Distribution… from the inside

MercuryMedia and MD Tim Sparke's opinion piece on why 'It was the best of (doc) times, it was the worst of (doc) times.'
September 15, 2008

When the makers of the first global ‘disastainment’ docs – In Debt We Trust, An Inconvenient Truth, Enron, Outfoxed, etc. – warned of the impending financial, climate, energy, propaganda and leadership crises, which were slowly creeping up on the West, they were out of step with the ‘militainment’ agenda the global media was following. Now that TV news has moved on and to mention the War (Fawlty Towers) during the election cycle has become ‘verboten,’ a new crop of mainstream disaster docs are coming on stream. They include I.O.U.S.A. (the US is going bankrupt) and The Age of Stupid (a look back at our current environmental catastrophe set in 2050), with both titles tipped for awards and audiences.

Clearly, whilst screening films on TV which promote consuming less, saving more and distrusting mainstream media is antithetical to the very nature of broadcasting, I detect a perceptible but renewed enthusiasm amongst the mass-media for giving audiences a straighter version of the truth.

Docs are back on the agenda and this is good news for audiences. The bad news for documentary producers is that there are just too many finished docs for broadcasters, festivals and distributors from which to choose. As Sir David Attenborough would probably say, ‘The doc producer breed has replicated to such an extent that over supply threatens the viability of the species.’ According to sources at BBC’s ‘Storyville,’ over 1,800 finished docs have been offered in the last year, and in reality, although there are 26 slots to fill, the majority will be for coproduced rather than finished projects.

My own company has been offered 400 films this year, and we take no more than 20 to market. Similarly the Sheffield, Hot Docs and Toronto film fests have reported massive increases in finished films looking for exposure. Whilst pressure is being brought to bear on cash-strapped Channel 4 to open up more slots for acquired docs and the European pubcasters’ remain committed to the genre, the number of slots available for the valuable work of documentary-makers isn’t going to rise in proportion to the number of finished films on offer.

So are there any solutions at hand? Well, sort of. The online market is still nascent, and will grow in time, with iTunes, Real Networks and, amongst others, now offering docs on a pay-per-view download basis. There is also an advertiser-supported model for docs beginning to evolve, but its early days and rewards are slim. However it is the technological changes in traditional media which are curiously exciting this writer the most. Digital theatrical distribution is now a reality in many countries, as it enables limited release event-driven exhibitions to take place cost-effectively. ( is scheduled to release nine titles theatrically in the UK next year, following five successful releases in ’08.)

The DVD market for long-tail titles, through on- and offline retailers like Amazon, Borders, HMV, etc. is beginning to show real returns, and the in-flight market with on-demand delivery is now a reality. In-flight buyers are seeking top docs to satisfy their high value business class passengers…though take note, all you self-distributing producers – they are still a tad sensitive about climate change!

So should doc-makers give up and get full-time paid employment during these hard times? No, though part-time work should be considered, especially if it’s a choice between art and paying the electricity bill. Seriously, the world needs the clarity of your authored polemics more urgently than ever, especially as the trust deficit between media corporations and audiences widens as the financial crisis hits home. But should you re-mortgage your home to finance your latest epic? Absolutely not. Foreclosure is not pleasant in any country.

The economic reality of oversupply and finite demand means that producers have, however, to take some responsibility for distribution. That’s if you can get distribution, and if you can learn to ‘partner’ with your distributor. (Remember, they’re your friend, not your punching bag.) If your ego can’t handle that, learn to self-distribute. And no, we distributors won’t cry if you go that route, we are a tough bunch and are used to ‘losing’ the latest ‘great’ film offered. As we sometimes remind each other in the lines for Easy Jet departures to MIPCOM and IDFA, documentaries are like London buses: we know there will always be another coming along in a minute and who knows where it might take you.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.