Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Money, Markets and Business of Documentaries Since 1983

Originally Published in International Documentary
November-December 2007

Historians often reduce the cause of a seismic event to a single action such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the great stock market crash of 1929 and the destruction of the World Trade Center. We know that this is an over simplification. The Second World War, the Great Depression and the War on Terrorists all were caused by many factors and were easily a decade in the making. It follows then that the massive economic changes that have taken place in documentary production can be traced to a series of technological, entrepreneurial, business and regulatory innovations that came together over time and conveniently overlaps the first 10 years of the International Documentary Association’s 25 year history. A coincidence to be sure, but one can say the last 25 years for independent documentary filmmakers to paraphrase, has been “the best and worst of times.”

Some of the good:

● Technology has shifted the power of video making to the individual who can now make and distribute works globally with gear that would fit into a backpack and cost less than $10,000.

● The same technology allows individuals to market and distribute their works within a virtual world-wide theater without the use of traditional distributors.

● Global as well as local capital markets can provide funds to filmmakers and one can make a modest living being a filmmaking with this new technology if one has a low overhead.

● We’re going to see the first billion dollar grossing documentary work in the next few years.

● New interpretations of “Fair Use” make it easier than ever before to make films using archival or other peoples’ footage, images, music, etc.

Following our metaphor, this business model has had many significant and surprising negative effects:

● Many middle level filmmaker are being driven out of the field since it will not support them or their overheads. Backpack video making is not labor or capital intensive. Thousands of people are making films “for nothing” and filmmakers who make film for a living have problems competing.

● There is almost no way a single documentary work can cover a budget with home video/DVD sales—unless it was made for almost nothing. Wholesale DVD prices are lower than ever and video-on-demand fees will approach pennies per screening. How can a $100 thousand or $1 million plus investment be recouped?

● While theatrical releases can be done in video formats reducing the high cost of prints, it is difficult to get theaters and even more difficult and costly to pull audiences into theaters.

● More broadcast and cable entities mean more product is needed to fill time but they draw smaller audiences and pay smaller fees.

● High definition works have become the standard format and it is expensive to make “real” high definition works. This provides a competitive disadvantage for a backpack producer.

● The other side of the new approach to “Fair Use” is that independent filmmakers work can be used without compensation. In the end, this will hurt independents more than the big aggregators of stock or archival footage.

Let’s look at these three period in terms of four interrelated strands:

Technology: The shift from film to video. Development of backpack filmmaking. Changes and developments in personal computing.

Finance and Funding: Changes in funding for production; in the public sector and in the private sector. Venture capital, studios, networks and filmmakers.

Consumption: Changes in broadcast and cable programming. Million dollar (plus) theatrical releases of documentaries. The shift from sale of boxes and disks to VOD and the decline of the perceived value of personal copies.

Gaining Respect: Awards, growth of the monster festival as a marketing and sales tool and the documentary agent, rep, lawyer.

Part 1: 1980s – The Shift from Film to Video or Station Wagon to Backpack


The shift from film (both 16mm and 35mm), the chemical based method of creating moving image media, to video really started in the 1980s. By 1982, companies begin to standardize the 8mm consumer videotape recorder format. The technology developed at the end of the Nineteenth Century that gave birth to the movie business was about to shift. The chemical media party was over. A struggling Microsoft releases MS-DOS 1.1 to IBM for the IBM PC. In 1983, the Betamax decision was still 2 years from being decided by the Supreme Court. This allowed the personal use of video machines to record broadcast television programs for later viewing (which constituted fair use) and that manufacturers of home video recording machines could not be liable for contributory copyright infringement for the potential uses by its purchasers, because they were sold for legitimate purposes and had substantial non-infringing uses. In 1984, Apple Computers introduced the first Macintosh computer, listing for $2,495, having a built in 400-kilobyte floppy disk, 128K of RAM and no small internal disk drive. It was inconceivable at this moment in time the significance this computer would play in video history.

Finance and Funding

The Media Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts initiates the regional fellowship project. Video and film fellowship programs were launched by the NEA and the American Film Institute and there were now numerous grants for film and video artists. PBS and CPB were funding and the NEH and the NEA were supporting high levels of independent production. It felt like a great time to be an “independent filmmaker.”

HBO showed its first original movie (a docudrama based on the Terry Fox story) and was just beginning to produce original documentaries. PBS was still allowing independent filmmakers to keep backend rights to their works. Emmy Awards went to “Body Human: The Living Code”, which aired on CBS and PBS’ “Great Performances: Dance in America” Jac Venza, producer was nominated but did not win. There were no traditional theatrical documentary box office hits like “Woodstock” (1970), which is estimated to have had a $50 million gross. The IMAX (large format) business was booming: this theatrical business model allowed the documentary film to make a hundred million dollar gross.

The short Canadian film, produced by The National Film Board of Canada and directed by Terry Nash “If You Love this Planet” and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Just Another Missing Kid” produced by John Zaritsky won the Documentary Oscars.

A good case study can be found by looking at Direct Cinema, enormous hit, “If You Love This Planet.” When the US Justice Department labeled the film; “Political Propaganda” and we refused to turn over lists of individuals who paid to see the film or rented it sales shot up to a massive level. Educational users were buying 16mm copies of this work for $495 a copy. A great many 16mm copies were sold and rented, we were making money. With the assistance of the ACLU, Senator Robert Kennedy and the American Library Association, the case went to the Supreme Court, creating more press and more sales. It’s politics caused it to win the short film Oscar that year (The film consisted of an illustrated filmed speech of Dr. Helen Caldicott, predating the next huge environmental film both in terms of style and performance, “An Inconvenient Truth” by 24 years.) Many educational companies and independent filmmakers were enjoying sales never before anticipated of films for classrooms and libraries. But this golden age of educational sales ended almost at it was starting because of the growth of home video, cheap copies of Hollywood films and the ability to copy works. Within the decade, this market would forever change.


Starting with the 1988 release of “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” and continuing with the 1990 release of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” which like “Campbell” aired on Public Television the million plus unit selling studio film educational version was the multi-boxed video set. “Campbell” and “Civil War” would become multi-million dollar hits in VHS video. “Civilization,” “BBC’s Shakespeare,” “Eyes on the Prize” and “Roots” are examples of other early broadcasts turned into multi-titled sets. The boxed VHS video series set was born. Broadcasters saw the income stream from the back ends and within the next decade they would all be demanding this income as part of their deal for funding works. The “sharecropper” filmmaker life would become commonplace. “Another day older and deeper in debt,” was the new business model. “All rights now known or hereafter devised” became the litany of the contract between the filmmaker and the funder.


The last 25 years of the documentary business would see electronic technology end the 100 year monopoly of chemically produced images, consumed either as projected images from physical film prints or as over-the-air broadcasts to television viewers, and the ability of individuals and businesses to amass vast libraries of individual moving image works inexpensively as electronic data for their personal or business use. For the first time in history, individuals could inexpensively create, manipulate, edit, and distribute moving image works on a global basis almost instantaneously. It would allow the creation of many new businesses, one called YouTube, which offers these images for free would be acquired a few years after it was created for more than the 1983 market capitalization of each of the six major studios: Disney, Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century-Fox, Universal and MGM/United Artists. This same technology, with the expansion of the “Fair Use” doctrine and changing nature of Copyright, decimates the documentary educational film business and devalued the worth of non-fiction films. An independent filmmaker’s business model based on selling a few hundred copies of a work in film proved to be inelastic as prices tumbled to less than $10 a copy from $15 to $20 a minute. In 2003, the Motion Picture Academy would permit documentaries to qualify in digital cinema formats.

Part 2: 1990s The Shoot It, Tape It, Edit It, Collect It “Revolution”


The 1990s marks the bulking up of technology. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, coined what is now called “Moore's Law”, it states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years. It would still take a few more cycles for the computer to handle media files with speed but it was clear that technology was changing quickly. The Macintosh portable computer, introduced in 1989 is selling for $6,500, a year later the Video Toaster ships and the Internet by 1990 includes 5,000 networks in over three dozen countries, serving over 700,000 host computers used by over 4,000,000 people and in 1991 Gopher is released at the U of Minnesota. The portable professional video camera still is a heavy, over the shoulder device priced out of the reach of independent filmmakers. Equipment size and complexity is improving and this decade will make the broadcast and theatrical release of small format videos possible. The time for the graduates of film programs or for that matter anyone with a little money to go out and make a documentary is here.

Finance and Funding:

Public television creates ITVS in 1991 to channel funds into independent documentaries. The response to its initiatives is dramatic. The number of entries to festivals like Sundance surges. While theatrical documentary for much of the 1990s, outside of IMAX is not setting the records that will inspire the venture capitalist or the studios to invest much into creating new product.

A number of IMAX films gross far more the theatrical documentaries: “The Dream is Alive”, “To the Limit”, “The Living Sea”, “Everest”, “Mysteries of Egypt”, “Thrill Ride”, and “Galapagpos” to name a few, their combined box office is over $200 million dollars. Even with Michael Moore’s hit of “Roger and Me” (1989), all of the other documentaries in theatrical release this decade of the 1990s do under $100 million dollars in combined box-office. There is no “there” there yet for investors and studios. Thanks to the continued infusion of funds from HBO, European broadcasters, the National Film Board, some wealthy filmmakers and investors, high budget films (approaching a $1 million) were produced with some regularity. The big money and returns are in the non-theatrical and/or home video and broadcast/cable side of the business. Ken Burns continues to release both series and individual works, starting this decade with “The Civil War.” Adding “Baseball” to it in 1995 and ending it with “Not for Ourselves Alone.” A studio executive at Paramount who was offered Burns’ “Frank Lloyd Wright” documentary said (to this author), it could not go out theatrically since, “no one knew Wright” was.

In the 1990’s grants for filmmakers from the Endowments begin to become more difficult to obtain. With President Regan dominating the 1980 followed by George H. Bush and Congress dominated by conservatives over much of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the arts and humanities Public Television all take hits. Public Television wants more bang for it license fees—rights to sell the video and the DVD so a license fee is no longer just a license but a rights deal. This will take some of the backend from the filmmaker and shift income to PBS. PBS and Pacific Arts battled over the home video deal in 1993 when PBS pulls its films and moves them to Warner Home Video. In the end was won by Michael Nesmith, in 1999, the former “Monkey” who started Pacific Arts. PBS was ordered to pay damages of $14,625,000 and punitive damages of $29,250,000 to Pacific Arts, plus damages of $1 million and punitive damages of $2 million to Nesmith as an individual for their aggressive violation of Pacific Art’s deal. The network also lost its claims of unpaid royalties on the PBS logo. Warner Home Video took over PBS’ home video and with a steady stream of independent and station funded product, some of independent distributors began to consulate and do out of business.

This and similar positions at the commercial networks was the end of license fees for license rights and the start of license fees for all rights. Shifting the business model forever away from the filmmaker owning the backend, to having to share it as a condition of funding. Within ten years time this would affect the entire middle-range of professional documentary filmmakers and the brief “golden age” of the 1970s and 1980s was over. Technology allowed freshly minted college graduates or anyone with a video camera to make films for almost nothing and many documentary filmmakers with mortgages, families and overhead would be pushed out. The top filmmakers, high profile, with their awards, records of accomplishment, established businesses would be fine. They could do commissioned works, they would be sought out as directors for hire by the HBOs, the PBS strands like American Masters and Experience, they could maintain their companies. While the PBS strands paid flat fees to many of the filmmakers for their work on their shows or used the license fees to acquire backend controls they were moving to shows that would sell DVDs in the back rather than just shows within their mandate.


Theatrically documentaries in the early 1990s were not generating significant box office heat. While they were praised critically and many deals were done with the films in competition at Sundance, including “Berkeley in the Sixties” (1990), “Paris is Burning” (1991), “American Dream” (1991) “A Brief History of Time” (1992), “Hoop Dreams” (1994), “Crumb” (1995), “When We Were Kings” (1996). Other than “Hoop Dreams” none of the Sundance in-competition films of the 1990s generated significant theatrical grosses (over $10 mil.). Films in the fictional film part of the festival made the festivals reputation, Park City became the place to find hidden box office hits. As the decade ended, studio executives, agents and dealmakers all looking for the next big hit were mobbing Sundance. They would be rewarded with works like “Napoleon Dynamite” “The Cooler” “The Station Agent.” “Supersize Me” in 2004 was the only major documentary break out work that was in the competition part of the festival.

Gaining Respect:

Documentaries continue to gain respect. The US Film Festival, started by the Lory Smith (see “Party in a Box” a history of the festival), continued to grow and its importance to independent documentary filmmakers starts when Robert Redford who founded The Sundance Institute in 1981, takes it over in 1991. With the draw of a superstar, the selections of Tony Safford (it’s programmer), the festival became the major American independent festival. Sundance Institute was set up to actively engage aspiring filmmakers, with the festival becoming a forum for that newly unearthed talent and a reputation for championing independent titles. Steven Soderbergh and his 1989 entry “Sex, Lies And Videotape” was the hit that rocketed the festival. Interest in independent films grew exponentially and in the early 90's, the emergence of young filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez were the new stars.

Well-made works, such as: “A Great Day in Harlem”, “When We Were Kings”, “Four Little Girls” and “The Buena Vista Social Club”, “Crumb” receive Academy honors. “Hoop Dreams” and “Roger and Me” are theatrical stars, and shut out of the documentary Oscar along with works like “The Thin Blue Line”, “Paris is Burning” and “Crumb” because the Academy documentary committee either did not relate to the content or form, in the case of “Roger” just did not like the film and gave the Oscar to the Warner’s sister company HBO’s film “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.” Documentary filmmakers used these omissions to demand change at the Academy and the committee was restructured and filled with members who were involved in documentaries. With new “conflict of interest rules,” working members of the Academy were now disqualified from the process and the average age of committee members dropped perhaps 15 years.

As the 1990s end we can see these changes:


New technology forever changed the production model. Long live video.


Producers reps and agents will now handle documentaries. The “deal” is covered in the trades and Harvey and Tony and other studio executives will knock on condo doors at midnight or make seven figure deals in theater lobbies.

Networks/Cable/Studios will fund and acquire docs and filmmakers have a hard time holding on the rights.


The theatrical renaissance for the documentary feature is about to finally take place.

Michael Moore becomes a celebrity and a brand name by using controversy and comedy to sell his political films. (Oddly comedian Sacha Cohen for a fiction film repeats this but few documentary filmmakers create cults for their works.)

The “reality” show, a mix of fiction and non-fiction with some competition will edge out fiction shows and become huge mass market hits.

Gaining Respect

The Oscar uses its clout to push for more and broader theatrical distribution of works which makes life more difficult for some independent filmmakers.

Part 3: 2000 and beyond.. – Digital Delights, HBO Support for Theatrical Films Pays Off, Academy Creates Doc Branch, “A Golden Age” and VOD


The shift to high definition video continues as the technology moves from the lab to the field to the filmmaker. As American broadcasting shifts to hi-def, independent filmmakers will again have to deal with the high cost of technology that is reminiscent of the 35mm – 16mm production debates of the 1960s to the present. Full digital cinema will still require another decade or so, but for documentaries, few works other than IMAX productions are still being done in film. Avid and Final Cut Professional continue to compete for dominance. While the independent filmmaker works with Final Cut almost all of the other shows and Hollywood goes with Avid. Similar to the Windows and Apple debate filmmakers’ deal with the different software depending on their economic position. While Apple is “cool” the pros go with Avid. It is still unclear who will “win”.

Finance and Funding:

Theatrical exhibition of documentaries finally becomes a business in the new century. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) goes on to gross $225,000,000 (which Miramax reportedly “gives away it share” under its deal with Disney), works such as an “Spellbound” (2003), “To Be and To Have” (2003), “Tupac Revolution” (2003), “The Corporation”(2004), “Touching the Void” (2004), “David Chappelle’s Block Party” (2006) “Inconvenient Truth”(2006), “Sicko” (2007) and numerous others gross millions of dollars. It is now the golden age of the theatrical documentary. The $100,000,000 grossing documentary in now a reality. With the success of animal pictures (Winged Migration” (2003), “The Story of the Weeping Camel (2004), “March of the Penguins” (2005), “Grizzly Man” (2005),) and the continuing IMAX animal and other pictures (“Bugs” (2003), “Aliens of the Deep” (2005) “Wild Safari 3-D” (2005), “Deep Blue” (2006)) funding is more available than ever. IMAX while difficult to fund continues to be $50 to $100 million dollar grosser.

Thanks to HBO and their visionary support of the independent documentary, the infrastructure is there to handle feature length works. HBO was the lone corporate money for over 20 years to fund an amazing array of personal, political, medical and other kinds of single documentary works. Interestingly they did not do many animal pictures despite their economic success but stuck to the vision of their long time head Sheila Nevins. With documentaries grosses setting historical records both in terms of number of theaters booked, grosses per theater and grosses per film it becomes easier to find funding. While two million dollars seems to be the cap for single titles it’s still a difficult gold ring to catch with budgets generally being in the $500 thousand to $1 million dollar range.

Documentary entries are pouring into festivals and seven figure deals are being made. An independent studio, run by an actor turned producer, director and mogul inexplicably chooses to fund my high concept program idea and its companion feature, CARRIER, putting multiple film crews on an aircraft carrier for a six-month mission to the Middle East. I get to stay home in Los Angeles and never get on the ship while the directors and crew struggle to follow the real stories of the crew and not get thrown off the ship with high definition cameras. Engaging and exciting television to be sure but like filming in the Antarctica, it is a hard life.


In television the “reality,” show pulls high ratings at low costs. These manipulated and often staged documentaries become another model. Even PBS runs the BBC reality series “1900” and then follows with three of their own set in America. The PBS strands continue producing high quality works with a new emphasis on music. From Richard Rodgers to Bob Dylan, knowing music sells DVDs the “Masters” program some of the key artists of the last century. Other than PBS and HBO and Cinemax few network and cable entities are programming a lot of individual documentary films by independent filmmakers but networks like Discovery, National Geographic, TMC, Showtime, CNN do program documentary works.

Gaining Respect:

The Academy Documentary Awards committee made up of members from all branches of the Academy since 1941 finally became its own branch on January 23 2001, with about 150 members, Arnold Schwartzman was its first chair. Giving documentary filmmakers their own branch gave documentary films a permanent home at the Academy and clout of three governors. With the large documentary peer sections at the LA and NY television Academies documentary, documentary filmmakers are finally getting a lot of respect, evidenced by their industry based associations and awards groups.

Concluding Thoughts

The box keeps changing as the economic forces change the business models for the documentary. We await Ken Burns’ epic series on the Second World War and know that more series will show up. The Academy will get a record number of documentaries this year and the committee will do the initial judging in DVD. This is a far cry from the clubby Documentary Committee lead by Norman Corwin (the subject of the HBO 2005 Oscar winning documentary short) screening all of the entries in the Academy’s small screening room twice a week in film. Then (horrors), talking about the films at a meeting, before they finally vote for the nominees, very different from the supposed non-interactive voting process today. The Television Academy screening committee members screen DVDs and then vote on the Emmys. We know that high definition television is here and soon the silver disks will have more data and the image will be richer, the color truer and we will have to consider what to do with our three-quarter inch, VHS and DVD collection of moving images.

We end our very abridged twenty-five economic history of documentaries neither sad or happy just wiser which is mostly a part of being older. We see history repeating itself as new formats struggle to establish themselves and Moore’s rule makes the gear smaller and cheaper. New filmmakers who don’t know their documentary film history. More college and university programs training more students but not very many good films are coming out. The AIVF, the New York based organization of independent filmmakers goes out of business, no awards show, but Linda Bizell’s (founder) IDA is going strong. One can expect a mob scene in Park City this January, more documentaries will be shown at Cannes and HBO will likely again be thanked on the Academy Awards.

As we move to 2008, we can observe the following trends and changes in our field:


High definition is here to stay, now if only “they” can agree on the form. (VHS v Beta, again, history repeats itself.)

Digital production and post production accelerates and film becomes a medium that is now mostly used in theatrical exhibition—while the theaters shift to digital projection. One can release a DVD theatrically and play a few hundred dates without ever making a film print.

The cheaper digital technology causes far more documentaries to be made. Most are not good, never get distribution and sit on internet shelves with little or no promotion waiting to be downloaded.


Attracting funding for works continues to be difficult because of competition from new back pack documentary filmmakers, more outlets for docs but lower fees for broadcast licenses (less eyeballs), more competition globally (with industries subsidized by governments) and fewer gatekeepers.

Many new works are now using the new “Fair Use” guidelines to obtain footage for free, depriving filmmakers of their historic control of their work and the income they would derive from the sale of footage.


Michael Moore fails to reinvent his form and “Sicko” while well meaning and “important” fails to set box office records.

Ken Burns apparent masterpiece “The War” at 14 hours with newly added material of Latino war participants shows the power of a small lobbying group and political correctness on a public network.

Theatrical releases of documentaries continue to grow and the million dollar grosses are becoming common place.

Reality shows remain popular, fast and cheap.

Gaining Respect

The Academy continues to expand the theatrical requirements for documentaries to submit. Now 14 cities and 14 venues in addition to New York or Los Angeles.

The International Documentary Association is using two venues in Los Angeles to qualify all of the documentaries.

More documentaries are playing in theaters.

So who will make the first billion dollar-grossing documentary?

©2007 mwb All Rights Reserved, MWB

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