Documentary Distribution

Making it Work in an Ever-Changing Landscape

Alice Quigley and Steve Presence


This chapter is based on research conducted via the UK Feature Docs research project (2018-21), a study of the UK’s feature-length documentary film industry funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The project was primarily a cultural history initiative in that two of its three core objectives – ‘industry landscapes’ and ‘industry histories’ – were concerned with exploring the evolution of the independent documentary sector in the thirty-year period to 2020. The UKFD project’s third strand – ‘industry futures’ – focused on policy development, and consisted of an intensive process of engagement and consultation with the sector in the final eighteen months of the project. This chapter is based on the series of focus groups and semi-structured interviews with documentary distributors, sales agents and exhibitors that were part of that process. The chapter outlines three key challenges that have impacted on documentary culture in the past fifteen years: 1) an expanding rate of production coupled with decreasing opportunities for theatrical release; 2) the decline of traditional income streams, particularly from broadcasters and the home entertainment sector; and 3) the emergence of an increasingly complex digital market. These are by no means unique to documentary but, as we show, they have all had particular consequences for the documentary industry and those who work in its complex and shifting distribution sector. We discuss how distributors are responding to the various challenges they face by – developing new forms of vertical integration, pioneering new impact strategies and developing increasingly global, niche audiences – and explore some more recent trends that have developed since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr Steve Presence is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). Most of his work focuses on the film and television industries or on activist film culture and he has led several research projects in these fields. Recent publications include Contemporary Radical Film Culture: Networks, Organisations and Activists (2020, with Mike Wayne and Jack Newsinger) and Making it Real: A Policy Programme for UK Documentary Film (2021, with Alice Quigley and Andrew Spicer). He is currently leading the AHRC-funded project, ‘UK Feature Docs’, and working on the second edition of Go West! Bristol’s Film and Television Industries (forthcoming 2022, with Andrew Spicer).

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).

1. Introduction

This paper is based on work carried out during the UK Feature Docs (UKFD) research project, a three-year study of the documentary film industry that was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2018-2021). The UKFD project was primarily a cultural history initiative in that two of its three core objectives – ‘industry landscapes’ and ‘industry histories’ – were concerned with exploring the evolution of the independent documentary sector in the thirty-year period to 2020. It is during this period that many organisations dedicated to independent documentary were established – such as Sheffield Doc/Fest (1994- ), BBC Storyville (1997- ), Dogwoof (2005) and BRITDOC (2005- ) – and when feature-length nonfiction films established themselves on the UK theatrical circuit, increasing from just four releases in 2001 to 117 in 2015, 110 in 2018 and 99 in 2019 (O’Sullivan 2017, Stoll 2021). 

This period of evolution of the documentary sector has been largely overlooked by scholars and policymakers alike. Until relatively recently, the academic study of documentary has tended to focus on the texts themselves rather than the industrial infrastructures underpinning their funding, production, distribution and exhibition. Though there is now a burgeoning body of work that seeks to apply media industries studies approach to documentary (including Villejo 2014; Haase 2016; Tzioumakis 2016; Borum Chattoo and Harder 2021; Glick 2021), this work rarely touches on the UK context or adopts the ‘jet plane’ and ‘helicopter’ perspectives required to grasp sector dynamics across the documentary industry overall (Havens et al., 2009, 239). Consequently, while documentary is now a significant and distinct part of the wider screen industries in the UK, the nature of this film ecology is poorly understood and, moreover, badly catered for by existing UK film policy, which is almost entirely geared towards supporting fiction film. 

This paper draws predominantly on the UKFD project’s third strand – ‘industry futures’ – which focused on policy development and aimed to investigate the problems and challenges facing the sector and how these might be addressed. By 2019, when this phase of the research began in earnest, the research team had conducted around fifty interviews with active and retired stakeholders from across the sector, including commissioners and executives from various broadcasters, agencies and institutions as well as several freelance producers, directors and CEOs from a range of production companies, distributors and film festivals. Qualitative data from these interviews had provided strong evidence of major problems in the feature documentary sector. These ranged from scarce funds for development and production to a widespread lack of understanding in the wider UK screen industries regarding the particularities of documentary and its nature as a unique and distinct cultural ecosystem. Stakeholders felt that many of these problems stemmed from or were exacerbated by the low cultural status accorded to documentary in the UK. 

In addition to interviews, two other modes of data collection conducted under the project’s ‘industry futures’ strand further illustrated the challenges facing UK documentary. The first was a major survey of the production sector which was completed by 200 leading and emerging feature-length documentary producers and directors. The second was the subsequent sector-wide consultation in which stakeholders across the industry were asked to articulate what a coherent documentary film policy would look like from their point of view.1 A key element of the consultation process was a series of twelve themed focus groups, held simultaneously on a single day, with more than sixty stakeholders from across the industry. In this paper, we draw on the distribution and exhibition focus groups as well as twenty semi-structured interviews with distributors, sales agents and exhibitors in the sector.

The paper outlines three key challenges that have impacted on documentary culture in the past fifteen years: 1) an expanding rate of production coupled with decreasing opportunities for theatrical release; 2) the decline of traditional income streams, particularly from broadcasters and the home entertainment sector; and 3) the emergence of an increasingly complex digital market. These are by no means unique to documentary but they have all had particular consequences for the documentary industry and its distributors. We discuss how these distributors are responding to the challenges, before exploring some of the more recent trends that have developed since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.  

2. Key Challenges for Documentary Distributors

2.1 An Expanding Rate of Production

As noted above, the number of documentaries released has increased significantly in the last 20 years, from just four in 2001 to a hundred or more each year. Consequently, the documentary marketplace has become intensely crowded. Indeed, in terms of the numbers of films produced, documentary is the largest part of the screen industries by some distance, comprising between twenty and twenty-five per cent of all films made in the UK (BFI 2018a, 164; BFI 2020, 9).

Some distributors have benefitted from this growth in production and the financial returns that some of the films have generated. Dogwoof, for example, has seen its highest grossing documentaries increase from taking £60,000 at box office (Black Gold, 2006) to over £2m – Free Solo took £2.4 million in 2018; Apollo 11 took £1.4 million in 2019. Nevertheless, the expanded rate of production has not been matched by an increase in viable distribution and exhibition outlets, either theatrically or online. There is a limited number of independent cinemas in the UK, with a limited number of screens, and many cinemas – commercial and independent alike – struggle to provide a space for documentaries, which are seen as niche and unlikely to attract large audiences. Subscription Video-on-Demand (SVoD) platforms, meanwhile, are typically interested only in a very particular kind of nonfiction film. Thus, as discussed below, this is not a viable release model for the majority of documentaries that get made.  

2.2 The Decline of Traditional Income Streams

Audience consumption patterns have also shifted dramatically in recent years, leading to the sharp decline of DVD and home video sales. Between 2010 and 2019, for example, the volume of sales of physical video dropped by seventy-eight per cent, from 223 million units to just 48 million units. The value of those sales, meanwhile, dropped by seventy-four per cent, from 1.84bn to just under £477m (BFI 2020, 5). The gap in distributors’ income that has resulted from this plummeting market has not been filled by digital sales, whether transactional – in which audiences pay a one-time fee to download a title, known as Electronic Sell-Through (EST) or Download-to-Own (DtO) – or via sales to Video-on-Demand (VoD) platforms. Yet what documentary distributors – and in fact almost everyone we spoke to across the industry – drew attention to most was the critical lack of UK broadcast options for feature-length documentaries. 

Historically, British television has provided a range of space in its schedules for documentaries of varying lengths across the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. However, over the past thirty years, the series that provided this space in the schedules – such as Viewpoint and First Tuesday (ITV, 1983-93), Network First (ITV, 1994-7), 40 Minutes (BBC, 1981-1994), Modern Times (BBC, 1995-2000) and True Stories (Channel 4, 1993-2012) – have gradually shut down, and have not been replaced. Instead, the schedules are now replete with reality shows and often formatted factual and factual entertainment. Many of these shows – First Dates, Bake Off or 24 Hours in Police Custody, to cite just three recent examples – are outstanding formats, but they have come at the expense of single, authored and creative long-form documentary film. The reasons for this are well-documented. As Brian Winston (2000), Annette Hill (2005) and others have shown, this is a direct consequence of thirty years of media deregulation, privatisation and commercialisation, facilitated in the UK by key pieces of legislation such as the 1990 Broadcast Act and the 2003 Communications Act. As Hill argues, 

The rise of reality TV came at a time when networks were looking for a quick fix solution [to] the deregulation and marketisation of media industries in American and Western Europe. Reality TV has its roots in tabloid journalism and popular entertainment, but it owes its greatest debt to documentary television, which has almost disappeared from television screens in the wake of popular factual programming. Documentary television… has withered on the vine during a decade of the commercialisation of public service channels.  

Hill (2005, 39)

As a result of these changes in the broadcast landscape, BBC Storyville (1997- ) is the last remaining series dedicated to long-form creative documentary on British television. Having just one broadcast outlet for feature documentaries has clear cultural as well as economic implications. As well as reducing the amount of production funding available for longer-form work, it also inevitably reduces the aesthetic range and diversity of that work, since there is space for just one overarching curatorial perspective. In any case, Storyville’s budget of less than £1m is widely acknowledged to be inadequate: it renders Storyville unable to sustain its own world-class reputation or to support the sector in any meaningful way. (By way of comparison, ARTE France’s budget for long-form documentary is more than four times that amount.) 

2.3 An Increasingly Complex Digital Market 

A third major challenge we’ve seen in this period is the proliferation of digital platforms. In the early days, these platforms – such as iTunes – were mostly transactional, a model which is not as profitable for distributors as DVD sales. However, as is well-documented, it was the intervention of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which launched in the UK in 2012 and 2014 respectively, that really disrupted the market. 

The majority of interviewees acknowledged the role Netflix has played in growing audience demand for documentaries, as well how digital platforms have opened up new revenue streams and dislodged old gatekeepers. However, since initially acquiring content through buying entire documentary catalogues from distributors – a major cash injection for a few – Netflix and other SVoDs now focus on generating so-called ‘original content’ (even if the films are actually acquisitions funded by other means). As a result, Netflix, for example, will now pay significantly more to acquire films like Icarus (2017) or Knock Down the House (2019), easily outgunning competing distributors from the UK and elsewhere (Fleming 2019). This not only starves a complex international distribution ecosystem of the hits required to sustain it, but also has knock-on effects on how filmmakers conceive of and create their films, how much they expect to sell them for, and who they are willing to work with. Because Netflix wants worldwide rights in perpetuity as standard, many filmmakers are now reluctant to work with other parties, and instead hold out for that lucrative, albeit elusive for most, SVoD deal. 

Netflix’s focus on a particular kind of nonfiction also has significant cultural ramifications (Glick 2021, 64). Generally, the documentaries on its platform are either English-language films with popular appeal – like Fyre (2019); Hot Girls Wanted (2015); Tell Me Who I Am (2019); Three Identical Strangers (2018) – or critically-acclaimed titles that have had success on the festival or awards circuit – Crip Camp (2020); Strong Island (2017); RGB (2018); American Factory (2019); Knock Down the House (2019) and so on. Stories from elsewhere in the world, or that focus on marginalised experiences, or that experiment with content and film form, can have a much tougher time in the market. These are the documentaries most in need of support from public and cultural institutions. Unfortunately, as noted above and elsewhere (Presence et al. 2020 and 2021), that support is lacking at present. 

3. Responding to the Challenges

We have outlined three key changes and challenges: an expanding rate of production being out of sync with limited theatrical opportunities; declining broadcast support; and a complex digital environment. We now turn to look at some of the ways in which documentary distributors have responded to these challenges, and focus in turn on three broad approaches – new forms of vertical integration; impact campaigns; and increasingly international business models – as well as those distributors whose model has not significantly changed and who are finding it increasingly difficult to ‘make it work’ financially.

3.1 Vertical integration

In terms of documentary distributors, Dogwoof is probably the best known and a major player in the field, both in the UK and internationally. In interview, Oli Harbottle, Dogwoof’s Head of Distribution and Acquisitions, described how, in order to survive in an increasingly competitive, complex and consolidated global market, the company had taken steps to vertically integrate (other companies taking similar steps, albeit in different sectors of the industry, include Dartmouth Films, a production company that has moved into distribution, and Cinema Politica, an exhibition organisation that has moved into production). Dogwoof was founded as a distributor in 2005 and quickly specialised exclusively in documentary. The company moved into international sales in 2013 and then into production in 2016, a strategy adopted in direct response to streamers’ shift towards original production and owning the content on their platforms. As Harbottle put it, ‘to survive and for your business to be worth anything, you need to own IP [Intellectual Property], because distribution and sales is, in five years, going to look very, very different’.

Dogwoof’s first sales title was Blackfish (2013), which enabled it to build a highly beneficial two-way relationship with US networks including CNN, Showtime and A&E. Under this relationship, Dogwoof handled the international (non-US) sales on behalf of these networks, and in return they purchased other Dogwoof titles for the US market.

In 2016, Dogwoof launched a production fund with one of their investors, which gave Dogwoof both an equity stake and more creative input. Dogwoof’s first two films were fashion documentaries – Westwood and Halston, which premiered at Sundance in 2018 and 2019 respectively, sold to Amazon and were released theatrically in the UK – both made money for the production fund. This is ongoing: when we spoke to Dogwoof in early 2020 they had six films in production.

3.2 Impact Campaigns 

Impact campaigns – in which a film’s release is combined with an activist or special-interest cause – are central to certain types of documentary (for a discussion of the emergence of what they call ‘strategic impact documentary’, see Nash and Corner, (2016)). Aside from the social and political aspects of working with documentaries in this way, distributors can derive several business advantages from running campaigns around the films with which they work. For example, new revenue streams can be raised through private trusts, foundations and campaign organisations associated with the films’ subject matter. An impact campaign can also help attract a wider diversity of media attention: assisting a film to break out of the film section and into the domains of news or current affairs, for example. Working with charities or NGOs can also help amplify word-of-mouth buzz about a particular title, and assist with direct marketing to audiences interested in the cause – a strategy that can be extremely effective.  Moreover, impact campaigns also open up new screening possibilities in non-theatrical and non-traditional spaces. While these non-theatrical screenings are not recorded as part of the film’s box office data – something that is a major problem when it comes to measuring the overall economic performance of the documentary sector – distributors are adamant that non-theatrical screenings can be extraordinarily effective both politically and in terms of their economic value. 

For example, Sarah Mosses, CEO of Together Films, a marketing and distribution company that specialises in impact campaigns, described how they screened Ping Pong (2012) – Hugh Hartford’s film about octogenarians performing in the World Table Tennis Championships – in over 2,000 care homes across the UK. More recently, with 2040 (2019), a film which explores solutions to climate change, Together Films was on track to sell 1,000 non-theatrical licenses, costing between £100 and £1,000 – all revenue that was in addition to the film’s £1m box office takings. For Mosses, the benefits of combining a cinema release with a non-theatrical impact campaign are twofold. Firstly, with no Digital Cinema Package (DCP) to pay for, no advertising and no posters, there are fewer costs, and their profit margin is much higher as they recoup 100 per cent of the license rather than thirty-five per cent (the norm for a theatrical release). Secondly, the potential for impact can be greater in non-traditional spaces because, as Mosses says, ‘you have much more control over the types of spaces and who is actually going to see the film’.

3.3 Keeping On Keeping On, Internationally… 

There is however a continuing network of independent distributors working across fiction and documentary – companies such as Verve, New Wave and Peccadillo Pictures – who are continuing to make it work in the traditional manner, albeit as small companies with narrow margins: a theatrical release, an occasional television sale and additional revenue from home entertainment and the digital transactional market.

For these distributors, the theatrical release is where they will make between fifty and seventy per cent of their revenue, and often Q&A events or preview tours are critical to the success of the release. These distributors are increasingly seeking to exploit international markets, recognising that, for the relatively niche audiences available for many documentaries, the numbers are more viable if they think globally. Both Dogwoof and Together were at pains to emphasise this in their interviews with us. Indeed, another interviewee – Mark Stucke of Journeyman Films, which sells news footage as well as documentaries of varying lengths around the world – noted how markets outside the West are increasing. Stucke described Journeyman’s activities in the Ukraine as well as in China and several African countries and noted that, while this was a notable growth area for the company, getting content out to the seventy per cent of the world’s population that does not speak English posed considerable challenges in terms of translating the work and accessing the markets. 

4. Conclusion and Recent Trends

This paper has presented abbreviated findings from research that was mostly carried out in early 2020, just prior to the arrival of the pandemic in the UK. As many people have commented, COVID-19 has accelerated changes that were already in motion. Before the pandemic, for example, one interviewee noted that we are in ‘in a big period of consolidation’, with studios and streamers becoming increasingly powerful, and often cutting out the theatrical exhibition sector altogether as they develop their own platforms. This is continuing apace and, from our point of view, the formation of networks and alliances across distribution and exhibition will be essential for the independent sector as a whole to survive in the future.

There are signs this is already happening. Since the pandemic hit and cinemas closed, distributors like Dogwoof and Modern Films have trialled ‘revenue-share’ models, in which audiences can access distributors’ titles via their local cinema, with a proportion of the revenue returning to that cinema. At present, according to the distributors we have interviewed since the pandemic, this support is largely gestural, as the financial returns are currently too low to sustain physical cinemas. Nevertheless, it is also a positive example of the kind of partnership-based approach the independent sector needs to develop. Symbiotic relationships between new and existing VoD platforms and other aspects of the production and exhibition sectors will be crucial to the future health of the independent film ecosystem.

There have also been several instances of independent, online-only premieres and releases that have demonstrated significant potential. For example, the recent Dartmouth Films’ release, Bank Job (2021), about an experiment in community-based currency generation, reached an audience of 1,600 with its premiere and Q&A event. For a certain kind of film, and a certain kind of filmmaker who is willing and able to market a film effectively online – a highly skilled and labour-intensive endeavour – this direct and independent form of release is very appealing and can be lucrative. Moreover, it offers an escape from the outdated business models based on sales, theatrical releases and broadcast opportunities that funders and institutions still largely insist upon.  

Indeed, as we have argued, the documentary distribution landscape has shifted significantly, and one of the major frustrations expressed by stakeholders in the industry is that the metrics used by funders and public institutions to measure success have not yet adapted to these changes. Documentary releases such as Bank Job can be very successful in terms of audience numbers and revenue, but this is not currently captured or reflected by either Comscore or the BFI, for example. Distributors working in documentary today are keen to see a more collaborative approach to understanding the specifics of the industry, which in turn they hope would lead to better institutional support and policy interventions where needed – especially for those working in independent and cultural docs, who are facing the thinnest edge of the wedge. 


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  1. The findings from this strand of the research were published in two reports, Keeping it Real: Towards a Documentary Film Policy for the UK (Presence et al. 2020) and Making it Real: A Policy Programme for UK Documentary Film (Presence et al. 2021).