To fix the broken documentary film industry, focus on story, self-sovereignty, and perpetual micropayments
People say this is a golden age for documentary film.
Film audiences have it great: At no time in history have more viewers experienced better access to such diverse content on so many platforms.
However, the documentary film business model is broken for the professionals making the films: 80% of film producers do not make a living from producing films. This is the current state of the documentary film industry.
A Broken Documentary Film Industry: Economic Statistics and Trends
Despite an expansive entertainment landscape for documentary filmmakers and audiences, major challenges persist. The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), based at American University’s School of Communication, conducted its “State of the Documentary Field” research initiative in 2016, 2018, and 2021 (2021 report is here).
The 2021 report illustrates to what extent the contemporary documentary business model is broken.
Just a small proportion of documentary professionals (one quarter) make a full living from documentary work; 75% do other work to make a living. More than half (53%) of documentary professionals fail to earn even half of their gross annual income from documentary work.
Only 2 in 10 documentary filmmakers made enough money to cover production costs and make a profit from their most recent film.
Moreover, the industry is riddled with failed expectations and poverty wages. For their most recent documentary, U.S. documentary directors and producers overwhelmingly fell short: only 25% received their expected salary; 20% received less than half of expected salary; and 37% received no salary at all.
The current business model is unsustainable. Fiscal sponsorship was supposed to help. It is the long-established structure wherein individual documentary projects essentially receive nonprofit status through eligible arts organizations. People make tax-deductible donations to the film through the organization, which takes a 5–7% administrative fee. This is referred to as “soft money,” where donors do not expect equity or ROI.
However, in the Internet age, it has become easier to apply for grants. Consequently, many grantmaking institutions are receiving thousands of applications, and competition is fierce. At first glance, competition is a good thing. But in an industry where 75% of professionals do other work to get by, there are three tragic unintended consequences.
First is the extraordinary “opportunity cost” of lost time. “Opportunity cost” is an economics term that is defined as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” Talented filmmakers spend more and more of their time as grant-writers and fundraisers rather than filmmakers. If a single Sundance grant cycle receives 2,000 applications but awards only 5 grants, then 1,995 filmmakers and their teams have wasted tens of thousands of hours, with nothing to show for it. Often, filmmakers don’t receive feedback about why they were not chosen.
Second is pervasive self-censorship: filmmakers work to please grantmakers’ social-issue agendas rather than putting that lost time into telling quality stories. Grants are usually organized around issues and topics. In a 2018 survey by the International Documentary Association (IDA), 58% of documentary professionals identified as “social issue advocate filmmakers,” whereas only 31% identified as “entertainment storytelling filmmakers.”
Third, data suggests that to stay afloat, many documentary filmmakers turn to “commercially viable” programming. On its face, this sounds good, like savvy adaptation in a capitalist marketplace. However, the first casualty is that many potentially great stories get axed. These are documentaries that may not have defined endings, or may require long-term filming. In this environment, many seminal, culture-changing films would never have been made (Hoop Dreams, filmed over 5 years; or The Act of Killing, filmed over 8 years, etc).
As a result, even the most talented filmmakers choose to neglect their passions and pitch what they believe buyers are buying. These days, that sub-genre is true crime. In their 2021 call for submissions, the Sundance channel, now a unit of AMC, seeks to fill their lineup with true crime. Likewise, National Geographic has undermined one of the most sacred brands in entertainment by programming fake reality shows targeted to the lowest common denominator.
Unscripted, reality, and other so-called “non-fiction” entertainment is often anything but. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which masquerades as documentary content. At Perpetuo Films, we understand that the documentary film industry is broken and unsustainable for those of us who call this profession our own.
Perpetuo Films: Our Mission
Perpetuo Films is a non-profit organization that celebrates the narrative power of documentary film to catalyze positive social change. We have an educational mission to amplify marginalized voices in nonfiction and make the world a better place (Perpetuo Originals). Secondly, through tailored impact consulting, we make other films better (Perpetuo Impact). Thirdly, we are working to improve the documentary industry itself by using emerging tech to connecting filmmakers directly with audiences (Perpetuo Film3). We are committed to deepening our connection with the documentary community, near and far. We believe that by equipping documentary filmmakers to tell more stories more sustainably, together we all create a multiplier effect — in perpetuity.
Perpetuo Originals is Perpetuo Films’ first business unit. We are barely a year old, but have made great progress here, with three films in distribution.
Dani’s Twins captures the pregnancy and early parenting journey of Dani Izzie, one of the few quadriplegics ever to give birth to twins. Complications prove dangerous, but when the pandemic strikes, it raises the stakes.
The Crisis. Disability affects more than 1 billion people worldwide. Yet societal stigma and marginalization prevail. Barriers to social acceptance result in ongoing discrimination, from lack of access, to limited exposure in the media, to a perception that these people cannot be caregivers.
The Problem. Disability narratives tend to focus on medical issues and on “fixing” people, contributing further to the marginalization of people with disabilities. These social barriers and attitudes often shape the identity and inhibit the ability of people with disabilities to live and interact in the same way as able-bodied people.
The Opportunity: Impact & distribution. DANI’S TWINS documentary provides a rare, intimate look into one woman’s super rare journey through pregnancy and motherhood. The film has played in 21 festivals and won awards at 10 festivals. When a major distribution platform acquires DANI’S TWINS, it wil be the first time that this kind of story is in wide distribution. It is a positive first step for more film and media exposure for people with disabilities.
PATROL is Part investigative journalism, part eco-justice, an urgent warning, bound to inspire action. An emerging crisis in one of the last remaining rainforests in Central America ignites a heroic mission in PATROL. When illegal cattle ranchers decimate large swaths of rainforest, indigenous rangers join forces with an American conservationist and undercover journalists to expose the dark world of conflict beef.
The Crisis. Devastation threatens indigenous communities and planet’s health. With global focus on the Amazon, destruction of smaller rainforests is being ignored. In Nicaragua, 14% of rainforests was destroyed in the past five years. At current deforestation rates, Nicaragua will have lost 83% of its rainforest by 2030. Indigenous cultures, already on the brink of extinction, will be gone forever.
The Problem. Illegal cattle ranchers are invading the rainforest. Plenty of laws prohibit cattle ranching in the rainforest, but they aren’t enforced. Exported beef goes to the USA. This PBS News Hour piece, “In Nicaragua, Supplying Beef to the US Comes at a High Human Cost,” does a great job exposing the issue.
Deadly Consequences. Expose the truth, risk your life: 58% of all murders of environmental and land rights defenders around the world between 2010 and 2015 took place in Latin America (resource). Indigenous people are regularly displaced and killed. Nicaragua has some of the world’s harshest laws criminalizing journalism and free speech (Reuters), effectively enabling the covert destruction of the rainforest.
Bottom line: Independent American cattle ranchers get undercut on price, American consumers don’t get the truth about supply chains. The vicious cycle continues, and more Nicaraguan ranchers invade the rainforest.
The Opportunity: Impact & distribution. Without raising the alarm and taking action, the situation in Nicaragua will only get worse. Together, we can help stop the sale of commodities affiliated with deforestation from Nicaragua to the US by demanding greater transparency and stricter controls to beef supply chains iIn Nicaragua; by supporting the Forest Act; by exerting pressure on the Nicaraguan government to safeguard protected forests and make supply chains truly transparent; and by bringing greater awareness to importers and consumers of the origins of Nicaraguan beef and the impact of individual dietary choices.
PATROL is making its world premiere in the next few months at a major festival. We will announce as soon as we’re able.
During a civil war, “Eat Bitter 吃苦” shows a character-driven documentary about communities on opposite sides of fast-changing, war-torn Central African Republic. On one side, local Africans — their lives long interrupted by war and poverty — crave stability and work. On the other, an influx of new Chinese immigrants are investing and building, much like they are doing across the African continent.
The Crisis. The landlocked Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. It suffered under a brutal dictator for years, then in 2012 suffered a coup d’état. A peacekeeping mission restored a semblance of order in the capital, Bangui, but the rest of the country is still under rebel control. In this tenuous peace, our story begins.
The Challenge. Today’s defining transformation in African geopolitics is diminishing Western influence and China’s rise, including in the Central African Republic. Most attention focuses on big projects (highways, ports, bridges) or extractive industries (oil pipelines, mining operations). But another phenomenon is at play: a jobs pipeline. More than a million Chinese have left home to work in Africa. Many of these are poor, rural Chinese attracted by bigger salaries, no matter the sacrifice.
The Opportunity. EAT BITTER made its world premiere at the prestigious CPH Dox in Copenhagen in March 2023. Follow us on Twitter to follow our festivals dates.
Perpetuo Impact is our second business unit. Initially, we are showing success on our own impact campaigns for our films, “Dani’s Twins” and “Patrol.”
Subsequently, we will offer Impact Producing services for other filmmakers to make their films better. Through this work, our objective is also to be thought leaders in Impact Production. In offering Impact Strategies for other documentary filmmakers, we will help them with their community outreach and audience engagement. The term “impact producing” describes a relatively new space that combines traditional distribution, outreach, and audience targeting into a formalized coordinated “impact campaign.”
For all but the top tier of documentary films, this has been a perennial weakness. We are building this in-house Impact Producing core capacity to distinguish ourselves from other film studios.
Perpetuo Film3 is our third business unit. The title is a nod to the term “Web3” (more on Web3 and Film3 below). The fact that we are a nonprofit will help differentiate our role from competitors, since as a certified 501(c) entity, we have additional reporting requirements and will be perceived as more transparent and accountable to a higher standard. This counts in a new market that many consider risky.
In conclusion, Perpetuo Films, as a 501(c)3 has an educational mission. That mission is to advance the documentary film industry and improve society. Tactically, we initially aim to do that through three business units: Perpetuo Originals, Perpetuo Impact, and Perpetuo Film3. To join in this mission, or take the journey with us, reach out.