Documentary film, online and offline in the UK

Earlier this year, I did some strategy work with a client to look at the documentary landscape in the UK, and here I’m sharing some of the overall findings and resources from that piece of work (some stats and market elements might have moved a little since then, but overall I hope it’s still helpful). It’s interesting that some of the recommendations I made overlap with a recent piece of research from the Open Rights Group – which finds that overall, consumers in the UK face “lack of availability, poor pricing and quality issues when compared with physical media.” I agree that UK consumers are very poorly served with visual media content, and face a fragmented and confusing landscape.

And there’s an evolving list of resources I used here – please feel free to browse and contribute.


  • Fragmentation in TV audiences  but increase in DVD, download, theatrical documentary markets. (DVD sales plummeted 40% in the USA in the last quarter (early 2011) as digital downloads take off)
  • Tech barriers to entry lower than ever for individuals to make, participate in, distribute documentary, competition for attention ever more fierce as opportunities to watch multiply.
  • Funding still fragmented, largely production-focused, further decreases threatened, and nothing systematically replacing financial and editorial support decreasingly offered by TV channels.  Crowdfunding online seen as potential option for some, commercial sponsorship for others.
  • Online viewing growing in length, web now first port-of-call for many producers to show portions of their film, generate interest, secure funding, conduct outreach.
  • Perception of growing interest in more authentic (i.e. direct) content from new perspectives/voices.
  • Many in each successive generation increasingly comfortable with use of video as means of communication, and with tools of creation – different expectations around participation, form of content, cost, availability.
  • With journalism seemingly in crisis, some expect that documentary should take on more “investigative” role.
  • New types of documentary content emerging (especially focus online on short-form or serial content, animation, and closer ties with photojournalism), but traditional ones still dominant.
  • Action-oriented/advocacy documentary a growing genre, with associated online action opportunities – with foothold in theatrical distribution, and many new entrants in online space. Quality uneven.
  • NGOs, public sector more credible in documentary space as partners/endorsers of filmmakers, less as producers. NGOs beginning to commission films directly.
  • Many online documentary networks and platforms (including for development/human rights), yet few truly comprehensive places online or offline dedicated to helping people watch, learn about, discuss, get involved.
  • Academic centres for study/teaching of documentary not up-to-date with converging practice – not holistic (Depts for TV, online, radio, documentary, journalism, media studies, etc, all doing broadly similar/overlapping things).  NOTE – state of research about documentary is very fragmented.
  • Landscape in the developing world looks very different… – long-term need for any/all of these to be catalysed or strengthened, almost everywhere…

Finally, a stat from the BFI’s research: in 2009, 56 documentary films were released, accounting for 11% of releases but only £12M or 1% of the gross UK box office – and of that £12M, £9.8M came from the Michael Jackson tribute documentary, This Is It (UKFC/Rentrak data). In other words, a total 55 documentary releases earned just over £2M in 2009. It’s not a lucrative career, at less than £40k per release, on average….


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