The evolution of documentaries is growing stronger

Is the global pandemic ruining the chances for documentary filmmakers to find funders and distribution? Not as much as we may think although getting the films made is certainly much more challenging.

During ScriptDC’s panel on The State of Documentaries in Fall, 2020,  the panelists came from diverse backgrounds and shared their predictions and experiences about documentaries.  The panelists were:

Dan Salerno, who has worked for Discovery since its early inception and then for National Geographic.

Deborah Riley Draper began in advertising and transferred her selling skills into her documentary work, having won awards, including two regional Emmys.

Peter Hamilton, an Australian consultant who has helped many documentary production companies and filmmakers. His free e-newsletter, keeps people up to date on the latest in the world of documentary.

Nina Gilden Seavey taught for over 30 years filmmaking at George Washington University and recently turned her skills to tell stories in the podcasting platform.

During the conversation that I moderated, we spoke about how documentaries and their popularity has evolved. Documentaries in the US were never all that theatrically appealing for distributers. However, the rise of streaming platforms has also produced a rise in the demand for documentaries. Salerno even called this time the Renaissance Age in which documentaries are more popular now than ever before. Streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix are putting more money into documentaries. The challenge is for up and coming filmmakers to get the attention of these funders and others. If the content is strong, the characters are interesting, you do have a shot to make your film.

Seavey encouraged the attendees to not think that if they hear a “no” from a possible funder that it is the end. All of these are just conversations and while it may be no, it could mean it is a no for right now. They also may lead to other funders, the point is to not be afraid to ask and keep at it.

Draper advised thinking of any existing but transferable skills you may have to find ways to make and distribute your documentary. She didn’t come from a documentary background but her skill as an advertiser helped her make several documentaries and grab the attention of high-profile distributers.

Hamilton commented that just as each story is unique and has its own journey,  filmmakers need to be ever-changing and nimble. He shared that, long ago, documentaries used to only be accessible on one channel, PBS, then The Discovery Channel, and now it is on most streaming platforms and reaching a broader audience. Draper added that filmmakers need to be savvy and remember that in the world of documentary production, making a film is like having a start-up…nerve-wracking but exciting.

The panelists shared that, over the years, no matter what was going on, funding and distribution for documentaries remained steadfast. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, there was a theory that documentaries would be obsolete for one reason or another. Instead, the rise for more information brought about a new age of sharing and exposing audiences to diverse, real-life stories. In the long haul, the panelists predict that the pandemic may not have hurt documentary filmmakers, distributors and audiences.

We left with a final thought: Serendipity happens but you also have to be where it is happening. Therefore, volunteering for film festivals, panels and conferences is a great way to learn and network. DCIFF is run through all volunteers and as a volunteer for three years, I have been fortunate to meet and speak with talented filmmakers from around the world. With fewer in-person events, virtual events are still providing people a safe opportunity to expose ourselves to other works and to share our talents to others. DCIFF 2021 will be hybrid: online and small screenings, discussions and events. And of course, documentaries, according to the experienced filmmakers on the panel, are here to stay.

By Tara Jabbari 

DCIFF Filmmaker Relations