The profile of feature documentaries is higher than ever. But with public funding drying up and broadcasters under commercial pressure, financing them has never been so challenging

It’s been a good week for documentaries, with BAFTA announcing that it is to introduce a new documentary category to its awards line-up, motor racing doc Senna breaking the million pound mark at the UK box office in its second week and Sheffield Doc/Fest attracting a record number of delegates to its 18th edition.

But while documentaries are capturing the imagination of the public and gaining recognition from the industry like never before, finding the funding for them is becoming increasingly challenging, with broadcasters feeling the force of commercial pressures and public funding drying up. Or is it just the case, as one producer told Screen, that there are “too many people making too many docs”?

“In some ways, things are harder than ever,” says Emily James, the director of Just Do It, a documentary about a group of campaigners, which had its world premiere at Doc/Fest last week.  

“The amount of funding for single one-off docs from traditional sources is smaller than it has ever been, because the broadcasters don’t seem to believe that audiences come to single films anymore. Formats or series have taken over all of the spaces that used to be called documentary,” adds James, who relied on crowd funding (through which she raised £18,000 of her £80,000 budget) and foundations including Cinereach and the Bertha Foundation to fund her film, which she is also self-distributing theatrically in a number of UK cinemas from July 15.

With less money around and less slots on terrestrial television for documentaries, commissioners are also less willing to take risks says Mike Lerner, who produced Danfung Dennis’ war doc Hell And Back Again which screened in Sheffield and is also showing in Edinburgh. “People won’t invest in things that aren’t a certainty. They want to know what’s going to happen and obviously part of the beauty of documentaries is that you don’t know. It’s very hard to get a feature doc commissioned from a piece of paper.”

So it was no surprise to find that the focus at last week’s Doc/Fest was on exploring alternative sources of financing – from crowd funding to foundation grants to corporate money.

For the first time this year the festival hosted a whole day dedicated to crowd funding, with panellists including Yancey Strickler from Kick Starter and Adam Chapnick from Indie Go Go, two online companies dedicated to crowd funding.

“This was the year that crowd funding came of age in the UK,” says Jeanie Finlay, director of Sound It Out, about the last surviving vinyl record shop in the North East of England, which screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 24 following its Sheffield premiere. She raised part of her budget via crowd funding site Indie Go Go, the money from which was then matched by Northern Film And Media and Skillset.

“The most important benefit of crowd funding is that you connect with an audience before you’ve even finished making the film, but it is not a model that works for every film,” adds Finlay, who is about to start work on her next project The Great Hip Hop Hoax, which has been more traditionally funded through EM Media and BBC Scotland.

One source of funding which seems to be on the rise is grant funding from foundations such as UK organisation BRITDOC (which partnered with sport company Puma to launch a series of doc initiatives last year) and the Tribeca Film Institute, which introduced two new film funds in 2010  sponsored by Gucci and Heineken. Newer foundations such as Cinereach and Chicken and Egg are also starting to make an impact.

But with each organisation only able to put up a small proportion of the budget, one problem can be that they tend to cluster around the same projects to the exclusion of others.

“There is a bit of a follow-the-leader effect because we are all watching what the others are funding,” acknowledged Ryan Harrington from the Tribeca Film Institute who was speaking on a panel in Sheffield.

“But what it says is that we are all acknowledging there is something really exciting and, once it’s out there, we want to see that it gets made, so we work together to try and make it happen,” added Harrington.

Organisations such as Impact Partners, which part-funded Hell And Back Again, are also providing film-makers with an alternative source of funding in the form of private equity, but only if their films have a “social cause”, a growing bug bear amongst many in the documentary world, who feel that, in particular, documentaries about the arts are being neglected.

“The landscape has become a bit depressed and it’s a disservice to the field when so many sub genres of documentaries are not getting made,” said Harrington, who, for that very reason, created a Tribeca fund specifically for story-driven, “non issue” films.

Meanwhile Jess Search, who runs the BRITDOC Foundation in the UK, thinks film-makers need to show more initiative when it comes to finding new funding options. “I think a lot of people who work in social issue docs have just been more motivated to find new sources of funding and new models and it should be an inspiration for those working in other kinds of documentaries.”

It might be a while before we see a Doc/Fest programme dominated by light-hearted arts driven docs, but the tide has definitely turned, as legendary documentary film-maker Albert Maysles summed up when he collected his lifetime achievement award at the festival: “I want to make good films about good people. Enough of this war stuff.”