Documentary funding in the age of the streamers

Inge Sørensen, Nick Higgins

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract

Funding is a crucial part of the production of any documentary film. Often – but not always, as we shall see – it is an existential component: without a budget, there is no film. Yet, the role of funding is neglected in documentary studies and scholarship. Although acknowledged, often implicitly, as ‘a key factor in the national histories of the genre’ (Rosenthal and Corner 2025: 3), it has mostly been left to the documentary scholars who are also filmmakers and practitioners to draw attention to and explain the importance of funding in documentary production and distribution (see for example Newcomb 1985; Gitlan 1985; Caldwell 1995, 2006, 2008; Ellis 2000; Rosenthal and Corner 2005; Chapman 2007 & 2009; Gaunt 2009’).

Funding models and financing sources impact on all aspects of a documentary film. The budget of a documentary sets the parameters for its production and its production values. Funding will determine the crew and talent attached, the choice of locations, interviewees and archive material included, as well as where, when and for how long the production team can afford to develop, shoot and edit the film. Funding sources also influence the exhibition and distribution regimes. Who funds a film impacts on where it is released, can be accessed and seen: on TV, via the streamers and video on demand (VoD) services, in the cinema, at a festival, on social media or a combination of all of these. Finally, funding sources affect a film’s life beyond the screen, influencing the ways in which the filmmakers are able to interact with their audience and the types of awards that the film can be nominated for.

This chapter explores documentary film funding in the UK and North America. It presents the most common sources of funding and finance available to documentary makers and considers the institutions and organisations that typically allocate funding, from national film institutes and regional screen commissions, and television networks (with and without public service remits), streamers and streaming video on demand services (SVOD), to private investors, tax incentives and other automatic funding forms. We situate documentary funding and financing in relation to the digitisation of the global media industry, the rise of the streamers and new online platforms for engaging with documentary films. The chapter argues that these recent changes have altered national and international funding models for documentary film and that this is impacting on documentary content, production, practice and distribution. In particular we consider the issue of budget polarisation and trace its consequences for documentary film and its filmmakers.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Documentary Film
PublisherIntellect
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 19 Jan 2024

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