UK feature doc sector in crisis, says report

UK feature doc sector in crisis, says report

A new report published by researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has revealed “a chronic lack of funding, support and coordination at the heart of the UK’s feature documentary film sector”. 


Based on a survey of 200 of the UK’s leading feature doc producers and directors, the report titled Keeping it Real: Towards A Documentary Film Policy for the UK argues that the sector is in need urgent policy intervention when the creative industries are rebuilt in the wake of coronavirus. The survey was conducted with support from Doc Society.


Despite the growing popularity of feature-length documentaries, the report shows how policies, support and funding opportunities have failed to keep up with rapidly expanding consumer demand. The researchers claim this is partly a result of the feature docs sector “slipping through the cracks in both film and television policy alike”. 


Funding ring-fenced for documentary is among the lowest in Europe, the report indicates, and BBC’s Storyville – the last remaining platform for feature docs on UK television – is significantly under-resourced despite its international reputation. As a result, large swathes of the UK feature docs sector are rapidly becoming unsustainable, with many filmmakers already reporting an inability to sustain their careers, say the Bristol researchers.


Other significant findings reveal how personal funds are by far the most common source of funding for UK feature docs with 43 per cent of respondents having invested their own money in their films, and that the feature docs sector has “a major diversity problem”. 


A huge majority (91 per cent) of survey respondents were middle class and a large majority (65 per cent) were based in London and the South East. Women, people of colour and people with disabilities are significantly under-represented in the sector. 


The under-funding of feature docs is a significant contributing factor to this diversity problem, the report claims, because only those with independent financial means are typically able to sustain careers as filmmakers. This has particular consequences for ethnic as well as class diversity, with people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups more likely to be from low-income backgrounds. 


In answer to these findings, the report proposes a range of policy interventions that are designed to kickstart conversations around the need for “a bespoke documentary film policy”.


Researchers recommend that the BFI increases the proportion of Lottery funds ring-fenced for documentary to between 20 and 25 per cent of the total £20.9m available. This would see BFI Doc Society Fund coffers increase from £1.8m (9.1 per cent) to between £4.1m (20 per cent) and £5.2m (25 per cent). The report also recommends that funding sought by the BFI to replace Creative Europe MEDIA funding should include ring-fenced amounts for documentary. Another key recommendation is that tax relief should be increased to 50 per cent of the budget of qualifying documentary projects.


From an international perspective, existing and additional production funds should be made eligible for international co-productions wherever possible, to ensure UK producers are attractive co-production partners, the report further recommends.


Discussing the report’s significance, the project’s lead researcher, Dr Steve Presence, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at UWE Bristol, said: ‘‘This is the largest survey of UK feature doc directors and producers ever conducted and it was done just in the nick of time. The evidence base it provides demonstrates just how under-served the feature documentary sector was before the pandemic. It’s not a question of pleading a special case, but of recognising that the situation for many documentary filmmakers has been absolutely desperate for years in the UK.


‘‘Beyond the few filmmakers making more commercial films that are fully financed from Netflix or US broadcasters, the vast majority of UK documentary filmmakers are struggling to survive. Smaller, risk-taking films, such as Evelyn (2018), Seahorse (2019), For Sama (2019) and Shooting the Mafia (2019), also play a critical role in terms of shaping the national conversation and informing British cultural identity. If we’re not careful, in the aftermath of Covid-19 we might lose this vital element of UK film culture altogether.’’


The report will be launched at a special online event on 25 June as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest activities this year. This will mark the beginning of a consultation period during which the research team will solicit feedback from stakeholders on the report’s findings and recommendations. Following the consultation period, a set of sector-endorsed recommendations will be submitted to policymakers including the British Film Institute and DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport).