Three steps for teaching old Docs new tricks

No one denies that the documentary is the hands-down underdog in the funding game. In response to the 2022 For the Sake of the Doc manifesto calling for increased funding from the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles, SODEC launched a consultation project to find ways for the audiovisual industry to better support today’s documentary filmmakers. The results of the project will soon be presented to the Documentary Network. As a heads-up, participants in the ‘State of the Industry and Reflections on Future of Documentary Film Roundtable’ at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) last November presented an overview of potential solutions. Turns out that money isn’t the only problem.

1. Rethinking broadcaster commitments

In many ways, the documentary market is still operating on the principles of a bygone era, when television reigned supreme and streaming was nothing but a far-off pipe dream. A number of federal and provincial programs still require a financial contribution from a broadcaster to even trigger the funding process. That’s certainly the case with the Canada Media Fund (CMF) based on its agreement with Canadian Heritage. Same goes for SODEC with a financial participation limit of no more than 49% of the project’s total cost.

Because of this, institutional funders can’t simply upgrade subsidies in the hope of alleviating the situation. “And don’t expect anything from television,” said roundtable member SODEC general director Johanne Larue. Roundtable members themselves were having a tough time getting financing for their own documentaries. Fortunately, as a result of its consultation, SODEC is considering the idea of raising its maximum project participation threshold from 49% to 65%.

The CMF has had a selective funding program on the English side for several years now, where producers can get a share of the funding necessary without any prior commitment from a broadcaster. “This provides leverage for convincing a broadcaster not initially inclined to trigger funding for a project with its own envelopes,” said CMF director of French-language content Mireille Darveau. “As of this year,” she said, “the selective' program has also been offered in the French-language section.”

More broadly, the entire relationship between documentary filmmakers and broadcasters needs to be redefined. “Broadcasters are clearly open to new approaches to financing,” said Anne-Valérie Tremblay, Association québécoise de la production médiatique (AQPM) director of financing and member services. Having recently taken part in meetings with seven public and private broadcasters, Tremblay says that they’re not saying ‘no’ to co-broadcasting or funding in partnership with platforms or even festivals.

The distribution sequence would also benefit from being better adapted to today’s multi-channel ecosystem. “The time required between theatrical and TV releases is problematic for broadcasters. There’s a real kink that needs to be ironed out here,” Johanne Larue said. “On the other hand, there’s also the question of platforms. Does broadcasting a one-off documentary online really undermine what the broadcaster wants to do in the linear format? I think some explorations of various options is in order.” She feels that the audiovisual industry could breathe new life into the documentary genre by allowing simultaneous, or at least contemporaneous, releases in cinemas, online, and on competing channels.

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2. Deeper pockets for discoverability

Producing a documentary is one thing. Getting as many people as possible to watch it is something else. “The documentaries we produce compete for audience share with others around the world,” said SODEQ’s Larue. “It’s as if our funding institutions forgot that discoverability is a key component in the distribution chain.”

It’s always something that gets top billing with everyone in the trade. “Most producers are totally committed to promoting their content. They’re continually exploring alternative platforms with a high degree of creativity,” said Anne-Valérie Tremblay. In her view, one solution would be to provide a support component separate from the actual production budget.

For the past few years, the Bell Fund has added a Discoverability Plan to its funding programs. SODEC also had a pilot project at one point. “Producers could use a certain amount [in discoverability] to raise the profile of their project during pre-production to begin building an audience upstream, before the distributor [became involved in the project],” said Larue.

Discoverability can, of course, take many shapes and many paths. These include support for alternative means of distribution, such as showing the film in schools – with an accompanying educational kit  – making the rounds of screenings and conferences or working with independent or community cinemas.

“People think that certain film genres are disappearing but what’s really happening is the impact of the long tail,” Larue said. “Documentary-makers make their pilgrimages with their backpacks to the various funding institutions. It’s amazing but true even if we don’t have the exact stats. One thing we must do is ensure that they’re better prepared and better equipped to do the job.”

3. Establish a distinct distribution platform

One discoverability idea that’s gaining traction in the documentary community is establishing a common Canada-wide distribution platform with the goal of raising awareness for the genre. The sad truth is that most documentaries are put on the shelf, rarely or never to be seen again once their media run is done.

According to AQPM’s Tremblay, there’s a missing link somewhere in the system. “What we need is a flagship venue with a critical mass of documentaries to attract [new audiences], a venue that we could promote and that would also become the portal, in its own right, where documentaries are kept alive for a much longer time.” And that’s a powerful idea whose time has finally come! 

***For more on the ‘State of the Industry and Reflections on Future of Documentary Film Roundtable’ – https://ridm.ca/en/events/table-ronde-etat-des-lieux-et-comment-assurer-la-suite-du-documentaire


Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
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