ATF ’18: What’s driving the global documentary boom

SINGAPORE – The increasingly successful business of documentary filmmaking was top of mind for executives during a high-level panel discussion at the 2018 Asia Television Forum & Market at the Marina Bay ...
December 6, 2018

SINGAPORE – The increasingly successful business of documentary filmmaking was top of mind for executives during a high-level panel discussion at the 2018 Asia Television Forum & Market at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

Moderated by John Elmes, senior reporter for UK trade publication C21 Media, the panelists examined how documentaries are increasingly enjoying their moment in the sun, especially in significantly large markets throughout Asia-Pacific.

Featured on the session were a group of leading industry executives, including Blue Ant Media’s CEO of APAC Beatrice Lee; David Weiland, EVP of BBC Studios Asia; and Lexian Zhu, editor in chief for documentary at Tencent.

Below are some of the key impressions from the “Draw of the Docs” panel.

What’s behind the rise?

Documentary filmmaking has been a mainstay of the broadcast television schedule for decades now in various territories around the world. But the massive improvements made in storytelling techniques throughout the doc sphere, alongside advancements in filmmaking equipment, have recently driven documentary-hungry audiences to cinemas and pushed the genre to a significant level of success.

At the BBC’s commercial production arm, the days of talking heads and archive featuring prominently in any feature-length documentary have been replaced with a combination of dramatic storytelling techniques. But the “most interesting” shift that’s bolstered doc content over the last few years, argued BBC Studio’s Weiland, is a thirst for knowledge as the world becomes more uncertain.

“People are trying to find out the truth,” he said. “Fake news is everywhere, and younger audiences are really leaning in towards documentaries to build on that thirst for knowledge.”

The higher interest from younger demographics has pushed China’s Tencent into becoming one of the largest online platforms in the world, second only to Netflix. Seventy percent of Tencent’s 82 million paid subscribers consist of 18-29 year-olds, with two major content categories driving the charge: the food and travel categories, and nature and science documentaries.

And while the older, sophisticated audience is looking for more intelligent content on broadcast, Blue Ant Media has taken a big swing by producing top quality short-form natural history and factual documentary content for the digital sphere.

“We’re focusing more and more [on] creating short-form content when we’re in production before we make it into long-form,” said Blue Ant’s Lee. “It’s a flip to how we would traditionally produce content… to make the content more interesting and appealing for the younger audience.

“The older age group will always come for quality content, so we’re thinking of new ways to attract the younger audiences.”

Traveling from east to west 

Stories have traditionally traveled well when moving from west to east, but broadcasters and filmmakers are beginning to acknowledge the exceptional and high caliber content emerging from Eastern regions such as South Korea and China. Tencent, for instance, approaches content with a globalized mindset, even when productions move in-house.

“One recent [Tencent] production is Once Upon a Bite and we try to incorporate Western elements, in terms of perspectives and storytelling. By doing so, we hope to create something suitable for both Eastern and Western audiences,” said Tencent’s Zhu, through a translator. “We are also working toward collaborations with other agencies like the BBC so that we can work together to present something Eastern, but from a Western perspective.”

SVOD and mobile continue to drive innovation

At a time when the FAANGs have taken a big bite out of the revenues of traditional broadcast players, BBC Studios’ Weiland believes that SVOD services have greatly benefited documentary content. Traditionally, documentaries tended to live on free-to-air television, populating late-night slots as they weren’t seen to deliver strong ratings, or they were broadcast across documentary-specific channels on pay-TV. But digital platforms have managed to elevate doc content to the same popularity levels of drama and children’s content, and have allowed viewers to experience content they wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

“Particularly in Asia where it’s a very mobile-first market, documentary also lends itself to be available as short-form very easily to be watched on mobile,” Weiland said. “We offer our documentaries in long-form, but it’s also quite modular so you can download them in 10 or 20 different clips and we’re finding that that’s really resonating, particularly with audiences in China who can then watch the content in many different ways.”

The Asia TV Forum continues in Singapore until Dec. 7.
(Photo courtesy ATF)

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