UWE Bristol researchers publish findings on state of the UK feature documentary sector

Issue date: 11 June 2020


A new report published by researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has revealed a chronic lack of funding, support and coordination at the heart of the UK’s feature documentary film sector. Based on a survey of 200 of the UK’s leading feature doc producers and directors, the report – Keeping it Real: Towards A Documentary Film Policy for the UK – argues that the sector will require urgent policy intervention when the creative industries are rebuilt in the wake of the coronavirus. 

The popularity of feature-length documentaries – premium nonfiction films that are released in cinemas and online – has grown exponentially in the last 20 years, with box-office successes from Farenheit 9/11 (2004) and Touching the Void (2003) to Amy (2015), Free Solo (2018) and They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), helping the form to go mainstream. Despite this, the report shows that policies, support and funding opportunities have failed to keep up with rapidly expanding consumer demand.

The researchers claim this is partly a result of the feature docs sector slipping through the cracks in film and television policy alike. Film funds ring-fenced for documentary are among the lowest in Europe, and BBC’s Storyville – the last remaining platform for feature docs on UK television – is significantly under-resourced despite its international reputation. As a result, the report shows that large swathes of the UK feature docs sector are rapidly becoming unsustainable, with many filmmakers already reporting an inability to sustain their careers. 

The survey was conducted with support from Doc Society and launched at the international documentary film festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest, in June last year. As well as evidencing the dire state of the UK feature documentary sector, the report also proposes a range of policy interventions that are designed to kickstart conversations around the need for a bespoke documentary film policy.

Discussing the report’s significance in a post Covid-19 world the project’s lead researcher, Dr Steve Presence, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at UWE Bristol, said: ‘‘This is the largest survey of UK feature doc directors and producers ever conducted and it was done in the nick of time. The evidence base it provides demonstrates just how under-served the feature documentary sector was before the pandemic. It’s not a question of pleading a special case, but of recognising that the situation for many documentary filmmakers has been absolutely desperate for years in the UK.

‘‘Beyond the few filmmakers making more commercial films that are fully financed from Netflix or US broadcasters, the vast majority of UK documentary filmmakers are struggling to survive. Smaller, risk-taking films, such as Evelyn (2018), Seahorse (2019), For Sama (2019) and Shooting the Mafia (2019), also play a critical role in terms of shaping the national conversation and informing British cultural identity. If we’re not careful, in the aftermath of Covid-19 we might lose this vital element of UK film culture altogether.’’

The report will be launched at a special online event on 25 June as part of Doc/Fest’s activities this year. This marks the beginning of a consultation period during which the research team will solicit feedback from stakeholders on the report’s findings and recommendations. Following the consultation period, a set of sector-endorsed recommendations will be submitted to policymakers including the British Film Institute and DCMS.

The report is part of wider research project on the evolution of the feature doc film sector in the UK. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project is the first major examination of the UK’s feature docs industry, exploring how the sector has developed into a distinct part of the wider film and television industries over the past twenty years, and what challenges those who work in the sector face today.

Chronic under-funding is just one part of the problem, says Dr Presence, who is keen to also highlight related problems with sector coordination, regional provision, an almost total lack of socio-economic diversity and the low cultural status of documentary in the UK. Dr Presence added: ‘‘Documentary is poorly recognised as a cultural form in the UK which is why it receives so much less support than fiction filmmaking. This in turn means that it is often only people from middle-class backgrounds who are able to survive long enough to make a career out of it. This of course intersects with inequalities in terms of gender and ethnic representation and ultimately has very serious cultural consequences in terms of what stories get told and from whose perspective.’’

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