Announcing the fifth edition of The Whickers’ Cost of Docs Survey, which looks specifically at the changing landscape for documentary makers in the UK and internationally.
One of the most important moments of the Whicker year has arrived. “Supporting documentary” Internationally is not just an easy phrase for us, but the result of months of research and analysis, as we aim to shed light on what it really costs to create a documentary. The fact that this is now the fifth annual survey means that we are building up an increasingly valuable record of the shifting trends and emerging stresses in today’s market. It is not all bad news by any means. There are encouraging signals of hope and yet some of these statistics still shock.
We are very open to your feedback and send out an enormous ‘thank you’ to everyone who took time out from their busy, and at times, precarious lives to answer all our questions with honesty and thoughtfulness.
We also thank to our partner Sheffield DocFest, for helping us to formulate questions and support the distribution.
See below for our key findings and conclusion.
- The survey was completed anonymously by 169 self-selecting documentary makers
- those who have worked less than ten years in the industry (62%)
- 59% aged between 25 and 44
- 36% White: British/Irish, 29% BAME and 12% White: Other
- 83% 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 (56% cf 41%, with 1% gender non-conforming)
- 49% of respondents based outside of the UK from a range of countries including Kenya, Afghanistan, Sweden, Ghana, Australia, South Africa and India.
Here is a summary of the key findings. It is worth bearing in mind that respondents completed this survey before the war in Ukraine and subsequent fuel crisis.
- The cost of documentary making continues to rise. Prices have risen across all 18 categories. Travel is the cost increase cited by most respondents (65%) with production crew (61%) and post-production costs (53%) coming 2nd and 3rd. This ongoing escalation of costs is the main reason for The Whickers to increase their top funding award from £80K to £100K.
- Increased production costs have inevitably led to corner cutting. The three most common ways of making ends meet have been to multi-task, reduce crew payments and the filmmaker’s own wage. 48% have used these methods, with 16% saying they have cut down on the number of shooting days.
- However, far fewer are willing to sacrifice on editing costs. Only 3% have dared cut editing days and more than 60% of filmmakers now hire in a craft editor. A few years ago, this figure stood at 39%.
“I couldn’t afford the rent during filming at one point, so was sleeping on friends’ sofas.”
- The net outcome is that less than a fifth of respondents (18%) perceive that they have been paid fairly for the time and effort they have poured into their documentary making. One said “I couldn’t afford the rent during filming at one point, so was sleeping on friends’ sofas.”
- This is not because respondents are valuing their time at a higher daily rate. The opposite appears to be true: in 2016, 26% of respondents felt that their contribution was worth a fee in excess of £60k, now that figure stands at 2%.
“It’s as much about building a network as it is about the pitch. You can’t do that virtually.”
- Brexit appears to be having more of a long-term impact on documentary making than predicted by the previous survey. The opposite appears to be true of COVID-19.
- Figures for those finding the fallout from Brexit an increasing issue are rising even for respondents outside the UK where it has doubled from 12% to 24%.
- Meanwhile those who say COVID-19 “threatens my future as a documentary maker” has considerably dropped since 2020 (26%, down from 45%).
“Online festivals are the end of any hope of distribution and income from films.”
- Respondents seem to have fallen out of love with online pitching. This represented a popular option at the start of the pandemic, with 57% then saying they would recommend this as their preferred option. That figure has now plummeted to 13%.
- Despite the increase in the costs of pitching, documentary makers say they prefer to meet others and attempt to sell their proposals face-to-face. One explained: “It’s as much about building a network as it is about the pitch. You can’t do that virtually.”
- A quarter recommend a hybrid solution, but one respondent said: “Online festivals are the end of any hope of distribution and income from films.”
“There’s a massive gap between the access to funding between developing countries and the West.”
- There are high levels of frustration with the documentary funding application process. 2022 has seen a surge in the number of failed applications. 31% of all respondents who have applied for funding have received none whatsoever, a rise of 8%. Some see a geographical bias with one saying “There’s a massive gap between the access to funding between developing countries and the West.”
- Despite inflationary pressures and increased costs, the most common amount of funding received is below £10k and the least common is above £100k.
- Documentary makers appear to be moving away from academic training. Fewer than ever are taking related degrees in documentary (an 11% drop) whilst marginally higher numbers this year are describing themselves as ‘self-taught’, ‘learning on the job’ or picking up skills via ‘short courses’.
“There needs to be a move towards alternate forms of distribution.”
- Bucking the trend of the previous 3 years, shooting footage on smartphones has not progressed. After 3 years of growth there has been a 6% drop.
- The use of high-end cinema cameras has also seen a sharp decline in use. After a rise in popularity there has been a 10% drop, with mid-range cameras retaining their popularity.
- Drone use has risen threefold since the previous survey. Then it was 11%, now drones are being utilised by near a third of respondents.
“It’s the greatest job in the world.”
- The ultimate goal for any documentary is to find its audience. This year has seen a boost in the number of respondents whose documentaries have found an audience on VOD platforms, in cinemas and at festivals. Now only 39% say their documentary is ‘not available to a paying audience’. Just a couple of years ago this figure stood at 63%.
- Despite the welcome upsurge in the number of documentaries that are being shown at film festivals, there is little evidence to suggest these festival appearances subsequently generate sales or lead to distribution deals. This is a point frequently highlighted in verbatim comments, with one respondent adding that “there needs to be a move towards alternate forms of distribution”.
- Despite all the pressure and sacrifice, not one of our respondents is saying that they will completely abandon documentary making this year, with one still able to say “It’s the greatest job in the world”.
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 as precarious and underfunded as ever. Charitable funders are stepping up more, but also making increasing demands in terms of rights and returns on investment. It has also become clear that a two-tier system of documentary making is emerging. On the one hand, there are the chosen few in whom eye-watering amounts of money are invested, with a view to Oscar and Box Office success. On the other hand, are the rest. Important stories that will always struggle to find a voice.
Despite all of this, The Whickers are humbled by the resilience and perseverance of the respondents to this survey, and will give the last word to one of them:
“Every documentary and story has its challenges. What’s important is to find routes out of difficulties that arise – I find this my most useful skill.”
This report was written and designed by Emily Copley and Jane Ray, with additional research by Curtis Gallant.