Documentary filmmakers in Canada are worried about how they’re going to fund upcoming projects after recent federal cuts to the agencies that help finance them.
Veteran director John Kastner — whose films are currently being featured in a retrospective at Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary film festival — says he could not create films like his Emmy-winner Life With Murder in today's climate.
"Because of the cutbacks to CBC and National Film Board, we are witnessing the beginning of maybe the disappearance of Canadian documentary," he told CBC News.
Most broadcasters are featuring fewer documentaries — and now the CBC, which regularly shows Canadian documentaries – has less money to work with after being cut by $115 million over three years.
And Telefilm's $1 million production fund for theatrical documentaries has been reduced by $500,000 in the face of federal cuts.
Need to innovate
Nisha Pahuja, the Canadian filmmaker who earned the top documentary feature prize at Tribeca for The World Before Her, also faced difficulty raising funds for her project.
"This was one of those films where if something could go wrong, it did....it felt cursed. It was very difficult to raise money, because it is a challenge to raise money for feature-length documentaries," she told CBC News.
It's not a case of waning interest in documentary. Toronto's Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary festival, now running in Toronto, draws huge audiences each year. There is an increasing number of documentary films gaining theatrical release, proving the popularity of true stories. Meanwhile, the power of documentaries is also being tested online with viral phenomena such as the Kony 2012 film.
Filmmakers are having to innovate to find new funding sources. One option with potential is crowd-funding: raising money from online supporters through websites such as kickstarter.com.
Hot Docs recently set up a crowd-funding website called Doc Ignite.
"We had a really successful campaign for a film entitled How to Build a Time Machine," said Hot Docs market director Elizabeth Radshaw.
"We raised over $25,000 in 20 days.... Seeing that audience participation and interaction is really remarkable and they will become true fans of the film and will support it."
Documentary producer Peter Wintonick is a longtime fan of crowd-funding, but says it will only go so far.
"Realistically, an average feature-length documentary costs half a million dollars and the amount you could raise through a crowd is $40,000 or $50,000. So it's not a way to finance a movie, but it could be a component."
Wintonick says he's increasingly relying on international partners to help finance doc projects, including turning to "the Scandinavians, the Germans, the French, the Japanese — the cultures that have a preference for long-form documentaries," he said.
An example of this, for instance, is Herman's House, a Hot Docs film about an usual friendship that develops between a New York artist and a prisoner in solitary confinement. Toronto filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla made the film with mostly American money. He's now focusing on a web-based version with funding from the NFB.
Kastner worries, however, that Canadian content could be lost when teaming with international partners.
"Every other documentary filmmaker I know — including my own nephew — who is forced to go to other countries, like Germany, where they say 'Well, we want German content.' So in the end, very little of Canada survives on our television screens."