Doc Distro Lit Review

In recent years, the global landscape for the distribution of independent documentary films has undergone seismic changes. A documentary market boom that was once heralded as the “golden age of documentary” collided with a global streaming industry hungry for growth and resulted in a “bust” in the independent film marketplace overall, and the public interest documentary sector in particular. In response to this crisis, support organizations, industry leaders, journalists, and filmmakers have been organizing convenings, collaborating on fresh solutions, and writing in-depth examinations about how we got here and what comes next. The Shorenstein Center’s Documentary Film in the Public Interest Initiative is compiling this Documentary Distribution Literature Review to capture the quickly evolving landscape through a curated collection of annotated articles, webinars, talks, and convening summaries for an audience of experts and lay people alike. Our aim is to both inform and inspire new directions for where the conversation evolves next. This project was born from a convening organized by the Shorenstein Center’s Documentary Film in the Public Interest Initiative, Points North Institute, International Documentary Association, Doc Society, and Sub-Genre for the 2023 Camden International Film Festival. For a full bibliography of all resources included in this literature review, click here.

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Photograph of person wearing a black hat
Data scientist and journalist Daniel Parris describes the economics of streaming, proposing that as streaming libraries grow, the content value diminishes, and therefore streamers are left with the options of producing less or cheaper content or going under.
Photograph of a person looking upward
Writer Anthony Kaufman discusses how issues coming to the surface amid the current independent distribution landscape are reminiscent of topics he wrote about in the early-to-mid 2000s—and recalls the case of filmmaker Lance Hammer, who turned down a distribution deal in 2008 for his film "Ballast," in order to self-release and retain the rights of the film.
Black and white sign with 101 printed on it
Strategic brand consultant and independent film producer Brian Newman conveys his current rules for distribution, including details about the decreasing role of streamers in acquiring documentaries and in output deals with distributors, declining transactional revenue and theatrical engagement with documentaries (aside from event screenings), and more ideas for reaching a targeted audience.
Photograph of people standing in a room talking with one another
Writer Rachael Healy details recent findings from Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre's quarterly Labour Force Survey, showing underrepresentation of working-class people in all areas of arts and culture.
Photograph of people standing before a waterfall
Writer Matthew Carey reports that the documentary film industry is thriving in Denmark, where filmmakers find support from the Danish Film School, government-funded Danish Film Institute, and the documentary film festival CPH: DOX.
Compilation of four black and white photographs of people
Writer Jeremy Fuster describes how some filmmakers are opting for self-distribution strategies that allow them to build their own theatrical footprint and marketing efforts—in the cases of three films: "The Occult," "Hundreds of Beavers," and "Anchorage."
A collection of four film stills set behind the Margaret Mead Film Festival logo
Writer Matthew Carey reports on the return of New York's Margaret Mead Film Festival, which celebrates documentary film from around the world—amid a landscape of struggling festivals.
A film still depicting a person singing on a stage
Writer Addie Morfoot reports on staff departures and government-funding issues surrounding the 2024 edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival.
Illustration of a person riding a sideways Apple logo
Variety Co-Editor-in-Chief Cynthia Littleton reports on the changing climate in Washington, DC, surrounding mergers and acquisitions and the enforcement of—and calls for revisions to—antitrust laws.
Chart depicting Public Media: Per Capita Spend, with Germany at the top with $142.42, then Norway with $110.73, Finland with $101.29, Denmark with $93.16, the UK with $81.30, France with $75.89, Spain with $58.70, Japan with $53.15, Australia with $35.78, Lithuania with $32.71, New Zealand with $26.86, Canada with $26.51, Botswana with $18.38, Cabo Verde with $15.22, South Korea with $14.93, then the US with $3.16
Evan Shapiro reports on the weakened state of public service media in the US and its implications for democracy.

Disclaimer: This literature review is non-comprehensive, and will continue to be developed over time. Materials compiled in this literature review are the intellectual property of their respective authors and/or publishers. The Shorenstein Center and its Documentary Film in the Public Interest Initiative does not hold any rights to the materials included here, and is sharing them for informational purposes only. The Shorenstein Center assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions within the materials shared here, and the opinions of the authors and publishers are their own. Inclusion in this literature review does not connote endorsement of the ideas contained within each article by the Shorenstein Center or its programs, faculty, or staff.  Questions about the materials, or copyright-related requests about them, should be directed to the authors and original publishers.