Documentary film may be the definitive post-digital-revolution media product: big audience; no market. From all indications, documentaries are as popular as ever, perhaps more so, but making—that is financing—documentary films these days? That’s another story. In a recent report, titled Getting Real, the Documentary Organization of Canada reported that Documentary production volume decreased in Canada by more than 21% from 2008/09 to 2010/11. The number of documentary projects dropped 23% in that time, from 591 to 457. It’s not at all likely that the situation has improved any since.
The decline began with the great 2008 recession. The television industry is one of the very first to feel any economic downturn, as even large companies can quickly cut advertising budgets in response to nose diving sales. But, as the report indicates, by 2010, “Canadian conventional broadcasting revenues rebounded to pre-2008 levels, and specialty cable channel revenues continued to grow despite the recession.” Essentially, Canadian broadcasters seized the opportunity presented by the 2008 crash to reduce or suspend the commissioning of documentaries, and they have chosen to maintain that diminution ever since, despite revived revenues. Government regulators have meekly stood by over this dismal decay, too timid to promote cultural values in the face of stressful times within the free enterprise arena where combatants like Rogers, Bell and Shaw snarl and throw up their steroid-enhanced arms to the roar of the ratings crowd.
Prior to 2008, all three of the major Canadian networks, CTV, Global and the CBC, carried documentary ‘strands’ as part of their regular programming schedules, commissioning numerous one-off documentaries each season, usually as part of a loosely integrated series. Audience numbers were not huge, but they were steady, and it meant that a vibrant community of documentary filmmakers existed across the country, and that Canadian audiences were regularly exposed to their work, along with the stories and issues contained therein.
Alternate means of funding have of course arisen post-revolution, chief among them crowdsourcing, but another recent report, this one by the Canadian Media Fund (CMF), called Crowdfunding in a Canadian Context, is illuminating in this regard. Despite the lurid success stories of millions raised in just days (akin to those mega-rare video clips that go viral, when it’s hoped that every clip posted will), the report makes it clear that, “Crowdfunding is best suited to independent producers and developers who work on a smaller scale, with smaller budgets.”
Documentary filmmaking is far less expensive than is dramatic filmmaking, but when the making is by experienced professionals, budgets generally still need to run at least $250,000 for an hour-long show. The larger Canadian production houses, those with full-time staff and facilities to pay for, are reluctant to consider a budget of less than $400,000 per hour. (A top-drawer freelance documentary cameraperson will be looking for $800-$1000 per day, the best editors for $1800-$2000 per week.) The CMF report states, “Crowdfunding appears to be best suited to smaller-scale funding with the majority of projects posting funding goals and reaching funding volumes of between $10,000 and $50,000.”
Adding to the problem is the decreased cost of production hardware. Topline video cameras that just 10 years ago sold for $20,000 can now be replaced by DSLR cameras costing less than one-tenth of that amount. Ditto with computer editing systems. Post-production set-ups that once filled rooms with multiple monitors, tape decks and tower drives, are now supplanted by a laptop set upon… well, your lap. These days just about anyone capable of picking up, pointing and pushing the record button on a camera, then operating a computer, can go about making a documentary. It’s meant that there is a plethora of product out there now. Most of it isn’t very good, but it’s out there, glutting the market.
The post-e-revolution landscape is an arid one for documentary filmmakers. Their great tradition is fast becoming like too many other contemporary art practices, something that young, single people living in shared accommodations can afford to pursue, or that people with other jobs serving to pay the mortgage and feed the kids can create as a sideline. Despite a ready audience, the documentary artform, as practiced by skilled professionals, is wasting away.