Canadian audiences are watching more documentaries than ever, but support for Canadian feature documentaries is going down. The Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) delivered the latest edition of its Getting Real report on the state of Canadian financing and the results may surprise readers. The findings of the 7th edition of Getting Real, which was prepared by Nordicity and funded by Telefilm Canada, Ontario Creates, The Bell Fund, the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), and the Association québécoise de la production médiatique (AQPM), were presented during the documentary day of the Industry programming at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The report draws upon productions funded from the 2016/17 to 2020/21 fiscal years.
Getting Real notes that funding for Canadian feature documentary production dropped from $29.6M to $19.4 within this period. The number of feature documentaries produced fell from 60 to 35 projects. This decline means that the percentage for feature documentaries within Canadian production volume dropped from 5.1% to 2.4%. The funding dollars for feature docs were a roller coaster in recent years with the 2018/9 fiscal representing the peak with $37.6 million.
These declines occur even though Canadian feature documentaries have some of the strongest presence for Canadian non-fiction at festivals both nationally and internationally. Of the filmmakers surveyed for the report, festivals remained the strongest forum where documentary filmmakers connect their works with audiences with 75% of respondents noting that their docs play festivals, followed by television (73%), streaming platforms (64%) and in communities (57%).
Moreover, the decline doesn’t reflect viewer habits. In 2021, for example, four of the top ten documentaries at the Canadian box office were Canadian feature docs. There’s an even greater affinity for Francophone documentaries, yet support for filmmakers outside urban centres remains a disparity. In 2022, the report notes that Canadians watched 11.2 million hours of Canadian English-language documentaries, and 5.1 million hours of Canadian French-language documentaries. As audiences tuned in during the pandemic, they discovered more Canadian content as consumption habits for CanCon grew in recent years.
While investment in feature documentaries is on the decline, Getting Real reports that funding for doc series is on the rise. In 2016/7, the spend for series was $154.8 million for 142 productions. In 2020/21, it was $270.4 million for 217 productions. The investment in series, however, means that production dollars favour a limited few key creatives despite the number of overall jobs they create.
As noted by the participants in the panel, which included DOC executive director Sarah Spring, Kadon Douglas of BIPOC TV/Film, and Owen Sherman of Nordicity, series production often requires clout and capital with many of the same production companies, producers, and filmmakers enjoying a revolving door of opportunities. (Series often require a house style, too, meaning feature docs are wider avenues for artistic expression.)
Feature documentaries, on the other hand, receive roughly half the spend as series, but offer greater entry points for filmmakers facing barriers to access in the field. The decline in feature doc investment therefore means that said barriers could continue while the industry advocates for a level playing field. Moreover, the panelists spoke to survey respondents’ interest in the diversity of stories and perspectives offered by feature documentaries and the wider range of regional and cultural representation they bring. DOC stressed the latter point as a particular concern given that 50% of its membership identifies as BIPOC creatives, which indicates a strong appetite among artists to produce documentaries, tell stories, and access the industry.
The report also notes that the Canadian industry is especially weak regarding the marketing and promotion of documentaries to facilitate audience discoverability. As noted by the panelists and respondents, there’s no shortage of quality Canadian documentaries at festivals, but seeing them after the fact remains a treasure hunt without a map. The issue of discoverability bleeds into debates surrounding Bill C-11 and the effort to preserve documentary as a protected genre in the Canadian broadcast framework. However, as DOC notes, “Most (57%) of the documentary series produced in 2021 were low budget, in the $100,000 – $250,000 range per hour” and represents lifestyle and true crime, which is not the intent of the protection for Canadian storytellers.
Notably, the report comes on the heels of wide recognition for Canadian documentary filmmakers. In the last two years of the Academy Awards, Canadians won in the documentary categories with Daniel Roher winning Best Documentary Feature for 2022’s Navalny and Ben Proudfoot winning Best Documentary, Short Subject for 2021’s The Queen of Basketball—or, put another way, well-funded American projects by filmmakers who got their start in Canada and had to move elsewhere. Moreover, Canada submitted documentaries in the Oscar race for Best International Feature back to back with Jason Loftus’s Eternal Spring last year and Zaynê Akyol’s Rojek this year, which indicates confidence in feature documentaries representing the nation on the world stage.
Read the full report here.