Results of our 2020 Cost of Docs Survey

Revealing the fourth edition of The Whickers Cost of Docs Survey, which looks specifically at the changing landscape for documentary makers in the UK and internationally.

In addition to our work in funding and supporting emerging talent around the world, we seek to be a champion for documentary makers and to amplify their voices in the industry as a whole. The initial aim, back in 2016, was to ensure that our main funding award of £80,000 was still the game-changing amount that we wanted it to be. Since then, we have added new questions on the impact of Brexit, COVID-19 and the future of virtual pitches. Our aim is to evaluate and confront the current challenges faced by filmmakers in these uncertain times.

Carried out between March and April 2020, in association with Sheffield Doc/Fest, this year’s survey is our most comprehensive yet. It offers a timely insight into the lived reality of documentary filmmaking internationally and reveals, not only the challenges facing our specialist sector, but the passion and resilience of our filmmakers against the odds.


Download the 2020 Cost of Docs Report


Who responded:

  • The survey was completed anonymously by 146 self-selecting documentary makers
  • those who have worked less than ten years in the industry (80%)
  • 73% aged between 25 and 44
  • 38% White: British/Irish, 20% BAME and 15% White: Other
  • 89% of whom are either currently working on a documentary or have worked on one in the last two years
  • almost a third more women than men (57% cf 42%, with 1% gender non-conforming)
  • 56% of respondents based outside of the UK from a range of countries including Lebanon, Russia, Rwanda, Colombia, UAE, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Key findings:

  • 45% of those surveyed say that COVID-19 had already had a massive negative impact on their ability to work and threatens their future as a documentary maker.
  • Only 16% of documentary makers believe that they receive a fair wage for the time and effort they put into documentary production.
  • Less than a quarter of documentary makers (21%) are able to pay themselves a wage for their work.
  • More than half of respondents say that they finance their documentaries by freelancing on other projects. This is up year on year from 39% to 56% .
  • There has been a corresponding five fold increase in the number of documentary makers who say it now takes them more than 5 years to complete their films.


“There is still a lack of authentic diversity and equal opportunity even after years of equal opportunity monitoring.”


  • Costs are rising and this year only 18% say that they are making their documentary for less than £10,000. Last year that figure was 31% .
  • More documentary makers are multi-skilling than in any previous year, with directors more likely to be their own cinematographers, producers or editors.
  • There has been a big rise in the number of funders who expect full or partial rights ownership of the film in return, up from 1% to 15%.
  • There has been a dramatic rise in the number of respondents applying for large amounts of funding, with nearly a third applying for grants or loans of between £50,000 and £100,000. The number last year was just 1 in 10.
  • 94% of documentary makers now apply to funds, institutions and foundations for financial assistance. Three quarters are successful to some degree.


“I have had to carry out multiple small filming jobs at weekends to get by, even though my film is fully financed by broadcasters.”


  • There has been a 14% rise in films designed for the big screen, for theatrical release or for the international festival circuit.
  •  The average number of days to complete one funding application has risen year on year from 8 to 14 days.
  • More than a third of documentary production has ‘hobby’ status in that 38% of costs are paid by the maker, 27% by the production company and 21% by a commissioner.
  • Nearly a fifth of co-production deals don’t work out.
  • There has been a 5% drop in documentaries being made for online streaming services but a rise in documentaries being made for film or TV (14% and 11% respectively).


“Due to COVID-19 I may find that I have to retrain and go into a different career altogether.”


  • The BBC is still the biggest broadcaster of the documentaries from our 2020 respondents. They are transmitting, for example, twice as many as its nearest rival, the British public service channel, Channel 4. The french public service cultural channel, ARTE transmit a third more of respondents’ documentaries than Netflix.
  • Since 2019 there has been an 18% increase in the number of documentaries that find a paying audience, with a 25% increase in the number respondents whose documentaries have been shown at film festivals.
  • Brexit has proved to be an issue not solely for the British documentary maker. Although the majority say they have seen little difference so far, a surprising 12% of non-UK residents say that it has already made a much bigger difference to their careers than they had anticipated.
  • The most commonly cited challenges were over rates of pay and feedback, lack of diversity and the toxic presence of exploitative practices around internships and corner cutting.
  • The main three suggestions on how the industry could best be improved included an increase in access to funding, greater diversity behind and in front of the camera and more support for distribution and exhibition.



We at the Whickers believe that documentary is essential for an engaged, free society. It brings empathy and understanding to a global audience in a way that news coverage alone cannot.

As such, this Cinderella industry must not be allowed to become a hobby for the idle rich, or those backed by investors with a self serving ‘truth’ to promote. This year’s survey shows that the existence of documentary is still precarious and underfunded with less than a quarter or documentarians able to pay themselves a wage for their work. We can see a massive shift towards institutions and charities like ours being sourced for funding but also a stealthy rise in the ownership expectations of such ‘angels of mercy’. Meanwhile there are signs of a ‘new realism’ with more respondents recognising that they will not make a living from passion and dedication alone.

As one respondent says, everyone needs a “side hustle” to survive and that the tougher the challenge, the more sweet the reward. We will continue to track this pain and these rewards and, from the cosy warmth of the Whicker ‘home office’, we salute those engaged in the endeavour.


Download the 2018/2019 Cost of Docs Report


This report was written and designed by Emily Copley and Jane Ray.