State of the Art: US, UK and Canada

21 mins read

How far has documentary film production come in the last 20 years since the landmark box office success of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me? Is feature documentary flourishing or is it on life support? To take the pulse, three case studies in three countries synonymous with feature doc production since its inception—Canada, the UK and the US—were undertaken. How are such docs financed and to what extent are they distributed?

Betsy Carson is well-situated to give a reading on feature doc production in Canada. She is a producer partner at Canada Wild Productions with Nettie Wild, with Gary\ Marcuse at Face to Face Media and with Hugh Brody in H.R. Brody Ltd. She has also recently spent considerable time as an executive producer with Big Picture Media Corporation, headed up by director/producer Mark Achbar. Thanks to his box office success with The Corporation, Telefilm offered Achbar $2.38 million for new productions. When Achbar chose to support other films with the money, he called upon Carson to help administer the funds.

The results are to be seen in Velcrow Ripper’s Fierce Light, Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife, the upcoming Pax Americana from Denis Delestrac and A Short History of Progress from Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, as well as a handful of other new projects. Carson specifies that experienced producers run their own films but benefit from Big Picture’s financial contribution and Achbar’s creative input.

In Canada, most feature docs are typically funded through a combination of broadcast licenses, matching Canadian Television Fund (CTF—soon to be Canada Media Fund or CMF) money, tax credits, any possible international co-productions and financing through provincial cultural agencies, the newly established Canwest/Hot Docs Fund, the Canada Council or Rogers Telefund. It is a laborious and hugely time-consuming process of cobbling together seven or eight pieces and doing a shortened television version to secure the crucial television license which triggers the CTF matching dollars. Carson has become an expert at putting together such deals and her input is clearly valuable to all of the producers working with her and Achbar.

For a fortunate few, there is also the National Film Board of Canada whose financial contribution as co-producer or producer is increasingly critical to feature documentary. Their latest Strategic Plan offers a rare ray of continuing hope for Canadian feature doc producers: “The NFB will remain committed to being a principal player in the world of feature docs, providing the kind of support editorially and financially from the outset that is not available in the current system.”

Peter Wintonick, co-director of Manufacturing Consent and chief operator behind Montreal-based production company Necessary Illusions points out: “Outside of the excellent peer review processes at Arts Councils and the National Film Board production, media policy [in Canada] has never favoured truly independent, risky nor experimental work, nor the distribution of that work. But that’s where true filmmaking resides.”

A lot of feature documentary producers like Betsy Carson wonder what the guidelines of the Conservative government’s new Canada Media Fund will look like. With an ever-diminishing number of television slots for feature docs on Canadian airwaves and distributors reluctant to invest serious amounts in development, the present Theatrical Documentary Fund at Telefilm, which invested in Larry Weinstein’s much acclaimed Inside Hana’s Suitcase, has not had a lot of successful subscribers. Along with many other feature doc producers in Canada, Carson thinks, “Ideally there would be a separate envelope for non-broadcast feature documentary within the new structure that would have confirmed funding of $5 million annually.” But Carson feels that resolving what ails Canadian feature documentary production will also take a re-visiting of existing rules around self-distribution to allow for more niche marketing and a major investment in digital distribution.

Lone Star Productions is an example of a small, now well-established, UK production company producing unusual arts-influenced feature documentaries with international appeal. Its executive producer, Martin Rosenbaum, knows the feature doc scene well. Having previously executive produced for 17 years at World Wide Pictures, he left to establish Lone Star in 2000 to produce a two-part documentary feature on playwright Harold Pinter with Anthony Wall at BBC Arena. His experience in 2002 co-producing I am From Nowhere, about Andy Warhol’s Slovakian roots, which premiered at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival, sealed his commitment: “I don’t start with the form but with the idea and the story. I love the feature documentary form because it gives us the freedom to make a film unconstrained by an artificial imposed length.”

In 2004, Rosenbaum joined forces with the Andrew Douglas Company and Anonymous Content in Los Angeles to co-produce Andrew Douglas’s southern gothic road movie, Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus. A quixotic journey into the Deep South during a resurgence of fundamentalism at the height of the Dubya era, it became a hit on the festival circuit. Since then Lone Star’s international profile has risen with Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (penned and presented by Slavoj Zizek) which launched at TIFF in 2006 and the multi-talented, highly acclaimed Nigel Williams’ Dance with a Serial Killer (Hot Docs 2007). Financing for the former was completed by partnering offshore with Kasander Films in Rotterdam and Vienna-based Mischief Films. Dance With a Serial Killer was a BBC Storyville film conceived as a feature-length documentary, shown on France 3 with subtitles, and by partners the BBC and SBS [in Australia].

Rosenbaum says the government-funded BBC and privately owned More 4 are the only British broadcasters with a continuing commitment to international feature documentaries, although in practice funding for each film is relatively small. For example, in 2005 Channel 4 combined forces with BRITDOC to create a granting foundation specifically for non-broadcast documentary projects. On their website, soon to be released Town of Runners director Jerry Rothwell, a grant recipient, says: “The Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation has reshaped the landscape of documentary in the UK, supporting an astonishing set of compelling and engaged films which think beyond television formats and that aren’t afraid of complexity or breaking the rules.”

For a very select few high-end productions like Touching the Void and Man on Wire other government funding is available through the New Cinema Fund and the Premiere Fund, run under the umbrella of the UK Film Council. But criteria for their funding applications set the bar high: “For a feature documentary to succeed in the cinema, it must share the same ambition and scale as a fictional feature. A UK distributor and international sales agent are also usually required.”

The set up for documentary production is far different in the United States. Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media, professor at American University and author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford), explains: “The US funding model for documentary differs from the UK and Canadian models which are very government-based while ours is more based upon the civil society mentality we have here.” The exception to this would be the Independent Television Service (ITVS) fund, which is publicly funded by tax dollars and accessible to producers before obtaining a license from a public broadcaster.

When it comes to an international reputation for powerful feature documentaries, there is the exemplary Chicago-based Kartemquin Films. Its strong and long-standing involvement with social issues oriented documentary began in 1966 at the height of the US civil rights movement. More than 40 years in the trenches means Kartemquin has been able to build a real sense of legacy and to always look at the long term by fostering a communal, task-sharing work environment with lots of apprenticing programs.

Everything changed for Kartemquin when Hoop Dreams, directed by Steve James, came out in 1994 and became a huge Oscar-nominated hit. As Kartemquin’s co-founder Gordon Quinn puts it, that was when they realized “a Kartemquin film is one that is about community and change and has a personal story and good storytelling at its center.” Among a select few of recent accolades Kartemquin has received, there is the 2009 Prime Time Emmy nomination for In the Family, the Peabody Award for Terra Incognita (2007) and the 2007 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

To fund their productions, the relevant social community is always at the core of Kartemquin’s strategy. Take as an example their 2008 feature doc, At the Death House Door, inspired by a Chicago Tribune article about the execution of wrongly accused Carlos De Luna. Once the project was green-lit by the Independent Film Channel, directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert met with the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Illinois version of the Innocence Project. Knowing what kind of a documentary the organizations needed meant they could start building a target audience even before the first day of shooting.

Key to this community-based production strategy is a well-established US philanthropic tradition. In addition to the larger Rockefeller, Ford and MacArthur Foundations—historically strong supporters of documentary productions—there are hundreds of smaller family, regional and local philanthropic foundations across the country looking for producers to create nuanced, meaningful feature documentaries matching their mandates. Unlike the situation in Canada, there is also a considerable tax incentive to donate through not-for-profit shelters like the one set up by the International Documentary Association or directly to tax-exempt production companies like Kartemquin.

“I think there’s never been a better moment with as many opportunities in the history of documentary [in the US] as there are now,” is how Patricia Aufderheide sees things. “Independent Lens and POV have at least 45 slots for well-crafted feature docs. ITVS has twice the budget it had when it started out, the bulk of that coming from outside private fund sources.” Aufderheide says the appointment at the Sundance Institute of Cara Mertes, a true believer in feature documentary, has also raised their profile considerably.

Over in the UK, Rosenbaum expresses some unease about the limited resources available to make feature documentaries despite the commitment of some executives at the BBC and Channel 4, and champions of the documentary like Heather Croall, festival director of the UK’s prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest. But, overall he feels there are still some great feature documentaries getting produced there.

Perhaps symptomatic of public will in the UK to support feature documentaries for their democratizing impact is the newly established fund, The Tipping Point, set up by the UK’s fifth largest retailer, The Co-operative. For its launch this July co-founder Deborah Burton explained: “As feature documentaries about social and environmental issues find a growing global audience, the struggle for production funding remains constant—despite the recognition that such films can and do contribute to significant social change. We want to create a new funding stream for accessible and cinematically strong social issue feature documentaries.”

According to the 2009 Statistical Yearbook published by the UK Film Council, 54 feature docs were released at the UK box office in 2008, representing a respectable 10% of theatrical releases in 2008. Interestingly, feature docs lead the overall increase in feature film production for the European Union last year.

The advantage of the centralized, predominantly government dependent Canadian funding system is that feature doc stats are readily available. According to the annual Canadian Film and Television Producers Association (CFTPA) report, eleven feature documentaries were produced in 2008, down from fourteen the year before, representing a funding decrease from $11 million to $8 million. Add in the half-dozen or so NFB funded feature docs for 2008 and include the handful of low-budget, non-traditionally funded feature docs and one could generously assume that 30 feature documentaries were produced in Canada in 2008. As for the US, with such a decentralized funding system, it’s difficult to get a total but according to Sundance Institute’s statistics, they had 953 US feature docs submitted in 2008. In reality, many of those didn’t even get festival screenings, let alone commercial distribution.

Peter Wintonick, who travels extensively as an advisor to major international festivals, including the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), says: “I can say without fear of nationalistic chauvinism that Quebec and Canadian docs are among the most successful non-fiction films made these days…year after year, in terms of versatility, diversity, virtuosity, expansion of form, risk, aesthetics, and social engagement.”

What everyone has in common, whether they are a Canadian, UK or US based feature documentary producer, is the question of distribution. The impact of new technology, coupled with widespread broadcaster and advertiser uncertainty, means that everything is in a state of flux.

To some extent Aufderheide sees it in a positive light. For her it means that producers need to think more about how to cultivate an audience, to build in participation and develop a social marketing strategy that dovetails with production. She admits that for most there remain a lot of questions around the issue of revenue streaming and who will become the eventual gatekeepers for these types of over-the-net distribution systems.

Worldwide there is a big push on for increasing digital screening facilities with North America leading the way. Across the globe the number of digital screening facilities rose to 8,797 in 2008 from only 848 in 2005. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to extrapolate that there is a link between the sudden increase in feature doc production, at least in the European Union and the US, coinciding with new simplified, less costly digital projection.

One other factor that will continue to affect the place of feature documentaries from these three nations in the sample group is the steady increase of productions from other countries. As new technology and the Internet make production and dissemination of film more universal, the profile of feature docs from Canada, the UK and the US will gradually diminish as others rise. Hussain Currimbhoy, film programmer at Sheffield Doc/Fest, noted that, this year, for example, he has seen more documentaries from places like China, Taiwan and Mexico.

Nascent documentary film production in these previously lower profile countries means more people are telling their own stories instead of depending on outsiders to do so. Take just Mexican works like Juan Carlos Rulfo’s En el Hoyo or first-time Yulene Olaizola’s Intimidades de Shakespeare y Victor Hugo and you get an idea of the stellar talent and riveting personal stories that wait in the wings to take a more prominent place on the international stage.

In the end is it only one number that really matters? From 2002 to 2008, according to the UK Film Council records, only one feature documentary, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 placed within the top 200 at the world box office—and that was in the 150th slot. But, as Wintonick qualifies: “In a certain way, big exhibition is a dead doc in the industrial water, unless you are Michael Moore with some big money to finance the outreach. How can one compete with Hollywoodian cinema where the average marketing budgets are more than 30 millions dollars for a fiction film?”

So why should we care about the state of feature documentary production if they’re doomed from the outset to never take a huge market share? The obvious answer lies in their ability to inspire and inform us with their in-depth explorations, unhampered by pre-determined length and formulaic structures. Perhaps we can dream that one day governments and investors will finally acknowledge the valuable role they play as cultural ambassadors for our countries on the international scene. But ultimately the answer might lie in that breathtaking sight of an audience enraptured by the reflection it sees up on the screen showing us some part of who we are as only a feature documentary can do.”

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