Skip to main content

Herman’s House, an award-winning documentary from Canada’s Storyline Entertainment, has just opened in New York.

Documentary filmmakers spend their days confronting dark truths. But as they descend on Toronto for the 20th edition of the annual Hot Docs film festival now under way, they are eyeing an alarming drop in domestic production, sparked by the recession and a sharp move to reality programming by the country's TV networks that some believe could spiral into an existential crisis for the entire Canadian industry.

Documentary production volume in Canada has dropped by $105-million since 2008, or 21 per cent, according to a report commissioned by the Documentary Organization of Canada that will be distributed to members next month, the details of which have been shared with some industry members ahead of Hot Docs.

"There is little good news in this report for the Canadian documentary production industry," it states flatly, warning of declining production levels and withering interest from the country's largest television networks.

The data are from the fiscal year concluding March, 2011, the last year complete figures are available.

The filmmakers lay the blame for their industry's decline at the feet of Canada's broadcast TV networks, which have turned away from documentaries and toward scripted and unscripted comedies and dramas as they compete for viewers in an increasingly fractured market. Rather than championing auteur-driven films with a strong point of view, they say, the TV channels prefer their non-fiction fare to be along the lines of the W Network's Property Brothers or Slice's Property Virgins.

That's only half their problem – as companies such as Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications and BCE have built large stables of specialty channels, they aren't buying as many documentaries. Instead, they often commission one documentary that can eat up air time, and play across many of their channels.

"This has challenged the Canadian documentary funding model, which has become highly reliant on broadcast licence fees at a time when broadcaster demand for Canadian television documentaries has been waning," the report warned.

If no broadcaster commits to license and air a film while it is being developed, producers find it's almost impossible to secure other sources of funding. Roughly 98 per cent of English-language documentaries and 87 per cent of French ones wind up on TV.

"Up until, say, 2010, there were a number of broadcasters I could go to with my films, and out of the four or five people, because of the work that we do, we were pretty much guaranteed we could go ahead," said Ed Barreveld, the president of the independent non-fiction production house Storyline Entertainment. "That is simply not the case any more."

That has left many scrounging for financing or shelving projects altogether, despite what they say is a healthy appetite for Canadian-made movies. Storyline's two most recent films, Herman's House, which opened in New York last week, and The World Before Her, which opens there next month, were made with almost no Canadian funding.

The model fails to recognize that Canadians are watching documentaries online and on services such as Netflix. "The idea of linking public funding to a broadcaster is great, because you're saying: 'Okay, well, this is going to be seen by Canadians,'" said Sarah Spring, the founder and president of Montreal-based Parabola Films. "But there are lots of other platforms Canadians are turning to, to access these films."

The slowing volume of production has ramifications that extend far beyond the small community of Canadian filmmakers, the report suggests. The number of projects fell by 23 per cent to 457 in the 2010-2011 study period, and the industry has lost the equivalent of 4,000 full-time jobs since 2008.

CBC-TV is one of the last broadcasters to dedicate a slot to documentary films, with Doc Zone on Thursday nights. Christine Wilson, executive director of content planning, said having a dedicated slot for a variety of documentaries makes it easier to draw viewers than sprinkling them through the lineup.

"They can perform well in terms of ratings," she said, adding that a recent documentary on the gold industry drew more than 500,000 viewers.

But that's increasingly an exception. It's not that Canadian broadcasters don't like documentaries, said Rogers Media executive vice-president of programming Malcolm Dunlop, but they find it difficult to promote the one-off movies that filmmakers want to produce. It's far easier to attract audiences to scripted series that have a better chance of building a following over time.

"When you look at the numbers it can be disappointing," said Dunlop, adding that the cable giant does commission documentaries but prefers multipart projects. "It can be difficult to get an audience, and there's even more frustration trying to get advertisers. And we are in the business of getting audiences for advertisers."

As broadcasters bow out, some filmmakers are looking to alternative funding models to get their projects done. But the average English-Canadian documentary cost $421,000 per hour to film, putting many crowdsourcing alternatives out of reach for producers.

"There's more talk about putting projects out on platforms that meet a niche," said Elizabeth Radshaw, the director of industry programs at Hot Docs who helps put together business-development panels for industry professionals attending the festival. "Broadcasters are always going to need documentaries and we'll always need broadcasters, but there are other opportunities for financing that exist though apps and games, these sort of things."

If things don't improve, says Barreveld, documentary filmmaking will cease to be a viable industry. "It is going to be a hobby for people, moving into the arts council territories. We're losing a tradition that's going back 70 years. It's really, really difficult."