22 mins read

Thousands and thousands of feature-length and one-hour creative docs are being made every year all over the world. At IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam), 3,600 entries were received last year. Somebody out there must be financing them. Obviously, the end is not quite near. But funding docs requires more ingenuity than ever.

I asked several producers, broadcasters and distributors around the world to contribute ideas, informed by any wildeyed, blue-sky, horizontal thinking they may have on the matter of alt financing creative docs. Rather than the usual lamb-like lament on the current crisis, I spoke to them about where doc financing will be five years from now. Are there pro-active examples that everyone should know more about? Or catalytic thinking being pushed forward? What will reconfigure the paradigms or energize the future of financing doc-media production?

Jan Rofekamp, international sales agent and founder of Films Transit International in Montreal and New York: “While it is clear that we are going through many changes in docs, a new world is opening up with extraordinary opportunities. Where on one side the traditional financiers, the broadcasters, are redefining their role in society, we see many new forms of financing and exposure popping up with almost no ‘soft censorship’ (slot length, air time, formatted shows).

“The new forms of exposure also offer great opportunities for filmmakers and producers to get more involved in the distribution of their films and offer them better contact with audiences. The traditional distribution channels have constructed, for many films, more or less high barriers. But beyond these barriers, vast audiences are interested in their stories. The new forms of exposure have very low barriers. These are very interesting times.”

Charlie Phillips, Marketplace Director at Sheffield’s International Doc/Fest: “Let’s democratise documentary—rather than the benign dictatorship of a small band of funders, let’s take the spirit of crowd-funding, the spirit of activist-type consensus, and allow audiences (many, many audiences) to demand what they need—and are willing to pay for. The biggest trauma documentary filmmakers face today is the knowledge that their audiences want to see their films but they don’t know where they exist, and where they can see the films. Funding should start at grassroots level, with the premise of audience demand and trust, not the premise of what pleases advertisers, schedulers or PR people.

“How do we do this?” he asks and then answers: “Broadcasters, national film institutes, foundations et al. should get behind crowd-funding campaigns and help filmmakers to simultaneously release their works across multiple platforms so that the maximum numbers of people get to see the films as soon as they want to. We can trust audiences if we tell them that their money really goes to the filmmakers rather into a distant on-high pot. Scheduled TV transmission and big theatrical releasing aren’t dead, but the way most people will see docs in the next five years will be online, where they can find the films, and in informal communal screenings organised on an ad-hoc basis, with the films streamed or played from DVD. This isn’t revolutionary. It’s what is happening now, and funders should acknowledge and support it or get out of the way. Filmmakers should demand deals that actually give them money directly from audiences—and receptive audiences should demand to be able to give money directly to filmmakers. The social media tools exist—audiences want more docs—so let’s all get behind them.

“Funding models exist that are leading the charge in terms of the revivification of feature, doc and nextmedia industries. Brazil allows corporations tax advantages if they invest in film culture. This has led to a boom. I have always thought that the horizontally and vertically integrated Danish film industry has created brilliant conditions that have fostered talents beyond those of Lars von Trier. The Danish Film Institute, the European Documentary Network (EDN), CPH:Dox and its fictional equivalent, the DOX BIO theatrical circuit, DFI’s Distribution and Festivals’ wing and POV’s sister magazine DOX are all helping the small Scandinavian country churn out some of the most original documentary films in Europe.”

EDN’s Head of Studies Mikael Opstrup: “Some people call it the Nordic Mafia—and there you go, right away you get suspicious. What are they up to up there? But up in our little corner of the world, we have been grouping, splitting up and regrouping since time immemorial. And in the documentary community, regrouping is key when examining the success of Nordic documentaries.

“One thing is the pan-national financing from public broadcasters and film institutes, including Filmkontakt Nord and Nordisk Film & TV Fund, all pitching in to make the best Nordic docs happen. But more importantly, the trans-national creative clusters are redefining—and refining—the filmmaking process. With the exception of the few auteurs, who naturally take the helm, it’s the all-hands-on-deck approach that makes the Nordic docs really rock. Outing the creative process, as it were, and daring everyone involved from director/producer/editor etc. to film consultant/commissioner editor/sales agent etc. to take creative action and commit to making each film as brilliant as it can possibly be.

“OK, part of the Nordic equation is good public support for film and television. But the times are a’changing everywhere and were I to make a wish, it would be that the openness and inclusiveness of the Nordic creative process would expand into distribution, reaching out to audiences. They are ready, increasingly taking responsibility for their own viewing. But are we ready to let them in?”

Jess Search runs Brit Doc, one of docworld’s more innovative funds. Brit Doc is also the coordinator of Good Pitch: “I don’t know where to start! I guess because it’s the very founding mission of our organisation and so really most of what we do speaks to your questions, from the funds we run (with money from PUMA, the South African–based Bertha Foundation and Channel 4’s BRITDOC Foundation, only 25% of our funding comes from traditional doc sources) to the partnerships we have made (with Kickstarter, The New York Times, Sundance, the Ford Foundation) and the projects like Good Pitch, which is specifically designed to bring non-traditional funders and partners into docs.

“It’s been obvious for more than a decade that the way docs were being funded and distributed was changing significantly and would have to change radically. It’s the reason the BRITDOC Foundation was founded in 2005—because we wanted to help forge the future for filmmakers. Today we have €1-million a year in grants to distribute and we get 75% of our funding from other sources: foundations, brands, NGOs, philanthropists both big and small.

“It’s time to think differently. Docs are no longer just a small part of the TV industry. We’re a big part of the culture and that means a different set of relationships. Our Good Pitch event is designed to bring all parts of civil society into the documentary tent. Over the past three years, over 1,200 different organisations have attended one, including campaigning networks, major companies, online entrepreneurs and community groups. The vast majority had never been to a film event before. A big part of what we have to figure out with these partners is how to market to these new kinds of audiences because funding can never be reconfigured without its co-efficient distribution.

“There is so much to be excited about. But that said, there will never be enough money for our work. Making documentaries is a fantastic way to express yourself and as more great films get made, more people will want to start making them. Demand for funding will always outstrip supply and filmmakers will always have to work hard to secure money, particularly at the beginnings of their careers. So one thing hasn’t changed.”

Emily Russo is a partner with Zeitgeist, a leading indie distributor in the U.S. that carves out a successful path with creative theatrical and second-market distribution: “We still need prescient funders to nurture the most promising stories to life. There is certainly a hunger for information and entertainment in the form of the documentary, but as always, too much of a good thing can over-saturate the demand.

“So it always boils down to these elements: a great story/ character, artfully executed and savvily released to a targeted audience.

“The opportunities for docs to win awards and attain status at festivals has never been better and that should continue. Audiences can now find almost anything online, so geography is no longer a determining factor in how widely something can be seen. But to really stand out in the crowd, you had better have a story that must be told, that needs to be seen and preferably by the largest niche you can reasonably go after. This has essentially always been our strategy. I see some filmmakers finding success with fundraising money from Kickstarter and the like, but getting the film made is not enough. In a way, self-funding is like self-publishing—and only occasionally can something self-published be a best-seller, right?”

I meet and chat to the erudite Nick Fraser, commissioning editor for BBC’s Storyville, in all manner of places from Guangzhou to Sundance. When I recently caught up with him at the Frontline Press club in London, he showed me his new pamphlet released through the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “Why Documentaries Matter,” from which I’ve extracted some relevant material.

“Documentaries exist precariously, for the most part under-funded and often neglected by broadcasters. Worldwide the budgets for documentaries are falling. Their creators live a hand-to-mouth existence. But documentaries must also be classed among the remarkable, culturally innovative forms of our time. In the last 20-odd years they have come into their own.

“This is an argument in favour of documentaries. Think of them taxonomically, not as a tribe, but a vast assemblage of variegated fowls or mammals constituting a species whose continued existence everyone finds hard to explain. They’re among the least valued and most interesting cultural forms of our time. Improbably, however, they have emerged from a cave of unknowing into something like sunlight, enjoying a certain vogue. Greater things are expected of them, as if they had somehow displaced print journalism in our efforts to understand things and they are now being sold as a means to save the world. I am in part sympathetic to such ambitions, and I regard the current success of documentaries as no more than a recognition belatedly afforded to them.

“Let me suggest one last reason why we should cherish documentaries. Of the current manifestations of contemporary culture, which would you choose to conserve? Thought of as an app, documentaries wouldn’t make it. They have no real cultural recognition. They’re always seen as part of something else: film, television, journalism, even real life. They inhabit, creatively, a nowhereness, always between other things, but that turns out to be a very good place from which to observe the contradictions of our times.

“They [docs] may be hard to find, but you would miss them if they went. You might even miss them very much. I’ve watched documentaries in editing rooms, at festivals, in the endless versions they go through, with so much pain taken and given, before they’re finished. I like to watch them with audiences and at home. No one will ever be able to tell me definitively what a documentary does, or how it affects people, any more than we can say for sure what is the cumulative effect of a newspaper report, a sonnet or a Shakespeare tragedy. Documentaries are too expensive to be produced like pamphlets, or their contemporary equivalent, blogs. They don’t make a lot of money, so the complex percentage-based investments governing feature films don’t really apply to them.

“In parallel with the narrative recounting of how documentaries evolved runs the secondary hand-to-mouth story of their funding. For a long time they relied on private finance until this gave way to state patronage and, later, to the generosity of public broadcasters. But nowadays most documentaries are funded from a variety of sources, private and public, corporate and philanthropic. A giveaway is the increasingly complicated set of euphemisms used to acknowledge the provenance of each film. Another would be the long lists of patrons.

“How can the funding of documentaries be improved? How will they be shown in the future? Can they survive and thrive in the circumstances of online digital distribution? I do know that documentaries, taken as individuals, resemble a group of friends. I’d miss them if they went. If the species became extinct, I am convinced that this would be a more than small loss for humanity.”

Finally, I want to extrapolate on some ideas that have been floating around the meme-tank. I’d like to propose something called cloud funding. Think of it as a big tip jar, which fills with money after the bartender pours you a big, satisfying drink. We’re witnessing the demise of the golden age of television and the end of a nuclear family sitting around one screen, so cloud funding is an idea whose time has come.

Given that most people now “watch” TV while doing 1,000 other things, cloud funding will make them pay willingly, reasonably and voluntarily for their consumptive habits. Smart television is here! In other words, converged webnet, telephony, fibre, multiformat, transmedia, silicon electron television with future vision is here! With a keyclik, mouse-stroke broadband casting is here! The holy grail of interface devices—a fusion of the unified field theory and a blank screen of possibilities—is here!

How will cloud funding work? Quite simple, really. First you pirate, download legally, watch, stream or pay for on demand a chosen piece from a database of all media, all over the world, all the time. You view it, but at the end, as credits roll—or any time you jump out of the show—a simple message appears on your intelligent TV monitor, phone or tablet. It says, “Please consider that the maker of the work you are viewing is an independent who relies on people like you to survive. Donate voluntarily to his or her future work.” A big button appears. Give!

In cloud funding, everyone funds everyone. Everyone is a producer. For makers, when you add together all the soft money—equity, pre-sales, gap-financing, filmanthropy, public donations, the venture caps, the traditional agencies, foundation and broadcasters—a budget can be raised to finance your existing work and its outreach but also the next work-to-be. In other words, it’s fan-based funding.

Everyone wants to be part of something bigger. Free is the new economy of the Internet, but one should feel a responsibility to pay for what you support. Vodo, Jamie King’s voluntary donation system, has been prototyping a kind of cloud funding for a few years. Check out for views of projects made real with alt.funding.

I believe that the donation ecology is attractive to the masses. The public broadcasting system in the U.S. used to do a linear version of this, hitting up “viewers like you” during incessant pledge breaks.

Now we live in the era of fair-trade media. I can see a billion people filling in pledges online to support media they want. They will be able to adopt and support their favourite media-maker from anywhere on the planet. Yes, even a Canadian producer like me could benefit from this system. It’s worked in the freeware and shareware community for years. March forward, docmakers! You have nothing to lose but your chains. March along your own path, on a wing and a prayer! Cloud-fund to survive!

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