When Money and Businesspeople Flood the Documentary Field, Does the Rising Tide Lift All Boats?

Posted on September 26, 2018

What does the volatile media landscape mean for documentary film and public media?

If it seems like we’ve all been asking this question over and over, it’s because the water doesn’t look like it's settling any time soon. Big players conduct capricious spending sprees. Digital advertising climbs over the $100 billion mark. The creative and consumer tastes of Boomers and Millennials clash. The fallout from #metoo and #blacklivesmatter continues. 

That’s why it’s a good time, as many of us in public media head to the sold-out International Documentary Association conference in Los Angeles, to study, talk and think about what’s happening in our fields. ITVS will join conversations swirling around the release of a major study by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University. And we’ve been doing our own thinking and research as well.


We routinely survey and/or interview filmmakers to understand shifting trends and ways to be a stronger ally. Your insights inform our contract, our approach to web content, negotiations with distributors, and so much more. We reached out to some of you again over the summer to get your take on few things. Here’s an early snapshot of what you told us:

  • Production funding. Public dollars are cited widely as a very important funding source and a force for diversity, inclusivity, artistic and editorial control, and retention of copyright ownership. New funders are entering the field. Private equity funders are increasingly important and can facilitate faster funding and bigger budgets, yet overall experiences are mixed, access uneven, and hard negotiations required. 

  • Producer Fees. Producer and directors are taking on more aspects of production. While producer and director fees have modestly increased with rising budgets, they are frequently deferred and inadequate. Editing and licensing costs are going up. 

  • Distribution and revenue. Maximum distribution, followed by revenue, are the top two priorities in managing distribution rights. Experiences with sales agents are mixed. Most filmmakers have distributed work on subscription platforms, but the majority of revenue comes from other sources. Conflicting priorities of revenue, reach, and mission increasingly creates tensions for filmmakers, public television, and for-profit players.

  • The Future. Filmmakers see video on demand as increasingly important to their next film’s revenue strategy. They also see engagement with communities and policymakers as more important. Sustainability remains a major concern, specifically the challenges of R&D funding, cash flow, unpaid or underpaid producer and director salaries. Some producers see working on series or multiple projects simultaneously as the best—or only—way forward. A good lawyer is more important than ever.

Filmmakers’ experiences are affected by the changing tide. When the tide drops in the private sector, public funding helps keep the field afloat. ITVS does that through funding as many high-quality, diverse projects as we can; working to champion public real estate for documentary film on television, and bringing storytelling into far-flung communities through the free and accessible public broadcasting system. 

So what changes when the tide is high? When it seems like money and businesspeople and audiences are flooding into the documentary field? 

  • Research, transparency, and data sharing are critical. Experience tells us that when the market shifts, it doesn’t lift all boats. New gains don’t automatically flow to makers. Bigger fish have bigger leverage. We all need to share information so that filmmakers—and those of us who work with them—understand their choices, their work’s value, and the nitty-gritty details of tradeoffs between funders, distributors, and partners.

  • Diversity and inclusion must be a high priority. Emerging makers have less access and even less leverage in navigating the marketplace. Diverse makers face unique challenges that are not erased by any boom. Careers take many years to develop. In good times we need to accelerate diversity and inclusion.

  • The partnership between filmmakers and public media must survive and thrive. Public funding is a stabilizing force for a market where mission and money both matter. Editorial control, filmmaker ownership, artistic freedom, and community inclusion have a powerful champion and protector in public television. We need to protect and strengthen the public investment of over $250 million that the indie community fought hard, through ITVS, to put into the hands of independent filmmakers.

Incredible people and organizations are already working hard across all of these fronts. We look forward to the CMSI study, more of our own research and a combined body of research as more players share it—we hope. Collective knowledge will unlock the potential of the marketplace, private and public. And expand the impact of storytelling that unlocks understanding, empathy, and acts of public good.

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