April 30, 2022

Shaping Change in the Documentary "Golden Age": CPH:CONFERENCE 2022

AC Coppens, wearing a Black suit, speaks to the audience at the 2022 CPH: Conference while standing in front of a digital screen. Courtesy of CPH: Conference.

Unfolding over three informative afternoons at the 2022 hybrid CPH:DOX (March 23-April 3), CPH:CONFERENCE’s “Business as Unusual” was the catchily titled. The Catalysts-curated program, moderated by friend-of-the-fest AC Coppens—who also founded the aforementioned consultancy “for innovative and creative players working at the crossing of Digital Tech and Film/XR, Music/Sound, Design & Culture, to turn conferences into sites of knowledge exchange and co-creation”. “Follow the Money!” was the equally catchy theme of the day that featured longtime change-maker Derren Lawford, founder and CEO of DARE Pictures, a “transnational content studio dedicated to premium programming with purpose.” (DARE, Lawford was quick to explain, stands for “Diversity, Allyship, Representation and Empowerment”; the acronym could likewise apply to the veteran producer’s fearless approach to the industry.) 

Lawford, who also works with Sheffield Doc/Fest, David Lyle Foundation, the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund and the Documentary Campus Masterschool programme, began his brisk talk with a surprising admission: This was the Brit's first time attending the nearly two-decade-old festival. In fact, he was surprised to have even been invited to address the audience in Copenhagen on “Seismic Change, Systemic Change: How to Shape the Future of Funding.” Lawford also admitted that “disruption” is something he’d always done—without ever realizing he’d been doing it.

Indeed, as a creator who began his career bypassing usual pitch meetings—going directly to distributors instead—Lawford was an early proponent of strategizing outside the box, at least in the UK and Europe. We here in the US have long seen “disruption” as just the necessary cost of doing business. He was anxious to focus less on where “the money is at" to where it “should flow to—a prerequisite for diversity. He then noted a “diversity deficit” on screen, which results in a staggering loss of billions for Hollywood (according to several academic studies). Quoting Naomi Campbell in a recent Vogue interview, Lawford pointed out that diversity is “not here for a trend.” 

However, he noted, the idea of “diversity” should also not be limited to BIPOC, mentioning that disability, too, is underrepresented on screen because those in power likewise are rarely disabled. Lawford then cited a shameful statistic—the top three subjects of documentaries centering on Black characters and experiences are, in descending order, “race/racism, crime, and music.” In other words, our notions of “representation” are neither “varied nor nuanced,” which needs to change if we are serious about enacting systemic change. 

Lawford then went on to address the co-production treaty between the UK and Jamaica, which, unfortunately, has yet to bear fruit. He also lamented “institutional amnesia”—the sad fact that so many “diversity schemes” have been tried in the past, that no one seems to remember exactly what works and what doesn’t. 

Thankfully, he had a wide range of suggestions, garnered from several close colleagues, to offer. For example, he asked, if a big company gets a sizable commission, why shouldn’t it be required to partner with a smaller company? Without swallowing the vision of the less powerful entity, of course. And instead of bilateral co-productions, perhaps the top ten co-producing nations in the world should just contribute to a transnational fund for, say, the African diaspora. And why can’t the top ten media companies in the world simply commit to “making all future investments in diverse-led companies impact investments,” for that matter?

Having provided an abundance of food for thought, Lawford closed with a much more provocative question: “What are you doing to ensure that everyone is winning in their own way? Because there is enough room in the sky for all of us to fly.”

  • Mandy Chang is a woman of Asian descent. She is standing at a podium with a screen behind her. It reads “Towards a Real Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking.” Courtesy of CPH: Conference.

Mandy Chang is someone who’s been diligently answering that question with constructive action for the past 20 years. And fortunately for us, viewers who tuned in to “Towards a Real Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking” (part of the “Shaping Success” program), the Global Head of Documentaries for Fremantle in the UK, imparted real-world advice for shaking up the status quo. “How can we make that “golden age” cliche real?” Chang wondered rhetorically straight off the bat, before delving into the many opportunities and challenges nonfiction filmmakers have to navigate today. 

The definition of “golden age”, it seems, is a maddeningly squishy thing. Or as Chang herself put it, “Is it the huge amount of streaming money available? Is that money available to all?” And, “Does that create the best filmmaking?” (Not to mention a healthy industry ecosystem.) “What does this mean for the innovation of form?” And what are people in the industry “getting out of all this” anyhow? Having worked in a range of roles over her decades in the film biz, Chang has seen documentaries go from niche to mainstream. And yet the timeless struggles—both financial and mental—continue to exist for the industry’s creatives, especially if one is not an able-bodied white male. And while mainstream docs are indeed popular, smaller and less expensive films aren’t exactly feeling that “golden age,” Chang noted. In one surprising example, at least to me, Chang cited the fact that Mads Brügger’s The Mole has yet to be picked up in the US. Even a nonfiction thriller by an award-winning Sundance director is too “small” for this new golden age, it appears.

Documentaries, Chang then reminded us, are not “product or content” the way Hollywood blockbusters are. They are often an artistic endeavor, something much more personal than a “product.” And yet, unless your personal encompasses “true crime, sports or celebrities,” you’re likely not getting funded by a streamer. It’s usually the same companies and directors that are financed over and over again; one only has to watch the credits for a handful of docs and it becomes obvious that Netflix, HBO, et al. work with only a select few creators. “We are living in the corporate age of documentaries,” Chang stressed, ruefully quoting an industry friend. 

For Chang, Sheila Nevins’ boasting last year of a “murder and true-crime boom” actually encapsulates a larger, market-driven problem—she quoted an CMSI and IDA-derived statistic: 75% of filmmakers do work outside of filmmaking to make ends meet. Streaming platforms have a habit of taking all international rights and IP forever. “We need to rethink this model,” Chang urged.

And what to do about regulations? (Which Chang views as crucial) She noted that broadcasters are “held to account” in the UK, so why are the streamers exempt? If the rich and powerful are “held to account in film” then the streamers need to be “held to account in real life,” she added. Chang also mentioned that English-speaking markets are set to make up the bulk of global streaming revenue this year, and yet the streamers are almost exclusively American. Thus, “cultural distinctiveness and diversity for audiences” will inevitably be undercut. 

“Beware of the loss of public service broadcasters,” the industry vet warned. (Later adding that public broadcasting needs to always be mission-driven.) Still the biggest investors in original content, these organizations nevertheless will have to find new solutions if they are to compete with the behemoth streamers. Chang also reflected gratefully on her time at Storyville, where she was able to take a chance on the “risky and provocative,” or politically sensitive film (often made by an untried and untested filmmaker) that the streamers didn’t want.

Winding down her keynote, Chang reminded the filmmaking audience that the world needs their stories—and that they have power—before taking a few chat-submitted queries. She addressed the “imbalance in the industry” brought on by US-based streamers, which are laser-focused on “butts in seats”—i.e., subscriptions. This, in turn, causes said companies to endlessly screen the same kind of documentary. But Chang ended on a hopeful note—stressing that she’s not money-driven, but is “success-driven.” And success to this passionate insider is nothing less than building an equitable documentary future both lasting and diverse.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.

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