Documentary on the Move

By Amy Hardie

boot-factory-lech-kowalski.jpgBoot Factory, dir. by Lech Kowalski, 2001

Films in search of their audiences

DocSpace, DocHouse and the Documentary Filmmakers Group, three independent initiatives which have gained enormous support, are coming together to form an independent documentary network dedicated to promoting documentary, setting up an archive and data base, supporting young docs-makers and finding new audiences beyond television. This is timely. The Sixth Human Rights Film Festival, held at the Ritzy, London in March this year, gave audiences a unique chance to witness what is happening around the world – in Afghanistan, Africa and Palestine. Significantly, none of the independently-made documentaries, which screened to packed houses, had found finance from, or a slot on British television. Hopefully this new network will help restore feature documentary to its potential audiences.

The pleasure and stimulus of being a film-maker are reasons why so many film-graduates tumble out of film-schools, why programme budgets can reduce and reduce, why talented, new film-makers are willing to work for nothing. It’s also why documentary-makers have, historically, focused on creativity, and ignored economics.

Previous articles in Vertigo have highlighted the declining interest and investment in feature documentary on television over the last ten years. Conversely, attendance at documentary festivals is increasing by 30 - 50% year by year taking the figures for Amsterdam and HotDocs, and several documentaries have hit the cinema big time. So what is the real audience potential for documentary?

Grierson said in the 1930s, “documentaries demand their own screening platform”. What did he mean? What happens if you take documentaries out of their existing frame of reference, and look at the basic relation between documentary and its audience. What do audiences want from documentaries? How do they want to see them? What is their preferred context?

In August 2000, I set up a research project, Docspace. I interviewed key industry figures at international documentary festivals in Amsterdam, Dublin, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Toronto and did small-scale, original research with the touring Sheffield Festival.

The most comprehensive research to date, commissioned by Kees Ryninks in the Netherlands, shows that audiences choose to see documentaries because of their subject matter. This is the equivalent of the celebrity in feature films. It is the hook. The average age of these audiences was 40 and they were highly educated. They were encouraged to go to cinema screenings by gala openings; and Q & As with the director or main character doubled the audience. They feared boredom, didacticism; and the director’s blurb was often the key factor in their decision to buy tickets.

Docspace’s research confirms many of these findings although the audiences were younger, on average just under 30. 75% chose to come to the cinema because of the subject matter. 95% were university educated, though 40% had not seen a documentary at a cinema before. 95% had been to the particular venue before, but 90% wanted more documentaries on the big screen.

Crucially, both Dutch and British audiences watched less than average television. Many watched much less. Some watched none. However it is not representative to speak of one, unified audience. From both Dutch and Docspace research, the audiences come to the cinema because of a documentary’s subject matter. So there are many documentary audiences, which can be defined by common subject interests. Some of these will cross over with mainstream fiction, Art house, and other subject-specific. This suggests that the documentary audience is not going for the same reasons as, say, those for mainstream fiction… It is not simply looking for a good night out, for entertainment. It wants something else. So what is it that documentaries do that fiction doesn’t?

According to Nick Fraser, commissioning editor of BBC’s series, Storyville, they transform the way we look at the world. “They do it pragmatically and with the assumption that audiences nowadays will expect and receive sophistication. Sometimes – a rarity among documentaries – they are even funny. However, good work requires sponsors, and it is possible to die of discouragement. It may alas be possible in ten years time to look back on this moment, wondering where all the talent went.”

Documentaries send us back into the world with our perception of it expanded, altered. It can move us to action, or reflection. They change the way we see our life, or others’ lives. Or a colour, or sound. They function as art functions: they make us look differently. But – taking on board the audience research – they do it in the context of a subject matter we are already interested in. So the pull of documentaries is to enrich our perception of something we already know about, in ways we can’t anticipate. Agnes Varda’s Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse, Macky Alston’s Questions of Faith, Peter WatkinsCulloden, Luke Holland’s More Than a Life – just some examples of films that take their viewer on an unexpected journey which then transforms their understanding.

When you investigate the present infrastructure of distributors, exhibitors and broadcasters, set up to deliver documentaries to audiences, it becomes clear why such extraordinary films are so little in evidence on British screens. The answer lies in the arithmetic.

In Britain distributors take on documentaries with reluctance. They have to cover the costs of each 35mm print, about £1,000, and all marketing and advertising. Let’s say this would be about £15,000. Laughable compared to a fiction release, but an important loss to a small company. Their return is 30% of the gross box-office, and for British documentaries that has amounted to as little as £3,000.

more-than-a-life-luke-holland.jpgMore than a Life, dir. by Luke Holland, 2002

Distributors can offset the risk of box office loss by holding on to television rights in all territories where they operate; cross-collateralisation. However, in Britain, the producer has almost certainly sold the television rights in exchange for the production budget, so they no longer have those rights to offer a distributor. Although this situation is rapidly changing, and more documentaries shown on television are acquisitions, this has not helped either the producer or the distributor as television is oversupplied and derisory amounts are offered for television rights. Optimum Releasing, a distribution company in Britain, was offered £6,000 for Dark Days by Channel Four, not much of a cushion against possible loss, and a figure which bears little relation to the film’s cost of production. “Without the television rights, we are only doing vanity publishing for the broadcasters… TV penalises films that are theatrically released because they pay so little money for them” (Will Clarke, Optimum Releasing).

Broadcasters are also under pressure to get top ratings. Anxious that a cinema release will exhaust all available publicity for their film, they suggest a shorter window between release and transmission. This means the repertory theatres no longer have time to book the documentary, even if they want to, since they require a two month lead-in to publish their programmes, and correspondingly longer to schedule.

In addition, repertory cinemas in Britain are in increasing competition with the multiplexes for new releases, especially for films which crossover between Art house and mainstream. Screening documentaries aggravates the situation. They are scheduled in short runs or as one-offs. They represent a break in the normal fiction scheduling, a major headache for the exhibitor who must ask the distributor if they will accept losing their available screening times – so that they will contract to show 23, instead of 28 programmes of their new release. This represents simple box-office loss for the distributor, so why should they agree? They send the new fiction release to the multiplex down the street.

Even when a screening for a documentary is secured, since documentaries are not expected to make money, distributors and exhibitors often make savings on marketing, prints, launch and publicity to insure against loss. Searching for a way to negotiate these market realities, the producer has another, often insurmountable, problem. How can they fund a 35mm print? Broadcasters argue it is not part of the production budget, yet most distributors won’t take on a film unless the blow-up has been made, a cost of about £50,000. Do the producers mortgage their flats? It’s been done. Pia Holquist, in Sweden, sold his summerhouse to fund post-production. When he recouped his investment he bought a bigger one!

It is possible to change the relationship between the key stakeholders in documentary – distributors, exhibitors, production companies, educational bodies – so as to place the films and their audiences at the centre, but it will only happen with a consensus and commitment from the industry. It may be that the change to digital technology will be the crucial factor in providing the incentive. Neil Watson, Policy Advisor to the Film Council notes: “Culturally, e-cinema enables you to do things with the moving image in a much more flexible way and in a higher quality than you can do now. All sorts of people will be using this. A new range of audiences will emerge”.

Digital technology already means lowered break-even costs. At Docuzone in Holland, Kees Ryninks is able to write a cheque to the producer after a thousand people turn up at the box-office. This makes a radical difference. When a 35mm print is involved, a rule of thumb is that a feature will not go into profit for the producer until ten thousand seats have been sold. This change opens up a new opportunity for documentaries to recoup at least part of their production costs through the big screen.

Another important factor in the success and failure of any dedicated distribution strategy is public perception. Karen Cooper, who runs Film Forum in New York, has built up a strong relationship with the New York Times which has been central to her success. “The commercial film industry spends tens of thousands of dollars in advertising the opening week of any major film – probably upwards of $100,000 to launch a major Hollywood release. We spend approximately $2,500 a week to open a new documentary or independent feature, placing ads in only a handful of publications. We are able to reach a significant audience through direct mail (of our calendar) and because enthusiastic reviews appear regularly in almost all the daily and weekly papers.”

Docspace aims to develop the audiences for documentaries by launching a pilot in 2003. We identified our natural and immediate allies. The audiences. Discrete and different groupings of people, with different marketing profiles. These audience constituencies, self-defined by shared interest in the subject matter are Docspace’s foremost partners.

Cinemas have offered to make space on a weekly basis for five documentaries; distributors agreed to allow latitude in their release contracts with cinemas to give documentaries regular space. Documentaries would no longer be squeezed in on the margins of fiction releasing. Scottish Screen and Edinburgh International Film Festival agreed to host the launch, and Nick Fraser proposed a big cash prize for the best international documentary. The press has shown interest, suggesting a readers’ poll, readers’ prizes and the sponsorship of a 16 page pull out. This last will be the most focussed writing yet seen on documentaries in a British newspaper.

We aim to work with digital technology, screening the cream of world documentaries in themed seasons and sharing our programming and research with our Scandinavian, European, and North American partners. Docspace will pilot a radical new infrastructure that pulls media, broadcasters, exhibitors , distributors and producers together to allow Big Screen documentaries a broad platform, positioning them as central and relevant to a wide range of new and existing audiences.

Amy Hardie is film-maker in residence at Mediabase, Edinburgh, supported by The Scottish Arts Council. For copies of the Docspace report (60 pages) contact