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British Feature Documentary Sector Starved of Funding, Lacking Diversity, Report Finds

The Reason I Jump
Courtesy of Vulcan Productions

A new report looking at the state of the British feature documentary sector has shone a spotlight on some of its challenges, including “a chronic lack of public funding,” and a lack of diversity.

The report, undertaken by researchers at the University of the West of England, found that documentary receives less than 10% of funds for filmmaking from the U.K. national lottery – which is the U.K.’s main source of subsidy for cinema – and there is widespread feeling that broadcasters’ support for the sector is inadequate.

The BBC’s “Storyville” strand – the last remaining slot for feature documentary on U.K. television – is “significantly underfunded” compared with many of its European counterparts, the report states. Channel 4 is largely absent and ITV a “lost cause.” Development funding is particularly lacking, as are funds that make British producers attractive co-production partners.

Budgets for feature documentaries are very low, the report found: 84% of respondents – 200 of the U.K.’s leading feature doc producers and directors – worked on films with budgets of less than £500,000 ($632,000) – and 40% on films with less than £100,000 ($126,000). Only 4% worked on films with budgets over £1 million ($1.26 million).

Personal funds are by far the most common source of funding for feature docs: 43% of respondents had invested their own money in their films, with 18% investing £20,000 ($25,300) or more. After personal funds and foundations or private investors, tax relief is the most common source of funding. However, filmmakers’ experiences of accessing the U.K. Film Tax Relief differs significantly; even experienced filmmakers find the process complex, expensive and “based on a template for narrative fiction.”

The feature docs sector has a “significant diversity problem,” the report concluded. A huge majority – 91% – of survey respondents were middle-class and a large majority – 65% – were based in London and the South East of England. Women, people of color and people with disabilities are significantly under-represented.

The majority of respondents – 81.1% – reported their ethnicity as White British/Irish or White-Other, and 18.9% of respondents reported as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic persons.

The under-funding of the feature docs sector is a “significant contributing factor to its diversity problem, because only those with independent financial means are typically able to sustain careers as filmmakers,” the report said.

There are several issues in the sector that are related to training and education, according to the report. Respondents emphasized the need for training in business and marketing skills; conceptual and crafts skills; for coping with the ethical challenges involved in nonfiction filmmaking; and for comprehensive training provision outside London.