Documentary films have the ability to educate, to transform perceptions and to
portray the compelling truths of our world, but in a market crippled by recession
how do you package and pitch a story that will stand out and ultimately sell?
Though there may be distinctly different journeys for normal films and
documentary films, audience expectations remain on an equal playing field.
People want to watch entertaining stories of a high production value, no matter
what the genre.
Among local and international industry players, there is still a debate as to how
commercially viable the art of documentary filmmaking can be. While some
believe African-made documentaries are moving in a positive direction, others
pull no punches in cautioning filmmakers of the highly competitive and rarely
Frances-Anne Solomon, a producer at Hero Films Ltd in the US, Neiloe
Whitehead from documentary development at the National Film and Video
Foundation (NFVF) in South Africa, Rehad Desai, CEO of Uhuru Productions in
South Africa and Azania Muendane from Basic Lead in South Africa shared their
views at DISCOP Africa 2013.
Carefully planned content
“Many documentaries are boring and preachy; it’s hard to find ones that are
informing, entertaining and interesting. Films I have been able to sell are co-
productions that implicate or involve the place that it is being sold to,’ said
“Just like fiction, any work now has to be highly exceptional,’ he added.
Whitehead maintained that documentaries had the ability to repurpose content,
referencing South Africa celebrating its tenth year of democracy and how this
may bring older material back into relevant focus.
“Documentary films have the opportunity to re-invent audiences. Filmmakers can
capture moments in time that an audience can relive and relate to. You could find
that there is a whole new audience that relates now, to something done years
previously. Fiction can’t do that.’
Muendane said that the commercial success of a film and securing distribution
was heavily dependent on a clear business strategy.
Desai, who is the festival director of the Tri-Continental Film Festival said there
was a lack of commissioning documentaries in South Africa and that a large
majority of documentaries abroad were made by wealthy filmmakers, or what he
“This is not the case in South Africa; the old model of having one channel
commissioning filmmakers to make documentaries is over. You have to have
many sources and most people have a hybrid financing model. One way to start
is to approach organisations which deal with the issues featured in the
“Finding your market is very important. Ask yourself in the beginning; is it
possible to fund this film? You need to know what you are getting into and think
seriously about it.’
Building an audience
“The cost of productions has gone down radically, it’s now easy to make good
films with a great story and easier to connect to and build an audience on the
internet. That is what investors can bank on and it’s key to distribution and
production. Internet has offered us a direct audience gauge,’ said Solomon.
This couldn’t be truer in South Africa, where documentaries are not always given
theatre releases and can therefore find a direct access to viewers online.
Neiloe added: “From NFVF projects, the documentaries which have been the
most successful have completed development and have already established
Solomon concluded: “Test and build a product on the internet. Measure your
audience. All the tools for marketing and distribution are in the hands of the
An industry fuelled by passion
“As a documentary filmmaker you take a sworn oath to poverty but if you have a
few titles, they can earn you R300 000 to R400 000 a year,’ remarked Desai.
Whitehead concluded: “What makes a documentary so compelling is that even if
it doesn’t do well in theatres, it stays with viewers. It has longevity much
stronger than fiction. That is the reason to make documentary films, to impact on
society. Most people are not in it for profit.’