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Caty Borum Chattoo
William Harder

center for media
& social impact
school of communication
american university

September 2018

The evolving digital era presents new opportunities for documentary makers and audiences as platforms shift, new storytellers emerge, and media systems transform. Documentary has long enjoyed a vibrant space in the media ecology, and the marketplace for creative nonfiction storytelling continues to expand. Although the digital age began in the latter part of the 20th century, its practical implications have manifested for documentary storytellers and fans within the last 10-15 years – the era of YouTube, social media, streaming networks, and accessible filmmaking equipment. Audiences are finding nonfiction stories in new ways, organizations have emerged at the intersection of documentary and public engagement, and a global community of documentary makers continues to grow. Despite an expansive landscape for documentary filmmakers and audiences, particular challenges are persistent. Questions about sustainable systems and sources of revenue that can support career-making documentary work are perennial. Issues of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity require attention and scrutiny. As viewers continue to discover documentary storytelling across various platforms, and as new filmmakers enter the craft, tracking industry professionals’ perspectives and lived experiences is a vital pursuit.

Overview & Objectives

In 2016, in collaboration with the International Documentary Association, the Center for Media & Social Impact identified a need to understand documentary trends, as well as the motivations, concerns, and perspectives of documentary industry professionals and makers at a moment of transition and opportunity. Sparked by this need and curiosity, we launched a pilot phase of this research in 2016, which was released at the 2016 IDA Getting Real convening. Two years later, this 2018 report reveals the first formal foray into this work. The State of the Documentary Field study will be repeated every other year.

The CMSI State of the Documentary Field study is the first research to reveal trends and experiences of contemporary documentary professionals primarily based in the United States. Crafted by CMSI with feedback from the International Documentary Association (IDA), the study was informed by insights and questions derived from documentary professionals. The survey included 33 content questions and standard demographic questions (age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, and country of residence, along with membership in documentary-related organizations). The study was designed to understand documentary industry members’ perspectives and lived experiences based on four key themes:

Documentary Motivations, Opportunities & Challenges
Documentary Career Sustainability, Economics & Funding
Documentary Diversity
Documentary Distribution & Platforms

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