Dr Huw Jones • Lecturer in Film, University of Southampton
"There’s a danger that documentaries will lose value in the eyes of audiences if they are only available on streaming platforms"
- We talked to Dr Huw Jones, lecturer in Film at the University of Southampton, about how he developed Moving Docs’ survey on documentary audiences in Europe
In December 2019, Moving Docs launched a survey on documentary audiences in Europe (see the news). It was developed by Dr Huw Jones, lecturer in Film at the University of Southampton, who has previously researched similar topics in various capacities. We talked to Dr Jones about his work and the current situation regarding European audiences’ access to documentaries.
Cineuropa: How does the Moving Docs survey differ from other studies you have done?
Dr Huw Jones: My previous research for the MeCETES project based at the University of York examined the cross-border circulation and reception of European films in the 21st century. I’m particularly interested in how such films influence our perceptions of other European countries, our understandings of the past, our awareness of contemporary social issues and our sense of European identity. The Moving Docs survey continues that work, though it focuses specifically on documentary films. The survey seeks to find out how often Europeans watch documentary films on particular platforms (for example, cinemas, TV, DVD or VoD), why we watch documentaries, and how this experience may influence our knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. I think documentary films can potentially have a greater cultural impact than fictional films because people often explicitly watch documentaries to learn about a particular topic (such as climate change, for instance).
In which way is the methodology of the survey designed to deliver results that are useful for distributors and festival programmers?
I based the initial survey questions on the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes report from 2011 – which examined the cultural contribution of film in the UK – then tailored the questions in response to feedback from Moving Docs, its partners, and friends who tested the survey for me. We’ve even included a section where respondents have the chance to watch trailers for three forthcoming documentary films, to see what (if anything) they like about these films. I hope the survey findings will enable distributors and festivals to know more about their audiences, so they can select more documentaries that audiences want to see, and know how best to position and promote these films within an increasingly crowded market.
What is your view of audiences’ perception of documentary films, as opposed to fiction?
There’s certainly been a shift in the perception of documentary feature films in recent years with the commercial and critical success of personality-driven documentaries like Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie, archival documentary biopics like Asif Kapadia’s Amy [+see also:
film profile] and innovative, creative documentaries like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing [+see also:
At the same time, it’s a hugely crowded market: 110 documentary features were theatrically released in the UK in 2018 – more than two new titles per week. With multiplex cinemas and even many independent arthouse cinemas dominated by commercial blockbuster films, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small, low-budget documentaries to stand out and secure cinema screen space. VoD services like Netflix and Amazon Video do make it easier for audiences to access documentary films. But there’s a danger that documentaries will lose value in the eyes of audiences if they are only available on streaming platforms.
What are the main obstacles to audiences accessing documentary films, in terms of both their own awareness that these films are out there, and their ability to recognise and then access them?
I think there are three main obstacles. Firstly, as I said, the film market is increasingly crowded, with 787 new film releases per year in the UK. And it’s not just the increasing number of films: TV serials, books, magazines, websites, podcasts, social media, video games – audiences are overwhelmed with content and things vying for our attention. This makes it difficult for all but a few film titles (often ones with some kind of “presold” content) to stand out. Secondly, independent arthouse cinemas – the traditional champions of documentary films – are increasingly showing mainstream, commercial films to stay in business. Documentaries are lucky if they can get a one-off, mid-week screening. Thirdly, we need to be honest: there is a mismatch between supply and demand. 705 documentary features were produced in Europe in 2018. Over 3,000 documentaries have been made in the last four years alone. Not all of these films necessarily have an audience. Hopefully, the Moving Docs survey will allow the documentary film industry in Europe to know what audiences want so they can be more selective and targeted in terms of the kinds of documentaries that are produced and distributed.
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