Audiences Flock to Docs, so Why Is Production in Decline?

Films like Netflix’s The Square highlight a passion and appetite for docs, so why is production in decline?

By Pat Mullen

There’s a great interview on the state of documentary film in Canada that POV readers should explore. On CBC’s The Current, Mark Starowicz, the former head of the CBC documentary programme and a current independent producer of documentaries, makes some insightful remarks about production and consumption in the digital age. He notes that the appetite for documentaries is stronger than ever before and suggests that while some filmmakers champion documentary as Canada’s national art form, it’s also the art form of the millennial generation. There might have been a time when ‘documentary meant something boring,’ he says in the interview, but such is no longer the case.

The rise of digital filmmaking is part of the answer for why audiences turn out in huge numbers to festivals like Hot Docs when new platforms give them year-round access, but the appetite for change in the generation creates another passion that lends itself well to engagement with documentaries. However, Starowicz points out that docs are in decline since 2008, as fewer documentary features are produced in Canada year by year. (A drop of 23% in the past eight years.) ‘Paradoxically, as the appetite for documentary demonstrably increases in audiences and when young and diverse people are making documentaries and there’s a passion associated with that, we’re marching in the opposite direction,’ he observes.

The problem is a complicated mix of cutbacks and commercialization, but the interview highlights the necessity of producing and consuming Canadian films when so many docs, predominantly American ones, are easily accessible. ‘Netflix isn’t going to tell our stories’, he adds, noting that despite the proven popularity of something like Making a Murderer, the production trends in Canada don’t match the demands of the audience.

What’s the answer? What can doc fans do?

Listen to interview here and share your thoughts!