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Four Crucial Studies from the Center of Media and Social Impact at American University

In February 2017, a study entitled "Journey to the Academy Awards: A Decade of Race & Gender in Oscar-Shortlisted Documentaries (2008-2017)" was published by Caty Borum Chattoo, Nesima Aberra, Michele Alexander, and Chandler Green. The documentary feature category is largely excluded from the cultural conversation about diversity and inclusion in entertainment storytelling, despite the documentary genre’s vital place in the marketplace and a functioning democracy. And yet, despite notable achievements and improvement in recognizing directors of color and female directors, the documentary field may have similar challenges of diversity and inclusion. This study spotlights at least one important numerical reality of the challenge—at one notable level of international achievement in film. 2017 reveals the largest percentage of Oscar-shortlisted documentary directors of color over at least the past decade. Almost a third (29 percent) of this year’s 17 credited Oscar-shortlisted documentary directors (in the Best Documentary Feature category) are people of color, up from 18 percent in 2016, none in 2015, and 17 percent in 2014. The percentage of recognized women documentary directors, while an increase from last year (24 percent of recognized shortlisted directors in 2017 are women, compared to 18 percent in 2016), remains at relatively the same low level of recognition over the past decade. Of the 17 shortlisted documentary directors (across 15 films), 71 percent are white, and 29 percent are directors of color (a notable increase from 18 percent directors of color in 2016). Of the 126 Oscar-shortlisted documentary producers (executive producers, producers, and co-producers across 15 films), 92 percent are white, and 8 percent are producers of color. For the first time in the history of the documentary category, four out of the five formally Oscar-nominated documentary directors are directors of color. Of the 17 shortlisted documentary directors (across 15 films), 76 percent are male, and 24 percent are women (up from 18 percent in 2016). Of the 126 Oscar-shortlisted documentary producers (executive producers, producers and co-producers across 15 films), 51 percent are men, and 49 percent are women. Read the full study online. 

Another study by Patricia Aufderheide, Caty Borum Chattoo, and Kenneth Merrill was released, titled "Diversity in Independent TV Documentaries: Is Public TV Different?" With HBO, CNN, Pivot, Netflix, Amazon and many more jockeying for documentaries, is public TV distinctive? To answer this question, researchers counted female and minority participation in commercial and public documentaries. Researchers examined 165 documentaries that aired in either the 2014 or 2014-2105 season in the U.S. Researchers focused on social-issue documentaries produced by independent makers, as represented in series that curate authorial works. For commercial TV, they chose HBO Documentaries and CNN Documentaries. For public TV, researchers chose Independent Lens and POV. These four series are all series seriously considered by independent filmmakers and their agents when deciding on a broadcast partner for the same kind of social-issue work. Researchers found that public television, while still a uniquely valuable place for minority and women independent makers and a site for storytelling that otherwise may not reach television publics, has competition from commercial television, at least for more established makers and for women. Although commercial television does not feature as many films with women and minority directors as public authorial TV, it employs more women and minorities in secondary roles than public authorial series do. Although public TV’s independent series showcase many more international figures of color than commercial and outdistance commercial TV for stories featuring women and U.S. minorities, commercial TV showcases more such stories than some other leading public TV documentary series. Check out the full study.

In the study "The State of the Documentary Field: 2016 Survey of Documentary Industry Members," CMSI co-director Caty Borum Chattoo found that by far, documentary film professionals see making a living as the most pressing issue facing the industry. They see the greatest challenges as funding for documentaries and sustainable careers, with more than two-thirds (67%) indicating these two categories are the “most challenging issues” today. Despite challenges, documentary professionals view this as an exciting time in the field. Eight in 10 (83%) agree or strongly agree that they are excited about the future of documentary. About two-thirds (64%) feel strongly this is a “golden era” for documentary. In terms of specific trends in the field, documentary professionals are most optimistic (“very optimistic” and “optimistic”) about: (1) new opportunities for online distribution (94%), (2) documentary’s social impact (92%), (3) Web-based short-form documentaries (90%), and (4) new audiences discovering documentaries (90%) to watch. They are least optimistic about the distribution of documentaries in theaters (62 percent “not optimistic” or “not at all optimistic”) and crowd-funding for their work (41%). The study was designed to understand documentary industry members’ perspectives and lived experiences based on four key themes that emerged as paramount to the field: challenges and motivations, careers and funding (sustaining a documentary career and funding the work), distribution and format (getting seen), and diversity and inclusion (race and gender on and behind the camera). Read the full report.

The study "American Realities on Public Television: Analysis of Independent Television Service's Independent Documentaries, 2007-2016" yielded several interesting findings. The patterns made by a ten-year body of documentary work enabled by public funding provide a portrait of the stories, social issues, story settings, and diversity of the American filmmakers chosen to represent American realities to broad publics, who access their work on local public TV stations. Overall, researchers Caty Borum Chattoo, Patricia Aufderheide, Michele Alexander, and Chandler Green found that this body of work is made by people who are more likely to be female and people of color than media makers generally, and who reflect the demographic and geographic diversity of the nation. It is made about all regions of the country, in rough proportion to regional categories and with an emphasis on rural areas. It addresses issues of top concerns to Americans. They found that ITVS documentaries over a ten-year period represented, both in their makers and their subjects, a broad range of American demographics and geography. They showed working Americans addressing concerns in their community with active strategies for improvement. They represented the top concerns of American people as reflected in an annual Gallup poll. They had a strong focus on community and civic engagement. This pattern of representation makes a distinctive contribution to the media environment, by providing insights into aspects of America that typically are under-represented in mainstream media, but shape American civic and cultural realities. The full study can be found here

The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) at American University’s School of Communication, based in Washington, DC, is a research center and innovation lab that creates, studies and showcases media for social impact. Focusing on independent, documentary, entertainment and public media, CMSI bridges boundaries between scholars, producers and communication practitioners who work across media production, media impact, public policy and audience engagement. The Center produces resources for the field and research; convenes conferences and events; and works collaboratively to understand and design media that matter.


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NYWIFT programs, screenings and events are supported, in part, by grants from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and New York State Council on the Arts
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