The current state of the documentary film industry since COVID-19

In a nutshell

  • The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally altered the documentary film industry, with the transition to virtual film festivals and streaming platforms becoming more prominent.
  • The pandemic has led to a redefinition of documentary filmmaking, with changes in production methods, storytelling focus and ethical considerations, emphasizing the resilience and creativity of filmmakers.
  • Despite the increased availability of platforms for documentary viewing, the financial and market constraints, particularly for independent filmmakers, remain significant, highlighting the industry’s ongoing challenges and the necessity of adaptability.

The golden age of documentary officially came to an end when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in early 2020. In-person film festivals were canceled and productions halted. Financiers and distributors became more risk-averse, tightening their checkbooks and movie theaters closed, marking the end of an era. But what impact did COVID-19 really have on the documentary film industry, and how is it fairing now?

Film festivals: Adapting to a new reality

Film festivals, traditionally crucial in showcasing documentaries to a global audience, faced a dilemma during the pandemic: adapt or risk cancellation. Many turned to virtual formats, enabling filmmakers to reach audiences worldwide. While virtual festivals lacked the in-person connections and networking opportunities of physical events, they opened up new possibilities for accessibility and inclusivity. Major film festivals, including Sundance, Toronto and DOC NYC, pivoted to virtual screenings. This allowed filmmakers to showcase their work to a broader and more diverse audience. Attendees accessed films from home, overcoming geographic and financial barriers.

The rise and challenges of streaming

Streaming had already played a major part in the growth of the documentary industry. It brought documentaries into the mainstream lexicon. At the same time, the streaming era contributed to the decline of movie theater attendance.

The streaming pipeline became oversaturated heading into the start of the pandemic. Streamers started making major cutbacks in 2022 and 2023, including mass layoffs at Netflix.

Other new players in the documentary space, like CNN and Vice Studios, had to shut their doc productions down. Subscriber growth plateaued, and streaming platforms began to crack down on practices like password sharing. Streaming became less profitable, and companies were forced to incorporate new tactics like ad revenue to remain profitable. In the end, the documentary market became oversaturated with content. Media companies had invested billions of dollars just before the pandemic, anticipating continued subscriber growth.

This trend seemed to hurt independent filmmakers the most. It left them struggling to sell projects that had been produced for film markets and festivals. The market was already flooded with commercial projects.

The evolution of documentary film

The pandemic brought about economic uncertainty, affecting funding sources for documentary filmmakers.

There was also a shift in documentary filmmaking itself. The initial months of the pandemic brought a seismic shift in how documentaries were produced. Social distancing measures, lockdowns and travel restrictions disrupted traditional production methods. Crews had to adapt to new safety protocols, and some projects were postponed indefinitely. However, adversity breeds innovation, and documentary filmmakers demonstrated adaptability and resourcefulness.

It used to be that independent nonfiction filmmakers from around the world with unique access points and important stories could make a film that might land a streaming deal. But as subscriber growth declined and the pandemic hit, major streamers and financiers became risk-averse to anything that wasn’t a surefire hit. Festival and market sales dried up. It seemed like the only documentaries that received corporate funding had to involve a major celebrity or cover a salacious true crime story. This trend hurt the essence of documentary filmmaking.

A barrier to indie documentary film success

A major point of contention in the film industry revolves around streaming services withholding data. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to verify the success of indie films on platforms like Netflix. This leads to fewer acquisitions of such films. Eugene Hernandez, director of the Sundance Film Festival, acknowledged the challenging sales environment at Sundance, reflecting the overall difficult market.

In an email exchange with a well-respected documentary industry producer, Poh Si Teng, the Executive Editorial Producer of ABC News Studio, expressed the reality of the documentary industry in 2023. “It’s frustrating indeed. Our industry as a whole is not faring well,” she said. Poh Si Teng also told me in a phone conversation that even award-winning documentary filmmakers and other established directors were having problems getting projects green-lit.

Further impact on the industry

The pandemic also brought to the forefront other important topics that hadn’t been properly addressed in years past. That included the mental health of documentary filmmakers. Plus, the isolation and anxiety caused by the pandemic prompted a surge in documentaries addressing mental health issues.

The way business was conducted changed during the pandemic. Zoom calls became the preferred method for business and collaboration. Virtual and hybrid festivals became the norm. These tools were effective for ensuring safe social distancing. However, it quickly became evident to those in documentary filmmaking that in-person festivals and markets are a better way of doing business.

The pandemic also reshaped the narratives documentaries explored, bringing critical issues to the forefront of public consciousness. Changes in production methods, film festivals, funding sources and ethical considerations all played a role in redefining documentary filmmaking in this new era.

The road ahead: Resilience and adaptation

The COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible mark on the documentary filmmaking industry. From production challenges and financial struggles to shifts in storytelling and digital transformation, the industry has had to adapt in unprecedented ways.

While the road ahead remains uncertain, one thing is clear: documentary filmmakers have demonstrated resilience, creativity and a commitment to capturing the human experience, even in the most challenging of times.

The lessons learned during this challenging time will undoubtedly shape the future of documentary filmmaking, ensuring it remains a vital medium for shedding light on the most pressing issues of our time. The reality is that the documentary film industry is constantly changing. The pandemic forced everyone out of their comfort zones.

Film festivals and format shifts were accelerated. Panels went online. Festivals became hybrid with in-theater showings and online screenings. The model for theatrical documentaries and theater-going in general never returned to its pre-pandemic attendance, but this may be more a sign of the digital times than a result of the pandemic.

The current state of documentary filmmaking

The current state of documentaries in 2023 is similar to what it was pre-pandemic. Getting picked up by Netflix or another major streamer remains extremely challenging. However, the number of documentaries entering the mainstream seems to be on the rise, thanks to all the streaming options and the increasing demand for content. There’s a focus on celebrity documentaries and true crime docs because investors feel these types carry the least risk. Small, personal documentaries often struggle to gain recognition.

There are more documentary outlets than ever, but breaking through to the gatekeepers remains an uphill battle. The pandemic may have exacerbated this challenge for indie documentary filmmakers.

Making a living in documentary filmmaking

Making a living as a documentary filmmaker seems as challenging as making it to the NBA. Still, while the golden age of documentaries may have ended, there are more platforms to watch documentaries than ever before. More choices mean more opportunities.

An old filmmaker friend and famous music video director, Mark Klasfeld, once told me, “Don’t get into documentary filmmaking if you want to be rich.” Post-pandemic, this advice couldn’t be more true.