‘Cost of Docs’ 100 Survey: Trends and challenges facing documentarians in today’s market

The findings of our 2017 ‘Cost of Docs’ 100 survey, created in partnership with the European Documentary Network and Open City Documentary Festival, are released in full today.

In addition to giving out funding and recognition awards, Whicker’s World Foundation seeks to be a champion for documentary makers and amplify their voice in the industry. We wanted to ensure that our main funding award of £80,000 is still the game-changing amount we would like it to be. We therefore asked 100 self-selecting documentary makers to take part in our 2017 ‘Cost of Docs’ survey. The full findings of the survey are published here. If you would like the report in PDF format, please email us at info@whickersworldfoundation.com.

We are happy for you to quote this survey, provided that Whicker’s World Foundation is credited.

We’d like to thank everyone who took part in the survey. In a climate where funding for documentaries is often scarce and in decline, these findings provide insight into the financial challenges faced by documentary filmmakers. The lack of funding, particularly for emerging documentary filmmakers, means that many in the field work primarily for the passion or experience. We look forward to seeing how much of an impact our awards will continue to have on emerging talent.

Key Findings

  • Of the respondents, 96% had made a documentary in the last two years, with 67% having been the director.
  • Unlike last year, when TV was a far more common outlet than Film, this year they were virtually tied at 42% and 44% respectively.
  • 41% of documentarians are supporting themselves by living off savings.
  • Only 14% of documentary makers were properly paid for their time.
  • The most common amount of money which documentary makers applied for was between £20,000 and £50,000.
  • Roughly half of applicants were unsuccessful in their funding application and others received less than they had applied for.
  • The most common financial consideration for documentary makers is still travel, cited by 70%, whilst the number citing equipment hire has dropped significantly (from 72% to 33%).
  • Of 18 categories where we asked whether costs had risen or fallen, more respondents said that they had risen in 16 categories.
  • In terms of cameras used, the DSLR (46%) has overtaken the HD Camcorder (42%) as the most popular choice. Meanwhile, use of Action Cameras has dropped from 18% to 4%.
  • When asked about audio equipment, Zoom was the most popular choice (36%).
  • A majority of those surveyed (57%) record in stereo, with multi-channel being the choice of 29%.
  • Protools is the most popular choice of editing software at 30%, with Adobe Audition not far behind (22%).
  • The expenses which had risen the most, according to our respondents, were travel and post-production. The most frequently cited expense being cut back was staff costs.

We invited respondents to share their insights about the costs of documentary-making and how it has changed in the last decade. In general, most commenters felt that costs had risen, with one writing that “everything is getting more expensive”. However, some feel that documentary-making has become less expensive in some ways, including “cheaper equipment” and that costs are “going down as technology simplifies most tasks”. Some noted that “wages are not going up” and people are “working for free” more often. One respondent also said that there was “uncertainty” due to Brexit: how leaving the European Union will affect documentary making is not yet known.

There is also a sense from many comments that documentaries are becoming more of a solo endeavour – with the simplification of technology, one can now be a “one-man band”. The documentary-maker now has “more hats to wear”, but can “cut out the middle man”. Another respondent sums it up by saying that, whilst it has “gotten theoretically cheaper” to make documentaries, they are now treated as more “disposable” and people are less likely to give “something a chance” if it does not have a big name attached.

Jane Ray, Artistic Director of Whicker’s World Foundation said: “For the second year in a row, we’ve found that almost 9 out of 10 independent documentary makers are working for love, not for a living. Whilst such altruistic passion and persistence is admirable I’m worried that, without meaningful funding, we risk losing a craft that is essential to an engaged free society. Thanks to all the respondents to the ‘Cost of Docs’ 100 survey, we have an important reality check on the industry. It shows how significant Alan Whicker’s legacy is in creating a Foundation that help provides essential support to new documentary makers and keeps this genre alive”.

Submissions for the Whicker’s World Foundation awards are now open and will close on January 31st 2018. More than £100,000 is available across three awards, with funding and recognition prizes for audio. Applications may be made via the website here.