Getting Real 5: An Economic Profile of the Canadian Documentary Industry

If you missed it, this week the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) released its latest report  on the state of the documentary industry in Canada.  I had the honour to undertake the analysis and write this report for DOC, and you can view or download a copy by clicking on this link.

The sad news is that the documentary industry in Canada is under severe pressure from a number of fronts. The number of documentaries being commissioned by broadcasters in Canada has declined significantly and the job loss is the industry is staggering at 4000 jobs lost over the past few years. Additionally, documentary funding programs such as the Canadian Independent Film & Video Fund (CIFVF) are no longer in business, reducing the potential for producers to finance documentaries that are not destined for the broadcast market.

The report notes that Canadian conventional private sector TV networks have reduced or eliminated the number of documentary one-offs (single programs) they’ve been airing over the last several years. At the same time, Canadian specialty cable channels have been increasing the number of ‘documentary’ series that they have been broadcasting, but I put this word in quotes for a reason. Much of this content is more reality-style programming, or what the Canada Media Fund (CMF) calls “living history” or “docu-soap” types of programs.  Both of which the CMF will fund.

The Canadian documentary production industry is greatly concerned about these two CMF exceptions that allow this ‘factual entertainment’ to be considered within the CMF’s documentary allocation and thus the dilution of the definition of ‘documentary’. Documentaries, under the CMF’s definition, are to provide an “in-depth analysis” on a topic and according to documentary producers these allowable exceptions are diverting funding from ‘true’ documentary one-offs and series in favour of factual entertainment.

Canada has a long and storied history of producing world-class documentaries and to witness this sector in serious decline is very disturbing. But from the broadcaster perspective, documentary one-offs do not generate sufficient audience numbers and factual entertainment series do. Broadcasters are in the audience business after all.

Interestingly enough, at the same time documentary festivals, such as the annual Hot Docs festival in Toronto each spring, are drawing record crowds. And international interest in documentaries, especially feature-length documentaries, is still out there.

So what’s a documentary producer in Canada to do these days? Well, either make a shift to factual entertainment programming of interest to broadcasters and try to fund the odd ‘true’ documentary every few years, or get out of the business here.  Hence perhaps, the job loss in the industry. Alternatively, with the arrival of Kickstarter in Canada this fall, alternate methods of raising financing might relieve some of the funding hardship. Documentaries are a popular type of project within these crowdfunding models. However, the amount of funding possible under these models is relatively small in comparison to the project’s overall budget, and the amount of work required to mount and maintain a Kickstarter type of funding initiative is quite intense. Plus in Canada there are still some securities regulation issues to overcome.

The CMF is launching its latest round of industry consultations in September and no doubt the Canadian documentary production industry will have something to say on these issues…

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