Focus on Festivals

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Doc Summit

The Doc Summit began in 2004 as a policy conference at Hot Docs in Toronto, and evolved into a major yearlong research project. Telefilm Canada (TFC) and the National Film Board (NFB), with the Canadian Television Fund (CTF) joining in, initiated this policy exercise. A larger advisory group was then organized and the Documentary Organisation of Canada (DOC) was invited to pony up some funding and participate. Thanks to the Canada Council, DOC was able to do that.

Blame It On Michael Moore

The research project was largely designed and carried out by the agencies with an overall cash cost in the neighbourhood of $100,000. Why, you may ask, did these organizations suddenly decide to undertake such a large project, and spend all this money?

I would blame it on Michael Moore. Love him or hate him, Moore has put the theatrical documentary on the financial map- and there really isn’t any other map that counts. Last year, Fahrenheit 9/11 was the top grossing documentary in Canada with box office of $18.2 million. In fact 9/11 had a larger per capita gross here than in the U.S., and Moore’s Bowling for Columbine had a $5.2 million box office. Supersize Me reached $2.1 million and Canada’s The Corporation hit $1.5 million. There isn’t a commercial Canadian movie producer who wouldn’t die to play in that box office ballpark.

Theatrical documentaries were breaking out of the niche market into the mainstream in 2004, but the trend has been clear over the last five years. The Documentary Channel’s Michael Burns read off a list of numbers at the Summit showing that documentary box office has been growing steadily. More like exploding steadily. According to the Variety list of the 250 top grossing films, in 2001 documentaries had an $11 million box office; $24 million in 2002; $131 million in 2003; and, thanks to Fahrenheit 9/11, $297 million in 2004. This growth can’t continue, but what is the “normal” set point for the theatrical documentary now?

Suddenly, Canada’s public agencies had to take note. They wanted more docs in the theatres, but discovered that the feature doc funding system was tied as tight as a straitjacket to television. It was nearly impossible to make a theatrical doc without a “TV trigger” to start the whole public funding process.

Take for example The Corporation. This doc wouldn’t have been funded at all if TVOntario hadn’t been able to support it as a limited TV series. The producers, Mark Achbar and Bart Simpson, decided to re-edit the TV series into a very long, and wildly successful, theatrical film. This meant that in the middle of its theatrical run in Ontario, the TV series was broadcast by TVO. That didn’t help the theatrical audience.

While the success of theatrical docs was undeniable, it became apparent that they couldn’t be funded in Canada without broadcaster approval and the broadcasters didn’t really have feature- length slots. A catch-22, which explains why Telefilm’s then-Executive Director Richard Stursberg and the NFB’s Jacques Bensimon called a Doc Summit meeting at Hot Docs last year.

The participants at the first Doc Summit in 2004 spoke frankly. They said “Canada is falling behind the rest of the world in the development of feature docs;” “Canadian broadcasters are too conservative;” the “One-off doc is under threat more than other forms;” public policy is confused between “industrial and cultural goals;” and broadcasters need to “change their tune about their share in production costs.”

The most recent documentary research, DOC’s Getting Real 2, was an economic profile of 2002-3. This Nordicity study didn’t show the huge changes in the theatrical market. The Doc Summiteers decided to embark on new research, which took one year to complete. The research reports were released at the second Summit conference at Hot Docs in April this year, and they will soon be available on www.nfb.ca. They are voluminous, but the most interesting information shows that many assumptions about documentary aren’t true.

Top Performing Docs Sell Well Abroad

Telefilm looked at the economic performance of a sample of the 35 best- performing docs released in 1998-99. These were 23 TFC and 12 NFB projects including 20 one-offs, eight series, and two mini-series. The series and mini- series had the highest broadcast pre-sales and the one-offs the lowest. This made it harder to finance the one-offs. However, the one-offs had higher sales, and, in particular, higher foreign sales, than the series. It would seem that Canadian broadcasters don’t like one-offs, but foreign buyers do. These films had $5 million in sales, with 70% of sales coming from foreign markets.

The research showed that television is the most important market for Telefilm docs, which get 98.2% of their revenue from TV. It is the second most important market for NFB docs, which get 51.4% of their revenue from the institutional market, and 37.9% from TV.

Who Wants One-Off Docs on Television?

Since broadcasters don’t like to commission one-offs, it is assumed one- offs don’t have as good an audience as series. Actually, the reverse seems to be true. Broken down by doc categories, it turns out that 86% of the documentary supply on TV is series programming and 82% of doc viewing is series. Mini-series had a supply and demand of 4%. One-offs are more popular than the other categories since the supply is 10% and the viewing is 14%.

One can see from the supply that the broadcasters who run the doc funding system overwhelmingly prefer documentary series, but viewers seem to prefer one-offs when they get a chance to see them. Backing this up is the fact that the top five single broadcast audiences for docs were all one-offs and mini-series episodes, not doc series. Despite this popularity, one-offs have great difficulty finding room on TV schedules, and consequently in the funding system.

Advertising on TV

Another assumption is that documentaries aren’t good value for ad agencies because they have lower ratings than dramas. Most interestingly, it turns out that docs are a very efficient purchase for advertisers judging by the cost per thousand (CPM). For example, a doc might cost an advertiser $4-12 to reach one thousand viewers while O.C. costs $57.40 and CSI $40.32 . Yet, one would think many advertisers would consider the doc audience, with the bargain basement CPM rates, to be a great deal.

Some do and specialty channels get 22% of their advertising revenue from ad placements on documentaries. Others seem to follow their assumptions and ignore docs. Perhaps some advertisers, like commercial exhibitors, need to re- think their assumptions about docs.

Doc Box Office

In Canada, the theatrical market for docs changed completely in 2004 with a total doc box office of $25 million compared to $4.7 million in 2002. Docs tend to have longer runs, about eight weeks, while commercial movies average three weeks. Of course, docs are in just a few theatres- averaging about five screens versus 60 screens. Amazingly, the average box office per screen is similar, about $3,000 per screen/week for docs and about $3,700 per screen/week for fiction movies.

Canadian docs had a 2004 box office of $2.1 million compared to $39.3 million for Canadian fiction movies. This means Canadian docs had 8% of the total theatrical documentary audience versus 4% of the total fiction audience for Canadian movies. The most successful docs are in English and the most successful fiction movies are in French.

As the Doc Summit has been told, there are alternatives to mainstream cinemas. The NFB has been looking carefully at “electronic cinema” or “E- Cinema” which means upgrading a cinema for digital projection and distribution. Public funds might be used to help pay for this upgrade in exchange for better access to that cinema for Canadian films.

Cam Haynes of the Toronto Festival Film Circuit pointed out last year that his audience now hits 350-400,000 per year. This audience is growing at 25% each year. He added that docs didn’t do particularly well until Bowling for Columbine, but now he has 14 docs on the circuit, and 41% of his films were Canadian.

Was Grierson Right?

The assumption that energized John Grierson when he set up the British Documentary Movement in the 1920s and 30s was the idea that documentary was a hammer, not a mirror, and with that hammer one could change the world. Was he right?

Erin Research examined seven documentary case studies and reviewed the available literature on the social impact of documentary. They found that the research was extremely meagre, and that it was very difficult to draw a cause and effect link between a documentary and a resulting social impact.

That said, they did reach some conclusions.

First, “People are hungry for media with meaning.” Second, to generate social action, films usually need to be part of a larger social movement. For example, one can think that the NFB’s Studio D films would not have had the impact they did without the feminist movement. Third, the greatest impact results from an integrated marketing, outreach, and mobilization plan, which is beyond the means of most independent producers.

Again, Studio D or Challenge for Change are classic examples of programs designed to change attitudes and generate action. Those films had the NFB’s resources behind them as well as social networks paving the way in front of them. Put another way, Erin found that the “process” needed to reach people, and the “product” needed to change their minds, are of equal importance.

But did they find any evidence that films actually change attitudes? Was Grierson right?

In their whole report, one controlled experiment stood out. At Queen’s University in 1999, Heather Hall and Patricia Minnes showed students a documentary and a TV drama on Down’s Syndrome. Controlling for various factors, they found that “both drama and documentary presentations significantly affected viewer behaviour and attitudes, and that the effect of the documentary was greater than
that of the drama.”

More research is needed, but maybe Grierson was right after all.

Doc Summit 2005

The Doc Summit showed that a great deal of progress had been made for theatrical docs during the year. Telefilm announced a pilot project to support theatrical docs with CBC. The NFB and the Documentary Channel followed up with a similar announcement. The CBC also announced that it had found the needed slots, and would schedule six feature- length docs beginning in September.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Bev Oda arrived at the Doc Summit to announce that her party would not destroy public broadcasting as they had promised to do previously. Instead, if they gained power, Ms Oda said they would give the CBC stable multi-year funding. She said “You don’t have to be afraid of us.” Liberal MP Sam Bulte was also present and also made supportive comments. She said that docs needed a dedicated funding envelope.

The other messages were not as optimistic.

Telefilm’s new Executive Director Wayne Clarkson was clear and succinct. He pointed out to those who might think otherwise that “public money has a cultural purpose.” He may have re- arranged Telefilm’s money to set up the pilot theatrical doc fund, but the financial demand exceeded the supply, and there was “no new money.”

CTF’s Sandra MacDonald was equally clear on moving tax credits outside the financial structure as regularly requested by producers. She said that if they give the tax credit money back to the producers, they will do fewer programmes. Choose your priorities.

NFB’s Jacques Bensimon said “we’ve put all our eggs in the broadcast basket,” and “the NFB is an alternative to the TV system.” What kind of an alternative?

Bensimon announced that the Board wants to continue the Doc Summit, which will become “an annual Hot Docs event, principally under the aegis of the NFB.” The Doc Summit Advisory Group will
meet to draft an Action Plan in September which may focus on a permanent theatrical documentary fund, harmonization of doc funding rules, TV support for one offs, and maybe E-Cinema.

Basically, the Doc Summit has helped us see that we, the audience and the filmmakers, both want documentary diversity, and not a steady diet of lowest- common denominator TV series.