their art?
Just as our previous Cost of Docs survey reports demonstrated, it remains clear that in 2020 documentary filmmakers are not able to make a healthy living from their work but often rely on savings (38%), financial support from friends or family (21%), or working multiple (and often non-documentary related) jobs. The biggest rise has been in the number of respondents who keep themselves afloat by freelancing on other projects. This has gone up 17% year on year to 56%. Documentary does not appear to provide a viable full-time living for a significant proportion of those working in it. At The Whickers we believe that documentary is essential for an engaged, free society. It brings empathy and understanding to a global audience in a way that news coverage alone cannot. With such funding difficulties documentary is becoming a Cinderella genre and risks being a hobby pursuit or those with money or for investors who have self-serving agendas. We all need to work for a better funded future.
What is the funding model of documentaries?
The main source of funding comes from funds institutions and foundations with 94% of documentary makers now applying to these. Three quarters are successful to some degree.
The biggest rise has been in the number of respondents who keep themselves afloat by freelancing on other projects. This has gone up 17% year on year to 56%. In the free text field for ‘other ways of paying for documentary production’ one respondent wrote “getting into debt”.
Who are the grant-givers?
To get a better sense of what proportion of our respondents had applied for funding for their documentary film, and to which funds they had applied, we provided respondents with an extensive list of documentary grant-givers. We added to lists in previous surveys to be more inclusive of newly-emerging and smaller funds. The global lockdown has also been given as a reason that some popular funds like those of the Tribeca Film Institute have moved from free entry to invitation only.
The results from the 2020 respondents did not differ greatly from those of our 2019 respondents - with filmmakers still largely seeking funding from international documentary grant-giving organisations such as Sundance, Tribeca and Doc Society. The amount of respondents who had never applied for funding dropped a staggering amount from last year (36%) to only 6% in 2020, showing that funding organisations are now the ‘go to’ financier. Other popular funds included The Guardian, Fork Films, Impact Partners, Open Society Foundation, Arts Council, Scottish Documentary Institute, Hot Docs Crosscurrent Fund, Purin Pictures, Girls in Film and ITVS, as well as national public funds and the cultural ministries of local governments.
One respondent commented that many films are made first and funded later through sales, distribution and screenings. But the risk of no funding makes this a precarious route to go.
What is the average budget for a documentary?
Documentary budgets continue to increase – a small proportion spend less than 10K (18% respondents), but the majority spend a lot more. The second largest group of respondents (14%) spend between £100- 200,000. The average budget lies somewhere between – around £80-100k.
According to your study, is it easy for docs to find their audience?
The simple answer is NO – trying to find an audience is major concern for documentary makers – second only to the difficulties with financing.
Since 2019 there has been an 18% increase in the number of documentaries finding a paying audience, with a 25% increase in the number respondents whose documentaries have been shown at film festivals. However, half of respondents (45%) reported that their documentary had still not been shown to a fee-paying audience.
What are the most natural distribution streams for documentaries?
Festivals are still the obvious port of call for documentaries and theatrical release for higher budget films. Video on demand platforms are playing an increasingly important role in the visibility of documentary with broadcast budgets and slots reducing.
Respondents to the survey wanted to see more support with distribution and exhibition, commenting that more documentaries should be shown in cinemas.
One respondent said: “We invest everything we have, our time, our
money, our careers in films and then we are still faced with barriers once the film is done. We need help getting them out there.”
How has the cost of documentaries fluctuated in recent years?
Since our first Cost of Docs survey in 2016, we have followed the rise and fall of the most significant spending areas for documentary production. Most costs have been pretty static across the last four years, but there are exceptions. Animation has seen a 5% rise year on year, international travel has taken a 18% leap after a three year decline and editor costs continue to rise. This may be down to the growth in documentaries being made for theatrical release where the technical standards for a big-screen showing are more demanding.
Another area that surprised us is the small but significant 4% rise in kit hire after a 3 year drop. It was assumed that digital technology and miniaturization was enabling small production houses to purchase kit rather than needing to hire kit but this is obviously not always the case. Indeed, several respondents said that they had sold their camera equipment to pay for shooting days.
We also asked respondents to estimate which budget items cost them more year on year, which stayed the same and which were cheaper. There were only three items in the cheaper category. They were insurance, translation and security. This implies that production teams may be taking more risk upon themselves. Of the vast majority of increased prices, the biggest leaps in expenditure were for pitching, crew costs, distribution, travel, editing and publicity. The net result is that the cost of documentary production continues to climb.
Did we change the way documentaries are made in recent years?
On one end of the scale there is increased multi-skilling with more cost-effective, lighter weight kit and the need for smaller crews on projects that have uncertain funding. At the other end there are more bigger scale projects with ambitions for theatrical releases with cinematographer becoming more widely used as a term than DoP and a lot more money spent in post. The patchwork quilt of funders and co-production stakeholders is getting more and more complex and harder to navigate meaning longer production periods for many.
Any insights regarding co-productions?
New documentary makers are often encouraged by commissioners and mentors to team up with more experienced co-producers who will provide them with ready finance, credibility and market access in return for a share of any profit and, usually, editorial input. Having multiple co-producers on one documentary is common and nearly half our respondents had experience of co-production (46%) but with mixed outcomes. Almost a fifth of those found the relationship to entirely negative. From our experience more time spent on pre-production agreements is often needed to iron out explicit roles and expectations.
Can you already feel the effects of Brexit on the documentary industry?
It is a bit early to fully assess the impact of Brexit on the documentary market.
The major areas affected so far are financial. Nearly a third (32%) commented that there has been a decrease in access to funding and 31% have encountered financial problems due to nervousness in money markets/exchange rate fluctuations. Another area of concern (27%) is that international co-producers are looking elsewhere to avoid uncertainty.
Nearly half of UK respondents saying that so far it had made no difference to their careers. Unsurprisingly, 73% of non UK documentary makers cannot see any difference yet to their careers but a surprising 12% said that it had made more, or much more, of an impact than they had anticipated. 23% of UK based respondents claimed that it has impacted them more than they expected, in comparison to just 10% outside of the UK.
It will be interesting to see next year’s results, after the transition period is over.
Did you collect any data on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic?
New to this year’s survey, we introduced questions about the impact of the global pandemic on documentary filmmaking. Responses were gathered in Spring 2020, when the situation looked more hopeful of being short term. But even at that stage a resounding 45% said that the pandemic had already had a massive impact that threatens their future as a documentary maker. 25% answered that it had had a big impact but did not foresee it being a long-term threat. Only 2% of respondents said that they were unaffected, whereas 35% said it was too early to say.
The study focuses mostly on UK producers and directors. Do you think the results can be representative of the situation in Europe or the world at a larger scale?
Although The Whickers is a UK based organisation it is an international fund attracting applicants from across Europe and the rest of the world. We have had finalists from Spain, Sweden and Germany within Europe and many applicants from across the continent. Our profile has gained ground in China, Korea, Latin America and more recently the African continent. This year we had respondents from countries such as; Lebanon, Russia, Rwanda, Colombia, UAE, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is our fifth year of doing the survey and we are in touch with Directors and Producers at grassroots at so many festivals that we see the same trends in documentary financing and production emerging in all parts of the world.
How do you see the evolution of the documentary sector in the coming years?
Documentary is likely to become more polarised between the self-funded, lower budget passion projects and the high cost, glossier productions headed for the larger streaming services who often take a lot of rights. The eco-system relies on supporting strong new entrants and having a mid-ground that is accessible and funded. With reductions in broadcast slots and budgets and pressure on funds this is getting squeezed. There is also a worrying trend towards some funders using documentary as a way to access ‘soft-power’. The theatrical releases are currently under threat as cinemas struggle for their survival in the current Covid-world. The industry needs lobbyists and advocates to champion better funding and access to market for documentary and the demise of the European Documentary Association has come at a bad time.
However, we are hopeful that new movements and associations are springing up and continue to have faith in the tenacity and resilience of emerging talent. The Whickers, and many other funds, will continue to do what we can to support and nurture that talent in all its diversity and hope that the next generation are given the opportunities they deserve to tell stories that will enrich and challenge our world views.
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