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21 July 2023

Why the “golden age of the documentary” is a myth

More are being released than ever before – but the documentary has entered its corporate era.

By Daniel Dylan Wray

“The ‘golden age of documentary’… looks a lot like the golden age of true crime and celeb vehicles,” the Emmy-nominated director Jeanie Finlay wrote recently in a post on Twitter. “The spaces that are hospitable to observational, unfurling documentaries are becoming rarer than hen’s teeth.” 

Just weeks earlier Finlay had received a rapturous standing ovation after screening her latest documentary, Your Fat Friend. The film, about the anonymous fatness blogger turned best-selling author and podcaster Aubrey Gordon, connected so much with viewers that it won the Audience Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the biggest documentary festivals in the world. 

That film was six years in the making – and Finlay has seen the industry suffer serious changes in that time. “When I start a film, I like that I don’t know what the ending is,” she said. “I wanted to make a film about fatness and found a person who was completely unknown but I knew was special.” Her film was funded by the organisations Field of Vision and Doc Society – thanks to their financial support, Finlay was “able to take a risk and follow it as an unfolding story”. But since then, she said, “there’s been a decimation of funding and filmmakers in the UK are at a crossroads.” 

Because budget cuts, closures, funding options drying up, and co-productions with European partners made more difficult post-Brexit – along with a culture shift brought about by the streaming boom – independent filmmakers have been left struggling over the past few years.

Paul Sng’s most recent documentary, Tish, about the late photographer Tish Murtha, opened Doc/Fest in a 2,000-capacity venue. But even he is finding the current landscape challenging. “To follow any story in real time about someone who doesn’t already have a following or an audience is really hard,” he said. “And it will become more difficult because those films just won’t be made as often. I’m not interested in making true crime and the titillating thing of making drama out of trauma.” An obsession with true-crime stories saw Google searches for “Netflix serial killers” spike 45 per cent in 2022.

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Aren’t we supposed to be in a boom period for documentaries? According to Parrot Analytics, the number of original streaming documentaries increased 77 per cent between January 2019 and July 2022. “This isn’t the golden age, it’s the corporate age,” said Finlay. “What we’re experiencing now is years of documentaries becoming products, with celebrities as brands to bring audiences in, whereas before you had very strong people at the helm of various funds that really believed in documentaries as an art form whether it was commercial or not.”  

“People just aren’t taking risks now,” said the Bafta-nominated documentary producer Kat Mansoor. “Sometimes you come across a story that is beautiful, difficult and nuanced and you know it’s not going to get made. The field of vision for funders is very narrow at the moment.”

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[See also: The rise of reality star documentaries]

If people like true crime and celeb docs, is it not just giving audiences what they want? “There’s nothing wrong with people liking them or funding them,” said Charlie Phillips, a producer and previous head of documentaries at the Guardian. “But the level of power the streamers have to dictate the market has trickled down everywhere. It feels so dominant that you have to have a famous name involved. It’s a very hard time if you’re making any kind of creative, observational, character-led documentary.”

“We’re missing the opportunity to be surprised,” said Finlay. “We’re losing the chance to tell small or shy stories. I’ve learned as a filmmaker that sometimes shy people tell the best stories because the camera is an act of amplification. It’s a loud-hailer. Someone doesn’t have to shout loudly to garner a lot of attention on screen. That’s why it’s frustrating that you need a celebrity partner.”

The grip of celebrity culture on documentaries is also affecting how stories are told, Mansoor argues. Accusations of PR operations masquerading as documentaries have been thrown at big-money films documenting the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elton John, Selena Gomez and several others. “I’ve just walked out of a film with a well-known person because they wanted complete control,” she said. “I don’t make films like that because there’s not enough editorial integrity and I’m fed up with people buying their way in and out of things.

“The public-service broadcasters are in a really bad way [financially]. And when they do make a doc it’s often trying to mimic what they see on Netflix, so it’s become a bit of a dystopian cycle of hell for a lot of producers.” 

At the BBC‘s Storyville, the lead commissioning editor Emma Hindley aims to air documentaries with “broad range and brilliant storytelling”. But “our continual issue is money”, she said. “We have a tiny amount. Our entire annual budget is probably what a three-part Netflix series would cost.”

Because they are operating in cash-strapped, risk-averse times, funders and broadcasters often require close to a full rough-cut of a film before getting on board. “To get a rough cut costs a lot of money,” said Sng, who racked up £25,000 of credit card debt to personally finance some of his early projects. “I only paid it off recently – it’s a massive risk to take.”

Who can afford to take that risk? “It’s a slog for people who haven’t got infrastructural support, cultural or economic capital at their fingertips,” said Mansoor. “I’m a daughter of a working-class immigrant and I had to work my butt off, but back then there were more opportunities.”

“The level of talent and ideas in this country is still so good,” said Phillips. “But what’s maybe dying is the ability to sustain a career making documentaries unless you already have money.” And Sng adds: “Let’s not forget the intersectionality of that. If you’re a person of colour from a low socio-economic background, the difficulties you face will be massive. This can lead to a very monocultured range of films.”

“I want the storytellers of this country to reflect the diversity of this country,” said Finlay, who is about to start making her tenth feature documentary. “The lack of money makes people scared of taking chances, but the first film I made, for the BBC, was because a commissioner took a chance on me as a six-month-pregnant woman who’d never made a film before.”

“I wouldn’t sound the death knell yet,” she said. “There’s always going to be people making great work and tenacity to find a way to tell stories. But right now it’s important to ask: who’s getting to tell the stories of our time?”

[See also: How the tabloids outed George Michael]

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