The number of documentaries being released theatrically in the UK has steadily increased during the last five years, with the total box office takings of documentaries in the UK rising dramatically in 2011, it was revealed during a panel at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Documentaries (excluding concert docs) enjoyed a bumper year at the UK box office in 2011, grossing £11m, compared to £1.9m in 2010, according to BFI figures cited at a panel on theatrical documentaries hosted today at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

2011 was also a record year for British documentaries, with 23 released at the UK box office, grossing £5.8m in all, as opposed to the 24 released in 2010 which grossed £08.m in total. In 2007, there were 13 UK docs released at the UK box office, grossing £0.7m, with 17 released in 2008 grossing £1.4m.

Documentaries released in the UK in 2011 included Universal/Working Title’s Senna and CinemaNX’s TT3D.

The total box office gross of documentaries in the UK has steadily increased since 2007, when the total gross of documentaries at the box office in the UK was £1.8m (excluding concert docs).

Meanwhile, the the number of documentaries being released has also steadily increased in the last five years, from 40 in 2007 to 66 in 2011.

The figures were cited as part of a panel discussion on what makes a theatrical documentary, chaired by the BFI’s Lizzie Francke at Sheffield Doc/Fest, with Passion Pictures producer John Battsek, Red Box Films producer Simon Chinn, Oli Harbottle of UK distributor Dogwood and Dreams Of A Life director Carol Morley.

“Documentaries can now compete with narrative features in terms of good stories,” said Dogwoof’s Oli Harbottle, whose releases have included Dreams Of A Life and Age Of Stupid. “There is a lack of originality coming out of Hollywood fiction films. Game changers like Man On Wire have opened our eyes. The fact Universal/Working Title decided to do a documentary [Senna] is a real sign that documentaries can compete.”

Pointing towards a shift away from social issue documentaries, Harbottle said: “In 2009 there was a zeitgeist for big campaigning documentaries, but since then the market has probably been a little saturated with social issue documentaries. We have seen a real shift in the documentaries coming to us and documentary film-makers are adopting a more creative approach both in terms of the style and the stories.”

Meanwhile, director Carol Morley said it was “so exciting to see British documentary being so forward as often it has been the American documentaries that have influenced.”

On the issue of financing, Simon Chinn, who produced Sheffield opener Searching For Sugar Man as well as Bart Leyton’s The Imposter, together with John Battsek, said there was still a bias towards social change films. “Unfortunately, there are many more sources for those people who want their documentaries to change the world than those who want to tell good stories,” said Chinn who revealed that he turned down an offer of US funding for Project Nim, because it was on the basis of a “social action campaign”.

On the subject of different distribution models and alternative platforms, John Battsek, who also produced cricket documentary Fire In Babylon last year, admitted that whilst “the goalposts are moving a bit, until the market place says we are not theatrically releasing your films then we will continue to go about it the way we always have whilst being as flexible as we need to be. We are not at the point where you’ve got to be releasing on the same day across all different platforms.”

“The fact that we are still making [theatrical documentaries] and that there is an increasing audience for them is a real thrill” added Battsek.

“What excites me is the idea that one day we might be able to break down the idea that documentary is a genre and actually see it as a form of telling stories,” concluded Chinn.