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Canada’s Top Documentary Festival Keeps Sending Increasingly Dire Emails About Its Survival

A misunderstood and mistreated killer whale. An investigation into the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and American gun culture at large. An inconvenient truth about the future of planet Earth in the face of devastating climate change.

If you go by overwhelmingly successful films like Blackfish, Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth, it might seem like documentaries are everywhere we look, affecting and influencing how we perceive society and the world at large. But even as audiences clamour for true stories on their screens, the documentarians that make them are sounding alarm bells about the future of documentary filmmaking.

“I think in every respect, it’s really more difficult. Streamers, broadcasters — there’s an attrition that is happening,” said Jennifer Holness, a documentary filmmaker and producer who’s worked in the industry for over 20 years. 

That’s just dollars and cents — you know, less money — and that less money translates to less commissioning, which translates to smaller budgets, which translates to upheaval.

The result is clear, she says: a contracting industry that increasingly struggles to support documentarians.

While that contraction will most affect marginalized voices, she says it will eventually impact all creators, leaving only those wealthy enough to do it — undermining the purpose, and benefit, of documentaries.

“It becomes something for those who can afford it or a part-time gig that you can’t sustain,” she said. “This is not healthy. It’s not a healthy space for people to be operating out of.”

It’s a trend that’s been observed by more than just filmmakers themselves.

LISTEN | Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival in hot water: 

Metro Morning7:44Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, is facing extreme financial pressures

Hot Docs chaos a symptom of wider uncertainty

Alongside a general suffering and shuttering of arts institutions across the country, Canada’s largest documentary film festival sent a dizzying number of emails ahead of its 31st annual showing this year. 

Alongside emailed entreaties as blunt as “I’ll be completely honest with you: we’re struggling,” written by Hot Docs president Marie Nelson, a profile in the Globe and Mail hammered home the precarious situation faced by the festival.

Hot Docs president Marie Nelson has sent out a series of emails highlighting dire warnings about the festival’s future. (Hot Docs)

“We really meant it when we said that we were fearful that this year’s festival is going to be our last,” said Nelson when asked about the festival’s request for emergency financial support from Ottawa

Hot Docs representatives declined to speak to CBC for this article, but the struggling industry is far from the festival’s only concern.

In a recent interview with CBC, Nelson said the festival was still feeling the effects of COVID-19 pandemic. As well, 10 festival employees recently resigned, blaming an “unprofessional and discriminatory environment” after a new artistic director was hired, resulting in a curtailed number of films over prior years. That director, Hussain Currimbhoy, stepped down in March.

And after the government neglected to provide emergency funding for Hot Docs, two high-profile Hot Docs board members resigned just days before the festival began in late April. That reduced its total number of board members from 24 last year to 13 now. 

Pat Mullen, the publisher of Canadian documentary arts outlet POV Magazine, said that chaos is just a symptom of wider uncertainty and a quiet but growing panic in the feature-length documentary world. 

“The things that we heard from Doc’s report last fall are being echoed in the U.S.A. and the U.K.,” he said, noting both the closure of production powerhouse Participant Media and dismal documentary box office numbers in England and Ireland, despite critically acclaimed releases.

“That landscape has totally shifted in the past 20 years, and really — even in the past maybe five — I think the streamers have totally taken over.”

WATCH | How Canada’s festivals are struggling: 


Canadian arts festivals pushed to the brink by inflation, stalled funding

Numerous Canadian arts festivals are struggling to stay afloat with some having to cancel or pause events this year. Organizers point to post-pandemic inflation as a major cause, combined with government funding that isn’t keeping pace with rising costs.

Streaming edutainment

The incursion of streaming services is among the biggest drivers of the change in the industry, according to Mullen.

Because though unscripted series like Tiger King, Making a Murderer and Don’t F**k With Cats found mammoth success — especially since the pandemic drove audiences away from theatres and toward longform series that can be watched at home — he says they’ve done so at the expense of feature-length documentaries. 

And while streamers like Netflix do acquire critically acclaimed feature-length documentaries, Mullen says the overwhelming focus is on “edutainment” — true crime or celebrity series that “are maybe not as artistically sophisticated.

A primary example would be the shuttering of Participant, the company behind innumerable socially motivated documentaries and dramas such as An Inconvenient Truth, Citizenfour, The Cove, Moonlight, Spotlight and others.

In a reaction piece in The Hollywood Reporter, prominent documentarians called the company’s closure a “devastating” loss of one of the few avenues for getting serious documentaries funded.   

If they’re sort of throwing their hands up and saying, ‘There’s no future in this business,’ then I think that will have a ripple effect,” Mullen said. 

“Shaking the confidence of other people — and funding [for] documentaries that are being political, that are being active, that are sort of shaking up the status quo and really doing what the art form was built to do.”

A crowd of people stand in front of theatre doors. A sign in front of them reads 'Ticket Holders line.'
The future of Toronto’s Hot Docs festival is deeply tied to the health of feature-length documentary films, according to industry experts. (Isidore Champagne/CBC)

Drop in feature documentary production

The ripple caused by Participant’s closure could force Hot Docs to fold. And that, in turn, could mean dire consequences for the documentary industry as a whole. 

If the festival were to disappear, one of the most important routes for documentaries — especially Canadian ones — to get their films to buyers and audiences would go with it. 

Documentary Organization of Canada executive director Sarah Spring said they’ve already started watching that canary in the coal mine.

In their 2023 report, Spring says they noted a “huge drop” in feature documentary production from 2016 to 2021, going from 60 to 35 total documentaries produced — or from comprising 5.1 per cent of Canadian production volume to only 2.4 per cent of it. Their report also found there was a rise in the number of low budget documentary series being produced.

But the disappearance of feature documentaries isn’t due to a lack of appeal or value, as Mullen noted a 2023 Telefilm Canada report that found documentaries are the second favourite movie genre among Canadian audiences.

But Spring already sees a potential future and pointed to moves in the right direction: both Telefilm’s funding of 30 documentaries last year (their most ever), and the Canada Media Fund’s announced intention to focus on feature-length documentaries could open up opportunities. 

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While streaming services used to support the art form of documentary, she says that has “very much shifted.” 

Major streaming platforms rarely purchase completed documentaries that reflect or investigate national conversations, and she noted that in last year’s Documentary Organization of Canada survey, not a single film identified a foreign international streamer as a source of funding for its creation.

It’s part of an atmosphere that sees 75 per cent of documentarians taking on other work to make a living, and only two in 10 making a profit from their films, according to a 2020 report from the U.S.-based Center for Media & Social Impact. 

If protection and guidance is built up, Spring says, more opportunities could arise. But that’s not a certainty.   

“If we really do continue to invest in public funding in Canada for documentary filmmakers that’s accessible, that’s equitable, then we’re going to see all of it,” she said. 

“If we only rely on market interest to guide our public policy … we won’t have these rich, long, complex stories that push the art form forward, that we’ve become really well known for around the world.”

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