Transformative new policy programme unveiled for UK documentary film sector

Issue date: 02 February 2021


A new report has called for a radical overhaul of the UK documentary film industry and set out detailed plans to reverse its funding crisis, address structural inequality and re-balance the relationship between production, distribution and exhibition.

Making it Real: A Policy Programme for UK Documentary Film was published today by researchers at UWE Bristol as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded UK Feature Docs project. Based on consultation with over 100 industry stakeholders, the programme represents a landmark moment for the UK documentary sector which has grown significantly in recent years but suffered from a lack of support from film and television policymakers alike.

Making it Real follows the project’s previous report, Keeping it Real: Towards a Documentary Film Policy for the UK, published last summer. Based on a survey of 200 leading UK nonfiction producers and directors, Keeping it Real outlined a chronic lack of funding, support and coordination at the heart of the UK’s feature documentary film sector. This new report represents the sector’s response to those original findings in the light of global events including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. It ultimately comprises a new industrial strategy for documentary based on inclusivity, sustainability and the creation of optimum conditions for success at home and internationally.

At the core of the programme is a set of proposals for a new organisational structure for the sector. This consists of a Documentary Film Council comprised of representatives from across the industry, from producers and directors to funders, agencies, distributors and exhibitors. Such a structure, the report argues, is an essential part of the wider project to build a sustainable, inclusive and coordinated documentary industry in which production is properly harnessed to distribution and exhibition.

Addressing the chronic lack of funding in the sector is also crucial and the report proposes a range of measures designed to boost funding across the industry and address the structural issues that make the sector such an inhospitable environment in which to work. These measures range from major interventions, such as a Documentary Tax Relief and a 2% levy on subscription video on demand (SVOD) turnover, to more incremental changes such as increasing the proportion of British Film Institute (BFI) funds ring-fenced for documentary, ring-fencing funds for documentary in the new Global Screen Fund, standardising application processes and making funding decisions more transparent. 

Dr Steve Presence, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at UWE Bristol and Principal Investigator on the UK Feature Docs project, said: ‘‘This policy programme is a major collective effort based on extraordinary levels of enthusiasm and commitment on the part of stakeholders across the industry. Conditions in UK documentary have declined significantly in recent years despite the world-class films and talent in the sector. With the pandemic, Brexit, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, I think the timing was right for this kind of intervention and to rethink things at a fundamental, structural level. People were hungry for change and so when we started asking questions about nonfiction policy innovation, the response was overwhelming. It’s been a privilege to draw on so much expertise and lived experience, and to develop a comprehensive and ambitious but feasible policy programme on the basis of that. Initial responses to the recommendations have been very encouraging, and while the programme is specific to documentary film, word is that much of it – not least this model of policy innovation itself – will also be of use to other creative industry sectors”.

The policy programme consists of seven overlapping areas: diversity, equity and inclusion; sector development; training, education and research; funding and production; broadcast; exhibition and distribution and screen heritage. The next stage is the much longer process of implementing the recommendations. To assist with this process, the UWE Bristol team are applying for further funding from the AHRC to seed fund the new organisational structure of the sector and ensure those involved in implementing the proposals in the industry are properly remunerated for their work.

Christo Hird from Documentary Producers UK said: “We really welcome the publication of Making It Real. Last year's report Keeping It Real provided an essential review of the state of the independent documentary sector in the UK. Making It Real is the next step in establishing appropriate and practical policy priorities to create a sustainable sector, which already makes a major contribution to the cultural and economic life of the UK. Making It Real provides the agenda for future discussions across the whole of the feature documentary sector."

Sandra Whipham from Doc Society added: “It’s so exciting to read such a detailed and comprehensive set of policy proposals for the UK feature doc sector. We have known for years that there are unique challenges to this work but now we have this great roadmap that points to some ways forward. Doc Society prides itself on being “the friend of the filmmaker” and recognises that, as the largest funder of UK feature documentary, we have a unique role to play in creating a more equitable and better funded landscape for all. We can’t wait to get started on making these proposals a reality and look forward to continuing the great conversations already started with the doc community, the BFI and other sector organisations. Kudos to UWE’s UK Feature Docs team for bringing this together and big thanks to all the filmmakers who contributed their experiences.”

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