Session 10 – Distributing documentary

Chair: Dr. David Forrest (University of Sheffield)

Documentary distribution: making it work in an ever-changing landscape

Alice Quigley & Dr Steve Presence (University of the West of England)

This paper is based on research conducted via the UK Feature Docs research project (2018-20), a study of the UK’s feature-length documentary film industry funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project has mapped, analysed and historicised the UK industry, and made transformative policy proposals based on sector-wide consultation and research. The distribution-focussed strand investigated a rapidly-changing landscape in which traditional support bases and models have disintegrated and been “replaced” by constantly shifting new digital paradigms which are more complex to navigate and “make work” financially. Between February and May 2020, the team interviewed representatives from leading documentary distributors (including Dogwoof, New Wave, Peccadillo, Together Films, Journeyman, Mubi, ICA) and exhibitors (including Picturehouse, Watershed, Bertha Dochouse and HOME). They also convened exhibition and distribution focus groups as part of sector-wide consultation on the development of a healthier and more sustainable feature docs sector. The paper presents findings from this research and examines the documentary ecology within its shifting context. It explores the industry’s rapid expansion: docs now represent over a quarter of all films released in the UK (BFI 2019, 36), theatrical box office revenue for select titles has risen significantly – Dogwoof, for example, have seen its highest grossing theatrical doc go from earning £60k at box office (Black Gold) to over £2million (Free Solo) – and premium docs are a cornerstone of online streamers’ programming. And it situates this expansion alongside accompanying innovations: in release strategies; organisational and funding models, and international expansion. While these innovations preceded COVID-19, the rapid experimentation with digital/hybrid releases catalysed by the pandemic will likely alter the releasing landscape across theatrical, broadcast and digital henceforth. The paper explores the potential affordances and impacts of these expansions and innovations, within the specific context of the expansive documentary genre which encompasses everything from wildly experimental to social impact films to celebrity biographies.

Alice Quigley is a Research Associate on the UK Feature Docs project. Alice previously worked at Watershed, leading the BFI Film Audience Network’s new release strategy which supports exhibitors and distributors to develop audiences for independent film releases in cinemas. Alice’s Feature Docs research focuses on distribution and exhibition: the specific challenges and opportunities distributors and exhibitors face working with documentary, and how we understand their place in this rapidly changing industry. Having recently completed a Masters in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, Alice’s other research interests include frameworks of the commons as they relate to (arts) organisations, alternative value systems and modes of production. Alice also works on another UWE Bristol project, as part of the Bristol+Bath Creative R+D team, developing a publications strategy for UWE’s creative technology projects. Originally from Belfast, Alice worked as an arts producer for over ten years, specialising in music and arts festivals/events, and continues to provide producing support across a range of artistic projects. Recent examples include work with The Brunswick Club (a DIY artist collective), Bristol Old Vic, Anagram (award-winning immersive experience designers) and In Between Time (live art festival).

Dr Steve Presence is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies in the Department of Arts and Cultural Industries at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). Most of his research focuses on UK film and television history, culture and policy. Steve has published widely in these fields and led several major projects as Principal and Co-Investigator. Prior to the Feature Docs project, Steve led two studies on Bristol’s film and television industries: ‘Understanding Watershed’ (2017-18), a history of Bristol’s leading independent cinema; and (with Andrew Spicer) a study of Bristol’s production sector, published as Go West! Bristol’s Film and Television Industries (2017). Steve was also Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded ‘Sustaining Alternative Film Cultures’ (2015-18), a study of international activist and experimental film culture conducted in association with the Radical Film Network. This research was recently published in the edited collection, Contemporary Radical Film Culture: Networks, Organisations and Activists (Routledge 2020). In addition to his research work, Steve teaches on the BA Film Studies degree programme and the MA Contemporary Film Culture. He also sits on the Editorial Boards of the Journal of Media Practice and Education and Frames Cinema Journal and is a member of the AHRC Peer Review College.

Achieving an intimacy of knowledge and effect? The impact of documentary films in Europe

Dr Huw D. Jones (University of Southampton)

A century ago, John Grierson wrote, “documentary can achieve an intimacy of knowledge and effect impossible to the shimsham mechanics of the studio”. Yet empirical research on the impact of documentaries is still limited. This paper addresses this gap by analysing the findings of a recent survey on documentary film audiences in Europe. The survey of 1500 respondents found that 97% had been affected by the experience of watching documentaries in some way, with 77% saying they had seen a documentary that had emotionally affected them. 70% had seen a documentary film that had improved their understanding of a particular issue, while 60% had seen one that had changed the way they think about certain issues. However, more proactive responses were less common – only 25% had seen a documentary that had encouraged them to take action, while just 19% had seen one that had encouraged them to change their lifestyle or behaviour. The documentaries most likely to encourage these proactive responses were often recently produced expository or performative documentaries that deal with the exploitation of animals (e.g. Earthlings,) or the wider human and environmental impact of consumerism in advanced capitalist societies (e.g. Super Size Me). Proactive responses were also more common amongst young people, post-graduates and respondents who tended to watch documentaries in cinemas rather than home platforms. This paper therefore concludes that documentaries do have an emotional or educational impact on most audiences in Europe, at least in the short-term. Yet their ability to encourage more long-term proactive responses (e.g. taking action or changing lifestyle or behaviour) is limited and depends significantly on the documentary’s form and subject-matter, the viewer’s age and education, and the platform or context in which the film is viewed. With documentary filmmakers under pressure from funders to demonstrate the impact of their films, these findings will be of relevance to industry professionals, alongside wider academic debates about audience reception.

Dr Huw D. Jones is a Lecturer in Film at the University of Southampton. He previously worked as a HERA Post-doctorate on the ‘Mediating Cultural Encounters through European Screens’ (MeCETES) project, an international study of the transnational production, distribution and audience reception of European film and television drama. He has published in European Cinema in the Twenty-First Century, The Routledge Companion to World Cinema, Transnational Cinemas, Comunicazioni Sociali, Journal of British Cinema and Television, and Cultural Trends. He recently led an international survey on documentary film audiences for the European Documentary Film Network and Creative Europe.