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Revolution in Motion: Notes on the Future of Documentary Production

In his exhaustive and insightful answers to our survey questions, Paul Pauwels, director of the European Television & Media Management Academy (etma) discusses the latest shifts in the documentary and broadcasting markets. In October 2011, Mr Pauwels attended IDF's Industry Programme as a tutor of the TV and Media Management Seminar and a Round Table moderator.


Paul Pauwels, director of etma, was among the guests of IDF's Industry Programme (October 2011, Jihlava). He co-tutored the TV and Media Management Seminar and moderated East European Forum's round tables.


1/ Changes in funding, distribution and programming have also transformed the role of producers and directors. A film no longer has to be a unique work with only two length formats, and can be readily modified for various platforms; from the get-go, director and producer work with the film's potential for crowd funding and targeted promotion in a specific niche. How should film schools respond to these shifts? How should production and directing departments work together in light of these shifts?

The answer to this question is more fundamental than just changing the relation between production and directing departments.

The whole paradigm of audiovisual production is changing in such a way that the whole system of training and education has to change. This change should not be an evolution (like we’ve known it over the past 50 years) but a revolution. For the very first time since television started, the medium is now undergoing changes that deeply influence the whole industry and the society in which it functions.

The converging media and the fast development of the broadband applications create a need for a new type of audiovisual professional; the future no longer belongs to a person who’s extremely specialized in a limited number of fields but to those who manage to understand the wide scope of tomorrow’s media and who are well prepared to work on many levels and in different fields; it belongs to those who have a great gift of innovation and who welcome constant changes as an opportunity and not a threat. The race of dinosaurs (of which I’m one) who for many years governed the media and who could comfortably live in a world where the rules were simple and tailor-made to their needs and talents is on the verge of extinction. Media schools (forget the term “film schools” or “television schools”) now need to concentrate on preparing people who combine managerial and creative talents and prepare them to work in an ever-more competitive environment where the learning and education will never be finished. Lifelong self-learning will be necessary.

Media education also has to make it clear to the happy few who study in these specialised schools that their competitors are not the ones who are sitting on the bench next to them (or on the benches in other media schools) but that they will have to compete with the constant stream of yet unknown technology-savvy and talented people who in the future will constantly and exponentially drive the media; people who will never see the inside of a media training institution. The latter will be in charge. The medium which has been for such a long time a PUSH medium has changed into a PULL medium, where the audience pays the piper and therefore picks the tune. The audience is now the competitor. The technology has developed in such a way that today’s media creation is no longer the privilege of a selected core of people but is now open to everyone who has a message or just wants to express an idea. On top of that, the broadband universe offers distribution opportunities that within very short time will completely transform the face of the media. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Whether we like the above or not, it is reality. I think that the fact that the use of media is now open to all should please us but there’s also a great danger linked to this unlimited access. Media are a very powerful weapon that can be used in a good way but – because they’re now so generally available - can also become a threat to democracy, moral standards and pluralism. The craft of producing and distributing media has changed considerably but these are merely technical changes for which new skills will be developed. Media schools can be the labs where these skills can be developed and sent out in the real world to be tested. As such there will always be a need to train “technicians”, but the main task of media training institutes should be to prepare the right people to manage the media in a professional and morally correct way. Without neglecting their role in finding, stimulating and enhancing creativity, the media training organisations of tomorrow will have to put a lot more emphasis on preparing people in a holistic way.

To sum it up; in the same way as the media are undergoing a revolution, the current film schools will have to completely rethink their functioning and even their reason of existence. Any refusal to do so will lead to their disappearance within a very short while and the audiovisual media are too important to let that happen.

2/ Recently, two distinct types of documentary production, funding and form have been shaping up. On the one hand, there are documentary features supported by film funds and headed for festivals and theatrical release. On the other hand, we have non-fiction programming that includes one-hour creative docs and all new derivative forms, and seeks funding at pitching forums. The gap between the two types is getting bigger as more documentaries are released in cinemas and screened even at feature film festivals, and with the impact of the internet and new distribution models. What are some of the (negative) effects of these shifts?

I don’t agree that recently two distinct types of production, funding and form have been shaping up. I don’t really see big changes nor a big shift. The two types of documentaries that you describe have always existed, at least since the mid-eighties, early nineties when independent documentary became an established form of production.

The feature-length documentaries that are successfully distributed in commercial theatres are rather limited in number and the major part of the box office will go to a very small number of (often spectacular) productions than can profit from the promotion machine of the established studios and distribution companies. Documentaries supported by film funds will often get a very limited release and will indeed do the tour of international festivals, but in my opinion even the most well-known festivals don’t have the same resonance anymore as they had in the sixties, seventies and (already a lot less) the eighties. Taking into account the harsh economic times we all have ahead of us, these creative documentaries (which I’m very fond of) will be facing serious financing trouble when the available means will be cut soon.

The international hour documentaries have been the blood and the breath of the international documentary production community and they still are the large majority of factual films that are being produced. They also have to find a big chunk of their financing with film funds, for the financial input of broadcasters has gone down dramatically. The negative effect that I see here is the fact that the international documentary community seems to be blind to the fact that only very little money is coming from their most important clients: the broadcasters. For some time now, I’ve been warning people about what they can expect from a pitching session. These are a great way to put their project on the market and get the buzz going, but they hardly are an important way of finding money anymore. In those cases when they’re connected to a workshop during which the projects are being scrutinized and developed, they are very valuable for they will enhance the content and the general quality of the proposals and thereby contribute to the professional image of international documentary filmmaking. This is very important, for the latter will be the argument that can be used in the upcoming discussions with governments and film funds, when the need will arise to defend the documentary community’s interests.

The negative effect that I’ve witnessed over the recent years is that in most pitching sessions the emphasis has been on the performance, the seven minutes of fame during which to blow away the panel members with a stunning presentation, but less attention is being given to the content development and the narrative. This is a worrying development for it will soon become counterproductive and will harm documentary film in general.

3/ What strikes you as the most positive or negative regarding current developments in documentary filmmaking?

For this answer I have to refer to the answers given above, in combination with the general changes in our current society. On all levels we see a bi-polarity emerging, a situation of extremes. You’re either very white or black, extremely poor or filthy rich: the middle positions, the middle classes, are disappearing. This is worrying because the middle class kept society together and acted as a buffer between the extremes.

The same is happening in our documentary community. Generalising a bit, there have always been three kinds of production levels:

Level 3: A rather limited number of big boys who got the big budgets and had privileged relations with the big spenders among the broadcasters: they would cater to a large majority of factual entertainment (wildlife, adventure, discovery, etc.) that fuels the broadcaster’s schedules.
Level 2: A very large number of medium-sized production companies that were working with moderate budgets and had to fight a daily struggle to survive, but who in doing so were the motor of creativity. This is the level where new techniques would be developed, new forms of storytelling would be discovered and innovative formats would emerge. This level was the pumping heart that drove documentary film forward. Many of the elements of what would be developed on this level would be picked up by the wealthier production companies mentioned above and become part of mainstream storytelling.
Level 1: A smaller but a very active community of “experimental” documentary filmmakers who could not be considered a part of the “professional” circuit and whose aim wasn’t to become part of it but just to express themselves and have their work distributed. They were the ones who were constantly innovative and would challenge the professional community to be more daring. Their most successful (or at least potentially successful) techniques would be taken up by level 2 (the medium-sized-class companies) who then refine them and put them to good use in their productions.

Altogether this system, this production chain, functioned well because there was a constant innovative drive that enhanced the general quality and made it difficult for the mainstream production level to rest on its laurels and become boring. It also offered a good opportunity for many (on the second level) to make a normal living out of producing factual programming and create companies that had a value and a potential to grow.

This system is now disappearing: level 3 (the big boys) is still there and is becoming more powerful and influential. The medium-sized companies, however, are finding it more and more difficult to survive and have to adapt. Either they find a way to rise to level one (not many can...), or they have to cut expenses and move to level 1 where it’s practically impossible to make a (decent) living out of documentary producing and directing. The dangers are obvious: because there’s less production by medium-sized companies, their products will not make it to the general audience anymore and mainstream documentary will fill the slots that before were filled by creative and human-interest documentaries. And as we all know: what the audience doesn’t know, the audience doesn’t like. My fear is that soon we’ll see an elite class of well-paid professionals who’ll produce a huge number of hours of highly professional high production value factual entertainment that is easy to digest but will be aiming to please the largest common denominator of the audience and, on the other side of the spectrum, there’ll be an enthusiast group of non-professionals who’ll produce a lot of technically poor documentaries (in various formats and lengths) and use the net to distribute their products, but who won’t contribute to a viable industry. The middle level, which in the past has been the motor of creative documentary production, might suffer and might disappear. If this happened, it would be a disaster and it’s the duty of all working in the field to do whatever is in their power to prevent this from coming true.

But to end on a positive note: I’m a strong believer in the wheel of time. Which means that what disappeared yesterday will come back tomorrow (by figure of speech). In other words, I believe that within a limited time, the audience will be fed up by the current avalanche of reality programme and formatted productions and will be asking for more original, character-driven and well-told stories. This, in combination with the opportunities offered by digital TV and IP-distribution channels will create new chances for the documentaries we all love. Already we can see that more slots are being created for feature-length documentaries on TV and I do hope that this is the beginning of a new era for all those who spend their lives producing, directing and distributing documentaries that matter. We’re not there yet, and the years to come will be difficult but like rock and roll, documentary film will never die!


Paul Pauwels
Paul Pauwels has been working as a unit manager and production manager on several Flemish feature films before founding in 1985 his own production unit Periscope Productions NV, specialising in factual production. Several of Periscope’s documentaries were awarded internationally. After selling his company in 2004, Paul Pauwels worked for a two-year period as Programme Manager at Flemish public broadcaster VRT. Having left the broadcaster in 2006 he became the director of the "european television and media management academy" (etma), a position he holds until today. Extensive experience in consulting and tutoring (sessions in almost 30 countries over the past 15 years). He’s teaching Documentary Production at the Flemish Film School KHLIM (Genk) and is regularly invited to moderate pitching sessions. Member of the selection committee for documentary projects of the Flemish Film Fund (VAF). Degree in Directing and Production of Belgian Film School RITCS, where he graduated in 1979.


This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #2.

Learn more about Mr Pauwels's work on etma's website.