Documentary UK: a study of the feature documentary film industry

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Fac of Arts Creative Ind and Education

Abstract

This project aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the contemporary feature-length documentary film industry in the UK. It has three core objectives: 1) to map the industry and analyse its operation; 2) to historicise the industry's formation and the factors that have shaped its development; and 3) to investigate the criticisms and challenges the industry faces and explore how these might be addressed.

Documentary has formed a major part of British film culture ever since John Grierson, the figurehead of the British Documentary Movement (1926-46), coined the term in 1926. However, with so much British scholarship focusing on that period and its achievements, subsequent developments have been marginalised. One of those developments has been the emergence of a feature documentary industry comprised of organisations dedicated to the production of feature-length (70 minutes or more) films for broadcast or theatrical exhibition that is distinct from - albeit often related to - factual or specialist factual television production).

Since the beginning of the 21st century, feature-length documentaries have experienced a major upsurge in popularity and become a significant global box-office attraction. Although this is most obviously evidenced by US films such as Farenheit 9/11 (2004) or An Inconvenient Truth (2006), a range of UK feature documentaries have enjoyed significant (critical if not necessarily commercial) success, including Black Gold (2005), The End of the Line (2008), Selfmade (2010), Up in Smoke (2011), the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing (2012), and the Oscar-winning Citizen Four (2014). As a result, the UK feature documentary industry is now an established part of the broader film and television industries, with distinct subsectors dedicated to finance, production, distribution and exhibition. Yet despite its established presence, and the fact that UK documentary is widely acknowledged to be experiencing a 'golden age' (Sight & Sound, September 2014, p. 52), little scholarly attention has been paid to the industrial structures underpinning it. There is thus a timely and urgent need to study the UK documentary industry if its current economic and cultural success is to be understood, supported and sustained.

This project has been developed in association with three institutional partners - the British Film Institute (BFI), Creative England and The Grierson - as well as five partners from each of the industry's main subsectors (finance, production, distribution and exhibition): The BRITDOC Foundation is the leading broker of documentary film finance and distribution in the UK; Dartmouth Films is one of the UK's most influential documentary production companies; Dogwoof is the UK's leading documentary distributor; Sheffield Doc/Fest is the preeminent documentary film festival in the UK; and Yaddo, the UK's first documentary webcaster, was launched in 2016 by the former head of BBC Storyville, the UK's leading broadcast platform.

All partners will participate in the research via a series of semi-structured interviews, while the partners from the industry's subsectors will also take part in a period of Participant Observation. Combined with desk-based analyses of primary and secondary materials (academic literature, trade press, close analysis of the films themselves), this comprehensive methodology will best enable the three core objectives to be addressed.

The project will have a number of tangible applications and benefits to the industry in addition to the range of academic outputs it will generate. The policy proposals will provide the BFI and Creative England with evidence-based, practically-applicable recommendations. Together with the Doc/Fest workshops and project website, these will facilitate knowledge exchange between academia and industry that will expand understanding and work towards a more sustainable, innovative and culturally and economically successful documentary industry.

Planned Impact

There are three principal pathways to impact in this project:

1) Policy proposals to transform the research findings into evidence-based, practically-applicable recommendations with tangible benefits for the industry. These will be discussed with scholars and industry stakeholders throughout the project, and drafted into a formal document that will be presented to representatives from the BFI, Creative England and The Grierson Trust at a seminar conducted by the PI and Co-I in year 3. The document will then be made available for print-on-demand from the project website.
2) Workshops on the research at Doc/Fest in years 1 and 2. These will consist of speakers from industry and academia in discussion with the audience and will raise awareness of the project among the international documentary community, explore the core research objectives and discuss potential policy interventions.
3) A project website (and associated social media accounts), which will host information about the project and its partners (each of which will link to the project website from their respective web pages). The website will include a blog with guest contributions from various industry stakeholders and project participants and will provide a means of regular engagement with both industry and academia. To ensure any unanticipated impacts can be documented, users will be asked to register (but will also be able to continue anonymously) to enable subsequent contact by the research team.

In addition, major beneficiaries of the project include the five industry subsector partners and the three institutional partners. The subsector partners will benefit from the project's research into their organisations, the operation of the industry today and the historical conditions that have shaped its development. All partners will benefit from the project's analysis of the challenges and criticisms the industry faces, with institutional partners especially benefiting from the focus on what policy interventions they could make to overcome those challenges. All partners' involvement in the project will help produce novel interactions between stakeholders and academics, which will nurture new research questions, policy interventions and cultural and commercial opportunities. These interactions will take place throughout the project but especially during the two Doc/Fest workshops, the symposium and the conference.

In addition to these specific pathways, the research will have a number of other impacts on the documentary industry. It will help create new and consolidate existing networks across and within the industry subsectors (finance, production, distribution, exhibition), and will help facilitate more critical, reflexive and long-term thinking between the project partners. This in turn will enable the development and exchange of practical, theoretically and historically-informed knowledge that will result in a documentary industry that is better understood, and which will therefore be able to address its weaknesses and play to its strengths, and identify future avenues for enquiry.

To ensure the impact of these multiple elements are thoroughly explored, an Impact Evaluation Officer (IEO) will work with the investigators in the final year. She/he will carry out follow-up work with the project partners, Doc/Fest workshop attendees and other stakeholders. The IEO will write-up her/his findings and submit these to the investigators prior to the end of the project. This will enable all evidence of the project's impact to be thoroughly collated and the full impact of the project to be properly accounted for.

Publications

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Description The project has carried out detailed analysis of the feature-documentary film industry in the UK, and explored the key organisations involved in finance, production, distribution and exhibition. In doing so, it has shown how and why the feature docs has evolved into a distinct element of the UK's film and television industries over the past twenty years. Key factors here include the growth of a multichannel environment - which fragmented audiences previously shared among public service broadcasters and eroded income from advertisers - and deregulatory legislation which pressured broadcasters to move away from public service genres, documentary included. As a result, the feature docs sector moved away from television and developed models of production and distribution based on the independent film sector. The project's key three core case-studies - Doc Society, the lead body for UK nonfiction film; BBC Storyville, the last remaining feature doc slot on broadcast television; and Sheffield Doc/Fest, now the third largest nonfiction film festival in the world - are each intimately related to these processes. In producing cultural histories of these organisations as well as the large and complex production and distribution sectors of the feature docs industry, the project has filled a major gap in our knowledge of where the so-called 'documentary golden age' has come from.

In doing this work, the project has formed an especially productive relationship with Doc Society, which has led to valuable impact pathways. With Doc Society's support, in July and August 2019 we were able to carry out a major survey of feature documentary producers and directors which has generated large and unique dataset on the sector. This was important because one of the major problems in trying to explore the nonfiction film industry is the lack of data on the sector, which is frequently merged with fiction producers on the one hand or counted as part of the television industry on the other. This is despite the fact that nonfiction filmmakers face a range of challenges that fiction filmmakers do not, largely due to documentary's unique relationship with the real world. The lack of data and concomitant invisibility of nonfiction filmmakers to policymakers has meant that UK film policy is almost exclusively geared towards supporting fiction, and that nonfiction filmmakers are under-served as a result. Our survey has identified a wide range of opportunities for improving policy provision for documentary, and our findings are to be used as the basis for discussions between Doc Society and the British Film Institute with regards to developing a more robust documentary film policy in the UK. This work is ongoing at the time of writing: we are due to publish the report - Opportunity Knocks: Towards a Documentary Film Policy for the UK - online in May, in advance of an event dedicated sharing findings at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.
Exploitation Route Nonfiction media industries studies is now an emerging field in the US, and scholars are beginning to work in this area in the UK and elsewhere. The UK Feature Docs project was the first study of its kind and as such provides a model for future studies. We are also working closely with the new European Documentary Association, and hope to explore with them how the recommendations in our report might be of use in other European countries, and how nonfiction film industries elsewhere might build on our survey to generate data of their own.

As part of the case-study on Sheffield Doc/Fest, I am working with archivists at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) to develop the paper archive of the festival for future researchers. I have arranged for the personal papers of one of the founding members to be transferred to the SHU archive and am in discussions with several others, as well as the festival itself, with regards to creating a central collection of materials relating to the festival. I have also arranged for existing papers on Doc/Fest in the archive - currently mixed up with other sources on independent film culture in Sheffield - to be catalogued and organised for future use.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://ukfd.org.uk/
 
Description We conducted a survey in partnership with Doc Society, the lead body for UK documentary. The survey has generated a large, diverse and unique dataset on the UK feature docs sector, and we are publishing our findings in May 2020, in advance of a major event designed to share and discuss the findings at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The report and its recommendations will then be used as the basis for discussions with the British Film Institute with regards to developing more effectively policy mechanisms to support nonfiction filmmakers.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

 
Title Dataset on feature documentary producers and directors 
Description We conducted a survey of 200 feature documentary producers and directors in Autumn 2019. The survey generated a large, diverse and unique dataset that will be published in our report, 'Opportunity Knocks: Towards a Documentary Film Policy for the UK'. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact It has not been published yet but we are working closely with our partners, Doc Society, the lead body for UK documentary, and plan to use the report as the basis for discussions regarding the development of UK nonfiction film policy. 
URL https://ukfd.org.uk/
 
Description '"Becoming bandit": Doc Society's origin story & the emergence of the UK's feature documentary film industry' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A conference presentation at the annual conference of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Association. Our panel was attend by approximately fifty people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description 'Cinema and state: Developing policy frameworks for feature docs', Panel discussion at Doc/Fest 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This will be a panel discussion on policies and best practices that can support the feature docs industry in the UK. It will take place in June 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description 'Industry, "hustle" or "hobby"? The business of feature documentary filmmaking in the UK', Centre for International Film Research Seminar, University of Southampton 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I was invited to deliver a seminar at the University of Southamption, which was attended by around fifty people. The major impact was new relationships formed and awareness raised about the research project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description UK Feature Docs: studying the nonfiction industry 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference presentation at Visible Evidence, the leading documentary studies conference in the world. Impacts include key relationships formed with scholars of nonfiction industries overseas, discussion about the UK research project, and future publication plans.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019