The number of feature documentaries is soaring, but there’s still a problem to talk about.
Andy Punter (@punter86)
In all the excitement of the ‘Golden Age of Television’, you may not have noticed that we could also be living in the golden age of documentary filmmaking. Never has there been so many great documentaries, on such a range of platforms, accessible to so many. Streaming has changed so much about how we get our entertainment, and the humble documentary is not immune to its impact.
When you think about it, documentaries are the perfect material for streaming services. Generally, they don’t rely on big budget visual effects, they tend to be less ‘cinematic’ than most theatrical releases and translate well to the smaller screen. I must confess that I have foregone seeing several interesting documentaries at the cinema knowing that I would catch them at home, directing most of my film-going cash into ‘event movies’. Indirectly, streaming services have seemingly become a haven for documentaries. Under the Netflix model, the objective is to keep customers well fed with a regular supply of material delivered by algorithms keeping viewers perpetually ready for their next unmissable viewing experience. The performance of individual releases has become a closely guarded secret at Netflix towers (even though the veil of secrecy is slowly lifting) and they have made much of how this empowers their creators to focus mostly on telling their stories without the burden of viewing figures holding them back.
Without the data it’s hard to gauge exactly to what extent there is growth in viewing figures for documentaries. What we can look at in its place is the cultural impact being had on the industry, using the very unscientific measure of ‘watercooler chat’. That is, features that transcend their viewing figures to become part of the cultural furniture, a fixture of our day, at least for the short time we view them before moving on to the next. It certainly feels like there are more documentaries that are ‘unmissable’ than ever.
In 2001, just four feature-length documentaries were released in UK cinemas. By 2015, that number had become 117. A hefty increase by anyone’s standards and this does not include Netflix releases, of which there are a substantial number. There has been a surge in the number of documentaries available on any number of topics since the turn of the century, and for audiences, at least, there has never been so much material that is so easy to access.
The picture, however, is not so rosy for all non-fiction filmmakers. Steve Presence from UK Feature Docs, an academic study currently under way into the UK feature-length documentary film industry, believes that although Netflix and other streaming services have had a positive effect on the industry there is still more to be done. “It is still a minority of producers that score commissions from Netflix or one of the other major platforms,” he argues, “and the furore and hype surrounding the disruption of streaming platforms masks the fact that the vast majority of doc makers in the UK are struggling to get by.”
“UK film policy is almost entirely geared towards supporting fiction… Indeed, documentary filmmaking is under-funded and under-represented at practically every level… I would argue that it’s high time the UK had a bespoke policy framework to support its non-fiction filmmakers.”
The landscape, then, is far more nuanced than it may first appear. Yes, more documentaries are being produced, yes more people are watching them (we think), but the sector remains sorely underfunded and lacking in effective infrastructure, at least in the UK. Between 2014 and 2016, documentaries comprised nearly 23% of theatrical releases, but just 0.5% of the revenue. Money does and always will talk.
What is a documentary for? Is it news or entertainment? Ideally, the best documentaries are a combination of both. It is naïve to think that all filmmakers set out with the sole purpose of presenting cold, hard facts, giving us the cinematic equivalent of homework. Enriching? Yes. Fun? Not so much. One thing that appears to be more common now is the ‘junk food’ documentary. By this, I don’t mean Super Size Me, but rather the type of documentary that is easy to consume and very binge-able. Junk food documentaries are heavily editorialised and quite sensationalist. Making A Murderer is great TV and hugely entertaining, but a little research reveals that the makers left out quite a bit of crucial information to the case. Get Me Roger Stone is fascinating, but of course incredibly politically divisive.
That is not to say junk food documentaries cannot be great entertainment, just that they should be part of a healthy, balanced diet and not confused with news reports. It should not be the responsibility of documentary filmmakers to give us the complete and unimpeachable truth. They are creating entertainment, and in an environment where TV becomes more cinematic and cinema becomes more episodic, it is inevitable that different storytelling devices would creep into documentary filmmaking as well.
It feels as though we are at the precipice of a change in the entire entertainment industry. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have already disrupted the marketplace for all forms of viewable content and it seems there is more change to come. We are awaiting the launch of both Apple and Disney’s streaming platforms, and it remains to be seen how far they will continue to move the needle in what seems to be an industry still in its infancy. What is clear, however, is that audiences can now watch more high-quality documentaries, more cheaply and find them easier than ever before. There remain significant hurdles to be cleared by most filmmakers and distributors who want to get their films made as not everyone gets a Netflix deal. As UK Feature Docs put it, “It is a golden age in some respects, but I guess the question to ask is, for whom?”