BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Historically, there was a more predictable relationship between the funding and distribution of documentary films. Theatrical release was generally limited, but The Corporation For Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS and its affiliates were major funding sources, and they monitored production and could guarantee distribution via public television. Because of this, participants were assured that what was financed would be completed, be of sufficient quality and be seen by the public. But the role of CPB and PBS as primary programming funders and developers has diminished in recent years due to budgetary constraints, loss of member's support, loss of corporate sponsorships, state and federal budget cuts in CPB funding, and general economic conditions. 

As it stands today, the chances of an independently produced programming proposal being fully funded by CPB or PBS or its affiliates is less than 1% (Source: PBS). And because PBS has no assurance that independent producers can fully finance or complete their projects, or that the quality of the finished product will be acceptable, the relationship between production and distribution has become precarious. More often than not, independent producers must now complete their projects before binding distribution agreements with PBS or other distributors can be obtained. But with the guarantee of distribution no longer in place, private funding sources (nonprofit foundations, NGOs, corporations and individuals) are more reluctant to commit sufficient funds to fill the funding void. And there are other problems as well.

Although the amount of private nonprofit foundation money available to fund production has been decreasing recently due to economic conditions, the shortfall has also resulted from the fact that funding sources have found it difficult to assess the outcomes of funding media when compared to other available alternatives. The tangible effects of documentary films are hard to accurately  "measure" and "quantify". At the same time other private funding sources, like corporations and corporate foundations, are typically ill-equipped to determine if supporting this type of programming is an effective marketing tool. Other potential funders like cable television networks have not taken up the slack because they've found it more profitable to mimic the broadcast networks and provide "entertainment" programming that more directly targets the needs of their advertisers. In addition, few funders of any kind have the ability to assess the accuracy of production cost estimates, the competence of the filmmakers or the quality of their proposals, and so are reticent to fund them.

But the problem is not just a matter of money or risk assessment. It's also the result of grossly inefficient and ineffective fund-raising models. The basic method of financing independently produced documentaries has remained essentially unchanged for decades. In what might be called the "hat in hand" method filmmakers and producers typically develop a story concept they feel passionate about then "shop" it through a daisy chain of personal and institutional contacts and referrals, trying to raise the necessary funding. They make the rounds for grants from public funding sources and private foundations, or seek out individuals or corporate investors. This can take years and often leads nowhere. It's a hit and miss method and many worthy projects never get funded or are partially funded but never completed and distributed.

As production funding has become more independent of PBS, many private sponsors, particularly corporate sponsors, have demanded and received more marketing benefit for their investment.  Although these for-profit funding sources are typically not seeking significant monetary "return" (the media exposure and the chance to "do good while doing well" remain an enticement to fund), they increasingly want "bang for the buck" in their sponsorship credits. Correspondingly, "pod" credits (the 60 second segment at the beginning and the end of each PBS program dedicated to acknowledging the program's sponsors) have now become another form of advertising, in some cases virtually indistinguishable from regular corporate advertising.

In an attempt to mitigate this, PBS has maintained rules that prohibit private funding sources from financing  programming in situations where it might create the perception of influence by the funder on the program's journalistic integrity.  Ideally, they would like to limit sponsorship to funders who have no vested interest in the program's subject matter. But private funding sources generally see no reason to sponsor anything that doesn't align with their interests. And so, for independent filmmakers and PBS affiliate sponsorship organizations seeking production funding, this "Catch-22" has become a major deterrent to mutual cooperation and the flow of funding. This situation is becoming unworkable and fraught with conflicts of interest.

INDUSTRY ANALYSIS: Access to distribution appears to be the key issue limiting the growth of the documentary film business in the United States. Some new distribution avenues have recently emerged via satellite television, but their focus is either too broad (Link TV) or too currrent events oriented (Free Speech TV) to adequately serve the documentary film market. Project financing and distribution venues dedicated to airing documentary films (cable or satellite network channels) are available in other countries around the world. However, all are supported by public funds. In the U.S. any similar effort will likely have to subsist on a combination of operating revenues, investments, endowments, fees, donations, grants and distribution profits. The feasibility of such a venture is at the core of the DP study.

Documentary films and educational programming take on a variety of formats: dramatic long form television (e.g. The Civil War, Jazz), dramatic feature documentaries (e.g. Winged Migration, Bowling For Columbine, Enron, Supersize Me, Fahrenheit 911), educational television programming (e.g. Nova, Nature, Discovery and American Experience), and "news" format programming (e.g. Frontline). Each serves an important role and all are quite different than entertainment programming.

Whereas documentaries and educational programs seek to "inspire" and "inform", commercial interests seek to "stimulate" and "distract". Where documentaries and educational programs seek "meaningful impact" and "relevance", commercial interests seek "ratings" and "market timeliness." It's worth noting that the stated mission of PBS is "to serve its members with programming and services of the highest quality to advance education, culture and citizenship", and "to use media to inspire Americans to engage in deeper, more meaningful ways with the world around them." These are values well worth preserving. However, they are presently in jeopardy because they are antithetical to the goals of commercially driven funding sources, upon which PBS and independent producers have come to rely for an increasing portion of their funding needs.

Copyright 2005 Environmental Media Fund, Inc. All Rights Reserved