Skip to main content

Creating a Path for Sustainability in the Documentary World

By IDA Editorial Staff

Origami by Taro's Origami Studio; Photo by Susan Yin

By Michael Bracy and Cynthia Lopez

In a time when public funding and media are in jeopardy, distribution outlets are multiplying, reality programming is increasingly attracting audiences, technology is ever-evolving, and philanthropic institutions are reassessing how much and how they support the documentary genre, nonfiction filmmakers are facing a hostile environment in which to create their work—and maintain a livelihood. Despite these circumstances, documentarians are making films that are cinematically breathtaking, politically brave and powerful enough to impact public policy.

In the run-up to IDA’s 2016 Getting Real conference, a network of filmmakers, funders, academics and advocates collaborated to explore what this documentary community can do to assert agency over its future. And while the questions that arise are incredibly complicated and interconnected, we were encouraged by the active engagement of the entire documentary ecosystem to grapple with three essential questions:

  1. What are the challenges we face as a field?

  2. Where are the opportunities to better our chances to become a “sustainable” community?

  3. How can we develop and implement a universe of actionable activities that stand alone as having value, but taken together can lead to the transformational change?

Through Getting Real, one-on-one stakeholder conversations, and a major convening at the National Endowment for the Arts, IDA and other partners have been advancing these questions in pursuit of tangible strategies that move our community forward.

Engaging the Field

The first question the Getting Real working group tackled was how to create a framework to articulate the issues. We know the basics: filmmakers and producers feel under-resourced and uncertain about their future, which promotes anxiety about how to sustain a career. The group developed a series of panels, interviews and conversations that delved into what it looks like for the community to engage with three distinct sectors: industry, funders and government.

From the industry standpoint, we explored how the community can and should come to the table with both legacy and emerging distribution platforms to have honest conversations about revenue splits and access to user data and digital platforms. Funders need to understand the concerns about early access to capital, the need for collaborative infrastructure (insurance, legal resources, apprenticeship programs, research and analytics, etc.) and the pressure felt by many filmmakers to prioritize impact campaigns over the quality of the art. And we examined the role of the public sector—in terms of both funding (commissions; investing in professional development and distribution strategies) and policy (net neutrality; media ownership; intellectual property).

Building Momentum

In the months following Getting Real, IDA leadership, board members, staff, partners and consultants participated in a broad range of debriefing conversations and brainstorming sessions about transforming the energy of the conference into a series of actionable activities that could benefit the field. These conversations typically led to similar themes:

  1. Members of the documentary community typically feel overextended in terms of time, money and emotional capacity. Any commitments toward field-building and strategic planning have to be intentional, strategic and valuable to participants.

  2. There is a significant appetite to turn talk into action, with a particular appreciation for different perspectives, areas of expertise, networks and pieces of information that, when cobbled together, can be leveraged into tangible solutions and initiatives.

  3. We need to prioritize the "low(est) hanging fruit"— research projects, professional networks, advocacy campaigns and other strategies that have short-term return on investment and that create the potential for transformative change.

IDA and the NEA's Media Arts Bureau discussed the idea of bringing the flavor of the Getting Real conference to Washington, DC. We agreed to organize and facilitate a convening in February at NEA headquarters.

NEA Convening and Next Steps

The NEA event brought together filmmakers, producers, distributors, funders, advocates and other stakeholders, as well as leaders from the federal, state and local governments, including representatives from nine federal agencies. In a day of panels, case studies and workshops, conference participants considered perspectives from leaders in the documentary community, discussed the role of the public sector in supporting the field and took a close look at specific topics including workforce development, the growth of short-form documentaries, the evolving educational marketplace and the role of research and data in gaining a better understanding of the field.

These conversations over the past six months are leading to a series of preliminary findings and recommendations for the field. We are still in the formative stages of work that provide a sense of what we are hearing and a vision for how we can move forward.

Challenges and Opportunities

As in other disciplines, technology has fundamentally redefined every aspect of the documentary film community. This dynamic has created significant challenges for the business side of the ecosystem, particularly in the disruption of the traditional analog and physical product-based marketplace and the surge in documentaries being released each year.

The marketplace is evolving at a stunning rate; streaming technologies, smartphones and other advances are making global distribution possible in ways that were unthinkable two decades ago. At the same time, consumers are becoming aware of short- and long-form documentaries via subscription services, premium cable channels, social networks and other means.

Crowdfunding is creating new access to capital, and advocacy networks of all perspectives are seeing the value of investing in nonfiction film to help tell stories. The advancement of broadband into educational institutions has greatly increased the integration of documentary film into those milieus, while the explosion of cable channels has created a need for content. SVOD streaming services provide consumers with HD-quality presentation, offering windows into future decentralized business models and revenue opportunities.

Bridging Gaps in Communication

Documentary film can benefit from unique advances made by other media such as fiction film, narrative and reality television, print and broadcast journalism, the music industry, commercial and noncommercial radio and podcasting. The fact is, all of these disciplines are in the business of creating and distributing content to consumers. These disciplines have also been struggling with the disruptive role of technology and have been deeply immersed in efforts to redefine their respective business models. It is critical for the documentary community to explore how other communities have dealt with parallel issues and pursue opportunities to leverage their innovations.

The Public Sector and the Documentary Ecosystem

The federal government plays a critical role in ensuring that filmmakers have the ability to make their work, access distribution platforms, and engage in commercial transactions as they see fit. State and regional arts agencies lend technical assistance, expertise and resources to grow audiences for documentary films across the country. At the state and local levels, tax incentives and related strategies are effective tools to support local filmmakers and production companies in an environment where policymakers value the health of local creative economies. In certain communities, job training and apprenticeship programs help new workers transition into the field

Finally, government agencies play a pivotal role in supporting the work of documentary filmmakers through commissions, work-for-hire projects and federal and state grants. These agencies particularly value the importance of nonfiction film in telling the stories of challenges and opportunities facing the American public. The public sector is supporting these efforts by investing in screenings, outreach campaigns and educational partnerships. We need to preserve and grow these resources to maintain a healthy public funding environment.

Technology and the Economics of the Industry

Historic business models based on in-person screenings, licensing and sale/rental of physical products have rapidly evolved. It is critical for the community to be active in determining the future business models that dictate the future economics of the ecosystem.

To be fully engaged in these discussions the field needs to engage with questions that exemplify the complexity of the emerging ecosystem, including how capital flows to fund projects, the evolution of consumer electronic devices that allow content to be streamed, the integration of nonfiction film into K-12 and university education, future generations of platforms and services to deliver content to consumers, and the role of intellectual property and antitrust oversight in a digital marketplace.

Collaborative Networks

No one person has the answers, but many individuals have different pieces of information and perspectives that are critical to the future of the field. These include industry leaders who understand and value the artistry and impact of documentary film; technologists and business leaders who provide insight into future distribution models; marketers, promoters and distributors who understand how to reach audiences; economists and business leaders who understand revenue flows and capital investment; policymakers and advocates who can speak to the role of public policy; researchers who can address quantitative and qualitative questions about the field; and filmmakers themselves who can share their personal experiences and concerns.

Next Steps and Action Items

Moving forward, the field needs to explore what kinds of qualitative and quantitative research are necessary to increase our understanding both of today's ecosystem and the marketplace of the future; how to ensure information is transmitted to those stakeholders who require it; and how the government understands and lives up to their dual roles of policymaker and funder.

1. Strengthen the field via knowledge exchange, technical assistance, cross-sector collaboration and professional networks.

  • Further convenings are critical to continued cross-sector knowledge exchange and collaboration. • Creating spaces that allow for different industry segments to learn other perspectives will help advance the community as a whole, especially when paired with effective strategies to disseminate information and expertise. • State arts agencies and regional service organizations have particularly interesting roles to play as conveners and connectors.

2. Research, data and metrics are critical to the sustainability and success of the ecosystem.

  • It is important for the field to both document best practices through case studies and explore ways of quantifying the industry.

  • Of particular importance is mapping how capital flows from investors to filmmakers and how revenue is then generated through distribution and licensing.

  • It is difficult to see the capital gap being addressed in a real way without a greater understanding of the industry's economics both today and in the future.

  • A research advisory group made up of academics, researchers and industry leaders would have tremendous value by recommending research topics that would benefit the field, exploring how new and existing research could be shared with key stakeholders and bridging to other arts communities to examine how they are responding to critical questions in their fields.

3. The public sector should accelerate its role as funder, convener and strategist, while also analyzing the impact of various policies on the sector.

  • At the federal level, the NEA plays a vital role as a funder, researcher and connector.

  • America requires a strong and thriving public media ecosystem, both today and as we move toward a digital future.

  • The public sector also has a responsibility to enforce a fair marketplace, ensuring that artists and entrepreneurs have the ability to create the work they want to create and make it available to consumers in a way that limits unfair business practices.

  • At the local level, many governments are deeply interested in the creative economy sector, exploring strategies, investment and incentives to attract and keep creative workers in their communities.

  • State arts agencies are eager to connect their communities with great art, while also strengthening professional networks via research and convenings.


If you want to help create a sustainable path for documentary filmmakers, and if you want to be kept abreast of these developments or directly engage in opportunities for convenings, research projects, advocacy efforts or other activities, please contact


Michael Bracy is an advocate, strategist and connector based in Washington, DC. His Policy in Focus initiative connects documentary filmmakers with policymakers and advocates in the nation's capital.

Cynthia Lopez is a media strategist, executive producer, content advisor, and creative consultant. She is the Former Commissioner of NYC Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment. She is an avid public interest advocate. Twitter: @docuqueen