DOC report highlights ‘heightened vulnerability’ of documentary sector

A new study examines fears about business sustainability, with the sector struggling under the weight of both the production shutdown and ongoing stresses that preceded the pandemic.
June 3, 2020

A new report from the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) has highlighted what it calls a “heightened vulnerability” for the domestic documentary community, as it grapples with both the paralyzing impact of the production shutdown and ongoing stresses that preceded the pandemic.

Conducted in mid-April, around a month after the COVID-19 pandemic brought Canadian production to a standstill, the survey, completed by 172 respondents, looks at the financial impact of the shutdown on documentary workers, as well as the emotional impact on employees and some of the financing and production roadblocks created by the pandemic. It also sought feedback from the documentary sector on the supports that are required to help sustain it in the months ahead.

For the primary project they are currently working on, of the 107 respondents that answered the question, 37 said they are fully funded, 61 said they are still seeking financing, and nine said “other.” Of the 107 respondents, the majority (72) are working on a feature doc project, while others are working on documentary series (16), short doc (nine), web series (two), immersive/interactive (one), branded content (one) or other (six).

In terms of financial impact to their primary project, 23 respondents answered the question, with estimates for potential losses ranging from CA$6,000 up to CA$1.4 million. The majority, however, felt there were still too many unknowns at this stage to provide an educated estimate.

In terms of the status of that project, 49% said their primary project has been postponed until an unknown date, 19% said some of the project’s next steps have been postponed, 12% said it is continuing with minor adjustments, 6% said it has been postponed until a specified date, 6% said it is continuing as planned, and 1% said it was cancelled altogether.

The report also detailed some of the financial stresses placed on freelance doc workers as a result of the pandemic. Fifty-four people provided financial information for delayed contracts for the period from March 15 to June 15, with the total value of those contracts pegged at $806,800. For the period of June 15 to Sept. 30, the total for delayed contracts was pegged at $798,000 across 41 respondents.

One example cited by DOC is writer/producer/director Barri Cohen’s project Unloved, in which she explores the truth about her half-brothers, who were institutionalized in the 1950s at North America’s oldest facility for intellectually disabled children. Cohen was part way through production when the pandemic hit North America and her team has had to pivot to editing with footage, archives and documents. Going forward, the big question for the project is how filming can continue when many of the contributors and interview subjects are vulnerable, aged, and immune compromised in many cases.

Meanwhile, producer Cornelia Principe, who is currently in post-production on the documentary Send Us Your Brother with director Nisha Pahuja, said: “I’ve had to put one project which was in development with CBC on hold due to COVID. Two projects in post-production are moving but at a much slower pace then previously and that means more time and money. One of those in post was supposed to premiere at Hot Docs but now is part of the online festival – to what advantage I am not sure. I have started one project on a COVID story that is a learn-as-we-go experience.”

Equally telling were some of the survey responses relating to the uncertainty documentary workers feel during this time. “As COVID has exposed the harsh, and unfair nature of our society in other sectors (janitors, grocery clerks, bus drivers, etc.) so too has it in our industry. So many of us are constantly underpaid for our work – left in a state of constant hustle that is unsustainable,” read one anonymous response.

Other responses also focused on concerns over the sustainability of documentary production in Canada: “We will need strong advocacy for documentary to ensure we will be able to continue to practice our profession in a sustainable way in a post COVID-19 context. We will have to work with government, institutions and associations to ensure we have the means to apply the new parameters that will be established. Among other things, I’m thinking of crew safety, additional production costs caused by the pandemic, new preventative measures, travel restrictions and insurance exclusions.”

The fast-changing nature of viewer appetites was also top of mind for respondents: “Production is paused. Development is shifting. Distribution is shifting. We are trying to recalibrate, but it’s hard with the world changing every day. What we were working on yesterday might not seem very important today. What we are working on today might not seem very important tomorrow,” said another anonymous response.

Elsewhere, in a separate survey conducted on May 26 and 27, DOC asked its members about their ability to access emergency relief funds. The survey was completed by 167 people (152 in English and 15 in French), with 75% saying they owned their own production company. Of those production company owners, 33% said they were eligible to access Canadian Heritage emergency support fund being administered by CMF, Telefilm Canada and the Canada Council, while 40% said they were not and 25% said they didn’t know.

Meanwhile, 9% said they were eligible for the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), 74% said they were not and 17% didn’t know. And 26% identified as being eligible for the Canadian Emergency Business Loan (CEBA), while 47% said they weren’t and 28% didn’t know. When asked if they felt they were falling through the cracks of the various funding initiatives, 25% indicated they were, 53% said they weren’t and 22% said they didn’t know.

From Playback Daily

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