Sheffield ’20: Making “radical” changes to the UK doc sector

A panel of UK-based documentary producers and directors convened virtually June 25 as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital sessions program to imagine “radical” changes to the UK documentary industry. The session, ...
July 8, 2020

A panel of UK-based documentary producers and directors convened virtually June 25 as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital sessions program to imagine “radical” changes to the UK documentary industry.

The session, “Documentary utopias: Rebuilding feature docs post-pandemic,” focused on the findings of Keeping it Real: Towards a Nonfiction Film Policy for the UK, a survey of feature doc producers and directors published June 11.

Part of the UK Feature Docs research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the survey reported a “dire state of the sector – under-funded, under-representative and often poorly understood by policymakers.”

The session was hosted by Mia Bays, director-at-large of Birds Eye View, and Steve Presence, lead investigator of the UK Feature Docs project and author of the Keeping it Real report.

Speakers included Rachel Wexler (pictured, bottom left; Bungalow Town Productions); director and producer Lindsey Dryden (top left); producer Eloise King (top right); and director Paul Sng (bottom right).

Panelists delved into the report’s recommendations, with a focus on three areas: diversity, sector development and funding.


The report stated the UK feature doc sector has a “significant diversity problem,” with 91% of respondents identifying as middle class and 65% based in London and South East.

Women, people of color and people with disabilities were “significantly under-represented.”

Sng said there has been some “good work” done by certain organizations to support filmmakers below the middle class, but added there’s still work to be done.

“I think there needs to be much more research into it and a way of actually trying to find and fund filmmakers at various stages. There’s a lot of things for young people but there’s also people that may be in their 40s, 50s or older that don’t really find a way in because they get forgotten… a lot of things are about young people,” he said.

As the industry works to address diversity, King emphasized the importance of who is “at the table” when decisions are made, “from an optics perspective as well as a genuine, deeper need for diversity to take place within those conversations around restructuring.”

“At the core of what we’re doing in terms of making these recommendations, it feels really important to take inspiration from the moment that we’re in, things that are happening on a broader scale,” she said. “So, when you talk about the inequity within the industry at the moment, we know that one big terminology that’s in contention is BAME precisely because what it does is it obfuscates some of the real distinct differences — not least in terms of economic or social class differences between Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities — but it also tells us at the moment that people who are from those diverse backgrounds… are disproportionately affected in this moment of crisis.

“There’s been a lot of thinking about how we return to what once existed,” she added. “The actual utopia is a really drastic and radical look at how we change for a better future that feels equitable and one that really understands intrinsically that race, disability and class are inextricably linked.”

Dryden echoed King, adding the industry’s pre-pandemic structure “didn’t work” at an economic level or at a level of representation and equity.

“It’s not about trying to rebuild what we had, we need to build something different. And often what that means is bringing new decision makers into that sphere and actually empowering them to be influential,” Dryden said.

As part of its recommendations, the report proposed convening a sector steering group or coordinating body that would address inequality in the industry as myriad other issues identified in the survey.

“It’s interesting that a documentary core group is being set up immediately without having the report really been absorbed,” Wexler said. “Can we just take a pause to absorb this report properly before there’s an immediate reaction from all the key players? They already have a place at the table. There’s no disputing that… If you invite other people in, is that a safe place for them to actually talk about what’s really going on, firstly? Because many of the people being invited in are being asked to advise, but also their careers are being built on the backs of those relationships… In order to really move ahead now, and like all of the other panelists are saying, let’s go back to real fundamentals here. Let’s grow this from a new place.”


Presence said the documentary sector is  “chronically underfunded and undervalued” in the wider film and TV landscape.

“Policy makers and screen sector organizations often have quite scarce knowledge of the documentary community and how it operates as a distinct independent ecosystem that’s separate from the fiction filmmaking world,” he explained.

In addition to the coordination of a steering group, the report recommends improvements to the “cultural profile” of feature docs in the industry; coordinated support for non-fiction filmmakers across London, the nations and regions; enhanced support for ethical challenges involved in making documentary films; training, education and research; and the establishment of an annual documentary marketplace and/or conference.

King said training should focus on making the industry feel “accessible,” and offer skills and literacy about the business. “That feels like something that’s in desperate need especially when it’s not just people who are from lower income backgrounds who are struggling to get in or struggling to get money,” she said.

Dryden called the report an “enormously helpful set of data,” adding the documentary community “knows what needs to happen.”

“The question is, in terms of sector development and everything else, who is responsible for making that happen? And for resourcing that? It feels like a lot of what we’ve discussed so far is, who should be part of those conversations that haven’t been part of those conversations already in order to create the systemic change we urgently need?” she added. “My question is how do we in really transparent terms — transparent, equitable, courageous, new terms, not working like our system has worked before — how do we take that forward and actually take action?”

Wexler noted that producers and filmmakers typically deal with the “middle-management gatekeepers.”

“We’re dealing with people who always have someone they have to go to. They’ve always got a head of a channel or a boss to go to. We never see those people. The people who are accountable are faceless. They’re usually suits who have people talking on their behalf. We’re not blaming the middle management gatekeepers we’re dealing with. We’ve got publicly funded broadcasters, and there’s no space for documentaries. How did that happen? How can we lobby to make that change? How are these funds allocated? Who decides what the audience wants?” she said.

Dryden agreed. “Those audiences really are out there. Those underrepresented audiences, those under-served audiences… Those are people who pay for media content and they’re not being served because the way that audiences are talked to and engaged with by traditional broadcasters is quite narrow and quite limited… Audience development and audience engagement has to be a really key part of sector engagement.”

For Sng, sector development also relies on the accessibility of theaters.

“Art house cinemas are generally quite intimidating places, particularly when you’re young. When I was young and working class, they’re not welcoming spaces, the way that they’re designed,” he explained. “In terms of distribution, exhibition, we need to make the spaces more welcoming.”


According to the report, the UK documentary sector receives less than 10% of Lottery funds for films, and those surveyed viewed broadcasters’ support for the sector as “inadequate.”

BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand – the “last remaining slot for feature documentary on UK television” – is “significantly underfunded” compared to many of its European counterparts, Keep it Real stated.

Channel 4 was classified by the study as “largely absent” in the space and ITV a “‘lost cause.’” Development funding was also found to be “particularly lacking,” as well as funds that make British producers “attractive coproduction partners.”

The report also found existing funds were concentrated in the hands of a few, and that the under-funding of the feature docs sector is a “significant contributing factor” to its diversity problem.

Among the recommendations are a proposed increase to the proportion of Lottery funds ring-fenced for documentaries; an increase in pubcasters’ support for feature docs; and amendments to the UK Film Tax relief, to name a few.

“For a very healthy ecosystem, we need a wide range of filmmakers, a wide range of funding sources,” Wexler said. “One of the things that’s really important is to encourage the market to see us as viable. We are viable, we can make great films, we win lots of awards, we can be a very healthy professional sector.”

Wexler said the industry should create a “better mechanism” to attract financial firms not entrenched in the industry to serve as potential funders.

Dryden added: “We are all working very individually in the UK because it’s competitive because there’s so few resources.”

“Is the game rigged and how can we create that level playing field?” asked Wexler. “And taking away the horrible levels of competition amongst filmmakers, which is divisive, makes people not trust each other… That affects people’s mental health hugely in this industry.”

For Sng, another key problem is the lack of feedback from funders around why a project has been rejected.

“If you’re going to be given a pot of money, you’re going to have a fund, you’re going to need to give everybody that applies feedback rather than just the standard, ‘We can’t give you feedback.’ If that means funding one less production then it’s a more communal thing to do.”

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is a special reports editor at realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.