Hot Docs Releases New Documentary Audience Report

By Pat Mullen

Audiences love documentaries and want more of them! Hot Docs released the results of a 2018 survey today that revealed a strong demand for documentary. The report drew upon a crowd-sourced survey that took place this summer. Over 3600 doc fans shared their viewing habits. These findings offer valuable tools for documentary filmmakers in a shifting and increasingly fragmented market. This survey builds upon the 2014 Hot Docs report “Learning from Documentary Audiences.”

The report noted that documentary consumption was up with 55% of respondents saying they watch more non-fiction films now than they did three years ago. 72% of respondents said they watch two or more docs per month. Respondents cited a wider range and availability of documentaries as key factors in their consumption. Notably, 71% of respondents attributed their uptick in viewing to the fact that there were more documentaries of interest now than there were previously.

However, 53% of respondents attributed the rise in documentary consumption to the greater availability of docs in cinemas, compared to 46% who said there are more documentaries available to access on TV than there were previously. 41% said the same for online.

Despite a rise in appetite, the number of respondents who said they see docs in movie theatres declined. 79% of respondents said they see films at a movie theatre, while a whopping 94% of participants admitted to watching their documentaries in the comfort of their own homes. Netflix sat atop the home viewing empire and accounted for 72% of the responses when participants noted how they viewed docs outside the theatre. This number for the streaming platform increased by 21% since the 2014 report.

Other streaming services cited for documentaries were YouTube (54%), (15%), library services (14%), Kanopy [also via library] (8%), and Facebook (14%). iTunes came in with 13% of respondents saying they used the service for documentaries and only 9% cited Vimeo on Demand, while 11% said they watched docs directly from a film’s website. iTunes dropped one percent from the previous survey while Vimeo on Demand held the same percentage. 23% of respondents also said they like good old-fashioned DVDs and Blu-rays.

Of paid subscription services, Netflix dominated with 71% of respondents saying they watched docs via membership. Amazon Prime, relatively new to Canada, came in second at 15%, while Crave, Sundance Now, and Mubi came in with 9%, 2%, and 1%, respectively.

In terms of what audiences are watching, feature films remained the preferred format, despite dropping 7 points from the previous survey to land at 85% of respondents. Other formats included television feature documentaries (69%), television series (60%), short docs (56%), radio or podcast documentaries (51%), and interactive documentary (31%). VR trailed with only 8% of respondents saying they used it for documentary.

Discoverability remained the key issue preventing audiences from seeing more documentaries either in theatres or at home. (An easy solution is to subscribe to a documentary magazine or a documentary magazine’s newsletter.) 50% of respondents said they would watch more documentaries if they had more information about documentaries of interest. 37% replied that they would watch more documentaries if they knew when and where docs were playing in the theatres. On the other hand, only 31% of audiences said they’d watch more docs if they knew where to find them online.

Respondents said that movie trailers were key when it came to deciding what to watch. 76% of participants deemed trailers very important. This figures offers one easy solution for filmmakers and distributors: have a preview ready while launching your film, regardless of the platform!

While a high number of participants emphasized the importance of trailers, previews only ranked third when respondents were asked to rank the influences on their decision making. Doc fans cited recommendations from articles or reviews as the most important influence on their decision making, followed by curation from trusted sources, such as a film festival, repertory cinema or subscription service, and recommendations from trusted online sources, such as blogs or user forums.

The study concluded that filmmakers can best reach audiences by making direct communication with audiences through tools such as social media, particularly Facebook, in order to raise awareness for a documentary throughout its life cycle. 69% of respondents said that they made plans to see a documentary after noting online buzz, likes, and shares about the doc by friends and family. With more audiences going online, the report underscored the value of marketing that highlighted the “when” and “where” of availability.

Get the complete report here.