COVID-19: What’s Next for Documentary Producers

COVID-19_Documentary_Producers_Challenges_Opportunities
See full photo credits at the bottom of the article.

As it gets closer to easing out of lockdown, the audiovisual industry is beginning to move beyond crisis management. Now what? We know there will be changes to the industry in the short and medium terms. But what about long term? How is the industry reacting to ― and anticipating ― these changes? What are the big questions that we need to ask ourselves moving forward, and who will answer them? This article is the fifth in a series about what’s next for Canada’s TV production sector as it slowly emerges from the shutdowns put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19.

> Read the other articles in the series

Documentary producers are experiencing many of the same challenges and opportunities as TV and short-form video producers during these difficult times. Rigorous health and safety protocols and the opportunity of going into production before other jurisdictions come to mind here, to name but two. Some challenges and opportunities, however, are unique to the genre.

Managing the risks 

Documentaries can be shot with much smaller crews than dramas or even short-form video content. During the early days of lockdown, Rezolution Pictures Executive Producer Christina Fon explored ways to continue filming, namely by having subjects film themselves, by sending equipment to a community, or by having someone in a subject’s household shoot. OYA Media Group has sent equipment to the Brooklyn-based LGBTQ activist who is the subject of a documentary they are working on. The director trained her remotely ― not just on how to use the equipment itself, but also on what to look for in documenting herself and shooting b-roll. It is an experiment, but OYA didn’t want to miss opportunities pertaining to their subject’s activism.

With documentaries, it is “easier to respect the [health and safety] protocols because teams are smaller, says Babel Films Co-Founder Eric Piccoli. It is easier to ensure everyone is comfortable and safe, and there is no need for on-screen physical contact such as kissing and hugging.” However, as with short-form digital video content, there are still the added costs of said protocols, which are harder to absorb for smaller budgets.

Some producers such as Eric Rebalkin, co-founder of Mosaic Entertainment, are exploring documentaries for the first time precisely because they can be produced with smaller crews. Others, such as Christina Fon and marblemedia Co-CEO Mark Bishop, are exploring different forms of documentaries ― ones that rely heavily on archival footage and animation, for instance.

However, documentaries also have their own challenges. While scripted shows are often shot in one location or can be limited to a studio, many documentaries are dependent on travel. “We were supposed to have a doc in production this fall but it requires travel around Canada, explains Kyle Irving, a partner at Eagle Vision. We may have to change subjects, locations, or at least limit the locations that we go to.”

Babel Films had just finished shooting a documentary in France and another on the Iran-Iraq border when lockdown started. “Luckily, we were able to finish shooting, but that’s not the sort of production we expect we will be able to do again anytime soon,” Piccoli says. OYA Media Group had three feature docs with international stories ready for exploratory filming at the time of lockdown. Today, they are optimistic that they will be able to get back to those stories at some point. In the meantime, they are digging into archival material and putting more time into story development without the distraction of being in production on other projects. “With the lockdown, we can focus on development and the result will be a richer story with a better narrative arc,” Co-Founder Alison Duke thinks. 

Shifting markets 

Broadcasters continue to be slow to commit and greenlight new productions as they assess their revenues. “Broadcasters are slower to commit, but we have seen some ‘nos’ turn into ‘yesses’,” Alison Duke mentions. Kyle Irving finds that the biggest hurdle lies in convincing broadcasters that a business model exists and that there is market demand.

As with other forms of content, the documentary market is looking for more entertaining, but also more politically engaged, productions ― what Kyle Irving refers to as “shifting to the light.” For those working on social justice, equity and stories from underrepresented communities, this is a time of heightened interest. “It’s an exciting time for us because of the kind of work we do, Alison Duke appreciates. Stories from the Black community, social justice and the environment are of interest right now. Before, broadcasters would say, ‘But what does this have to do with Canadians?’ Now, it is clearer to them. For example, they now know that anti-Black racism happens here.” 

“As an Indigenous-owned production company, we are really noticing the focus on redressing racial inequality and lack of diversity, notes Kyle Irving. We’re seeing the market respond to the opportunity for stories both Indigenous and diverse that we’ve known for a long time.” 

Irving also points out that this shift is not limited to Canada, but also noticeable in the United States. “It’s a watershed moment to see interest from the U.S. in Indigenous storytelling, not just the romanticized versions of history as in the past but real ― sometimes shocking, sometimes uplifting ― stories,” he says.

He is hopeful, but also a bit impatient. “After decades-long underrepresentation, broadcasters are finally starting to catch up, he observes. We’re hoping that the trend continues and that it’s not just a response to current situations. But I’m so done with planning. I just want to shoot.”


Photo credit: Innocent Mtui on Wikimedia Creative Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

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Kelly Lynne Ashton
Trained as an entertainment lawyer, Kelly Lynne Ashton has been working in the Canadian film, television and digital media industries for over twenty-five years. She has worked as a business affairs executive in several Toronto television production and distribution companies, including Atlantis Films Limited and the Owl Group of Companies. Kelly Lynne then entered the world of digital media to act as Senior Producer at children’s web studio Big Orbit Inc. While at Big Orbit she also developed, managed and marketed the online youth research company Reactorz. She has also worked in government relations and media policy as Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada. Kelly Lynne is currently bringing together the different strands of her career in the Canadian media industries - legal, business, marketing and research - and providing consulting services to clients in all areas of the industry including evaluation services for various funds, authoring research reports and programming industry conferences. Kelly Lynne obtained a Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College and now provides clients with diversity and inclusion consulting services.

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