Canada has a world-class reputation for its contribution to the documentary world, going all the way back to 1926, when the National Film Board of Canada’s first film commissioner, John Grierson, coined the term.
In the following decades Canada has continued to draw the world’s attention to the doc. It has Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema, which seats 600 and is the only venue of its size and scope in the world that’s solely dedicated to documentaries. Canada is also the home of Hot Docs, one of the world’s largest documentary festivals, which is usually held in late April and early May in Toronto. (The Festival also owns the Hot Docs Cinema.)
Despite this, documentary production in Canada has actually been declining for more than a decade, reported Michael McMahon, president of Toronto-based Primitive Entertainment Inc. The Documentary Organization of Canada (Doc Org), a Toronto-based organization that provides advocacy, research, and support for its members, also confirmed this decline.
In a 2011 commissioned report, Doc Org found that television documentary production reached a peak in 2006-2007, but dropped 21 percent by 2008. Since then, it has been dropping off as both market conditions and consolidation have reduced the number of opportunities for exhibition. It found that one-offs suffered the largest losses, as broadcasters shifted to more promotable series and mini series.
But private sector broadcasters have not abandoned the documentary completely. During the 2016-2017 broadcast year, Bell Media commissioned 71 hours of independently-produced documentary programming for its large array of channels, committing more than C$13.4 million in license fees and triggering more than C$43.7 million in documentary production. Television is its business, and its programs must attract audiences. An example from Bell Media is the new documentary from Banger Films, Long Time Running, about Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip.
Peter Raymont, president of Toronto-based White Pine Pictures, compared Canada’s documentary output to that of the U.K., France, and Germany. He finds Arte, a public Franco-German TV network that broadcasts hundreds of hours of documentaries, “extraordinary.” But Arte is supported by a large audience base. Canada is geographically huge, but its population is small, spread out, and less than that of the state of California.
Hot Docs president Chris McDonald pointed out two countries with significantly smaller populations than Canada’s 35 million — Israel (with nine million) and Denmark (with six million) — that are “punching above their weight” documentary-wise — likely with public funding resources greater than those of Canada. A report done for state broadcaster CBC in 2013 found that among 18 Western countries, Canada was third in terms of the lowest level of per-capita public funding for public broadcasting. Only New Zealand and the U.S. posted lower levels.
Telefilm Canada, the Canadian government’s principal instrument for supporting Canada’s media industry, lists 66 companies associated with documentary in its Production Company Directory. The Doc Org has 750 members. Despite the uncertainty of the marketplace, these communities represent vocal, determined, and passionate documentary makers, who go to great lengths to tell the stories that they believe in.
James Murdoch, director of the arts documentary Exit Music, said, “You have to come up with creative ways of finding the money.”
The submission of Canadian documentaries to the Hot Docs Festival has remained steady for the past 10 or 12 years, noted McDonald. While the amount of production has not remained in step, Canadians making do with less are keeping the Canadian documentary culture alive and well, and the Hot Docs Cinema and Festival continue to bring the world’s attention to this art form.
Hot Docs’ McDonald is credited with steering these achievements. But more than just a cinema and festival, Hot Docs is a national, charitable organization.
McDonald said, “Our mission is to advance and celebrate the art of documentary, and to showcase the work of and create production opportunities for documentary filmmakers.”
Hot Docs contributes financing from the funds it administers, and provides creative mentorship and training for documentary filmmakers.
The annual Hot Docs Festival attendance has risen every year, and in venues across Canada — in theaters, festivals, on the Internet, and on French television — the appetite for documentaries has grown, stimulated by the Festival.
Internationally too, the documentary’s profile has increased. There are now dedicated conferences and forums, more film courses, new platforms for exhibition, new agencies for financial support, and new funding sources such as Netflix.
Canada benefits from much of this. Its own National Film Board remains a contributing force. More than 50 percent of its English division’s work consists of producers working with creators from across Canada to produce POV documentaries. And Telefilm Canada, in partnership with the Rogers Group of Funds, recently announced that 19 English- and French-language feature-length documentaries will receive funding through the Theatrical Documentary Program, for a total investment of nearly C$2.3 million, and that more than half of the 19 documentaries will be produced, directed, or written by women.
However, despite funding assistance, as in many other markets, broadcasters represent the largest single source of documentary financing. White Pine Pictures’ Raymont credits public broadcasters such as CBC and TV Ontario (TVO) for their continuing documentary support, and the Rogers Fund and Telefilm Canada for continued funding assistance.
Thomas Howe, executive producer of Toronto-based THA Media Inc., concurred. His company was supported by AMI (Accessible Media Inc.) and TVO for its documentary series Employable Me, and the CBC’s Doc Channel for the development of a feature-length doc. s
But Howe added, “I suspect these are the major supporters of documentary production in Canada at the moment. In the pre-mega-merger era when CHUM, Alliance Atlantis, and Astral were separate broadcasters with different Canadian Content rules, there is no question in my mind that a lot more documentary one-offs and series were commissioned — but obviously the old models were unsustainable.”
This is the economic reality today for private sector broadcasters. As their audiences, subscribers, and advertising revenues continue to decline, as cord-cutting increases and advertising moves to the Internet, they have had to adapt. One result has been less documentary commissioning. And they have found that reality and lifestyle programming is cheaper to produce and garners higher ratings.
(By Isme Bennie)