At the margins of the market: notes on the essay film’s modes of production and distribution

A still from Akram Zaatari's Letter to a Refusing Pilot
Roberto Cavallini unpacks the essay film's potential for ideological critique vis-à-vis its position within the film industry.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In this second round, I’d like to offer an oblique answer to Igor’s question about whether the essay film affirms rather than criticizes current ideologies. To do so, I will shift back to a concrete, albeit overlooked issue: the position of the essay film within the film industry and its problems related to funding, production, and distribution strategies. I think it is worth discussing the modes of production of such films and how their distribution remains limited to festivals and academic circles, lowering their impact and capacity for political intervention. They are indeed watched by a limited audience and often don’t trigger cultural debates. However, their position nonetheless allows their creative and heretic stance to propagate proudly and slowly as counter-narratives at the margins of the market.

Essay film practices, by committing to a self-reflexive and a meta-historical approach, as Laura Rascaroli emphasized in this second round, are forms of cinema in constant search to produce a distinctive cinematic consciousness. We live in the epoch of a hyper-industrial attention economy, in which, as Bernard Stiegler would say, symbolic misery is our default horizon as we navigate a loss of participation in the aesthetic experience. The programming industries produce temporalized objects that obey the rules of marketing consumption. However, in such a context, in the last fifteen years, creative non-fiction and documentary filmmaking has nonetheless evolved as a thriving force within the mediascape. The marketplace of new digital landscapes shows that documentary storytelling is enjoying a positive response from new audiences in film festivals, VOD platforms (Netflix Original documentary series), and exhibition formulas of expanded cinema in museums. The thirst for reality-based storytelling is strong and new ways of accessing films digitally provide a wider platform for public engagement. Essay films don’t enjoy such consensus in terms of audience, yet they occupy a small portion of the documentary industry: they are usually produced by a filmmaker (director or producer) not fully integrated into a professional film context, often working as a solo artist, with few resources and support and in even more isolation when it comes to diffusion or distribution. Distribution is the core of any real political intervention in any cultural debate, employing films as cultural weapons against mass distraction. On the one hand, this allows the filmmaker to avoid any market-related constraint of the film (and its pitching values in relation to public and private film fundings). On the other hand, however, it reduces the chances to work within a sustainable production process with the presence of a complete professional creative team. Production and distribution issues are thus related: limited production support and opportunities lead to scarce distribution and restrictions on audience reach.

The CMSI State of the Documentary Field study – 2018 State of documentary professionals, a recent research carried out by Caty Borum Chattoo and William Harder, primarily focused on respondents in the United States. The study found that “for primary documentary makers (directors and producers), personal income from their films is low and inconsistent. More than half of documentary filmmakers (56%) received less than $25,000 (as gross personal income) from their most recent documentary film. A combined 8 in 10 documentary filmmakers (85%) received a range of less than $25,000 up to $75,000 of personal gross income generated by their most recent documentary film.” If one considers that the average documentary film usually takes two or three years in the making, and the director’s fee is usually calculated as 15% of the overall budget, half of documentary filmmakers make films of around $150,000, making $8,000 per year.

The same study shows that “for documentary makers’ most recent documentary films, the top four sources of funding to make their films represented are: foundation grants (30%), personal finances (22%), and a tie between public/broadcast TV networks (PBS, NBC, etc.) and individual donors (12%). Remaining sources of funding were widely dispersed among a range of sources.”

Producing essay films is even harsher in terms of funding and distribution. In Europe, the majority of essay films are funded through a mix of public funding, or as commissions from museums, universities, foundations, or non-profit institutions. Film festivals are nowadays the most important distribution launch-pad for experimental and essay films. Their structures are growing in a very interesting way, with festival programmes including industry markets and forums, pitching events, development, production and distributions funds, doc for sales platforms. A few examples can help shed light on the main strategies of funding and production.

Image 1: Mary, Pietro Marcello and Enzo from La Bocca del Lupo: a shot from a film presentation

Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo (2009, Italy) explores the city of Genova through marginal stories and archival footage of the city. One of the most intriguing examples of Italian cinematic essay of the last ten years, it was commissioned by the Genoese Jesuit community Fondazione San Marcellino, and had an estimated budget of 100,000 Euro. It was supported by a variety of state and non-state funding sources, and produced by Indigo Film (the production company behind directors such as Paolo Sorrentino, Mario Martone, Valeria Golino and Gabriele Salvatores), Avventurosa (Marcello’s own company), in collaboration with Rai Cinema and Babe Films, which allowed the distribution of the film through BIM Distribuzione, one of the main distributors in Italy dedicated to arthouse films. Marcello has said that the actual cash budget of the film was 20,000 Euro: the 100,000 Euro estimate is based on the value contributed by the big professional companies that entered the film in the post-production phase and helped with its festival distribution. The total amount of revenue at the box office in Italy was around 150,000 Euro, an impressive amount ten years ago given the film’s low budget. The film had an important festival presence, with more than 115 participations, winning Best Film Award at Torino Film Festival, two prizes at Berlinale 2010 (Caligari prize and Teddy Award), a David di Donatello Award for Best Documentary. Its success opened up Marcello’s career to international audiences. The limited production budget and limited theatrical distribution didn’t prevent the film to travel internationally. This was also thanks to the changing profile of film festivals in the last ten years which became a mix of development laboratories, industry forums, and co-production support schemes also through specific funds designed ad hoc for emerging filmmakers.

Patricio Guzmán shooting Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010), presented as Official Selection at Cannes in 2010, had several problems in the development phase: during its search for funding and subsidies, it was rejected by fifteen television companies, including the Centre National de la Cinématographie in France. The budget was finally closed at $600,000, through personal loans and the active commitment of the filmmaker and Renate Buchse, Guzman’s wife and the main producer. The difficulties in funding are also related to the limits of distribution of such films: the international gross of Nostalgia for the light since 2011 is $163,962 as per Box Office Mojo data. Winner of the Prix ARTE 2010 for Best Documentary at the European Film Academy Awards, the film, despite its revenue, is one of the most well-distributed cinematic essays of the last ten years, and reached a wide international audience.

A still from Akram Zaatari’s Letter to a Refusing Pilot

Akram Zaatari’s evocative Letter to a Refusing Pilot (2013) shows how essay films can benefit from artistic commissions by museums and art institutions. The film employs the city palimpsest in order to explore a story, set during the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. The film recounts the decision of a Israeli pilot (who apparently was also an architect), to refuse to bomb a school, founded by Zaatari’s father. The video was the central component of Zaatari’s video installation of the same name, the sole work occupying the Lebanese pavilion at the 2013 Venice Art Biennial. The work was curated by Sam Bardaouil and Til Fellrath and was commissioned by the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon. The distribution of the film focused on the installation exhibition in museums and, again, an international festival tour at, among others, Toronto International Film Festival 2013, Cinema du Reel (Paris), and IFFR Rotterdam 2014.

A joint effort between academic, public and visual art funds made possible the production of Robbrecht Desmet’s essay film On a clear day (2017), an audiovisual essay on the fragmented metropolitan landscape of Brussels. The film was produced by Auguste Orts, a Brussels-based production and distribution platform.1Auguste Orts was founded by artists Herman Asselberghs, Sven Augustijnen, Manon de Boer, and Anouk De Clercq. The film was part of the doctoral research project “The Right to the City” at the University of Leuven & LUCA School of Arts and produced by Auguste Orts with the support of Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Flemish Community Commission, FLACC Workplace for Visual Artists, Atelier Graphoui, LUCA School of Arts, Beursschouwburg Brussels, On & For Production, Herculeslab – KASK School of Arts. The film circulated mainly through film festivals and art institutions.

These examples show how is still absolutely crucial to provide directors and producers with platforms and resources, beyond the current streams of the film industry, in order to create critical films that can engage a wider audience but still have basic production support and good distribution opportunities. Film festivals, more than ever today, are career-shaping platforms (and city branding events). They are the only true and accessible resources an independent filmmaker can aim at, because they now also provide funding, industry network, and distribution. If the limited budget doesn’t affect the quality of the film, a good world premiere can give a strong push to emerging filmmakers which can then benefit from it later in order to circulate within expanded international networks and co-production opportunities for their next projects.

The essay film’s principal modes of production suggest that the marginal position of such practices provide a flexible space for them to be critical tools to the mainstream audiovisual market. However, the limitations of distribution, and consequent weak impact on contemporary cultural debates, confines them as extremely rare glimpses of critique. One could say then that the essay film today, and especially those that explore the city as palimpsest, function as critical practice, rendering visible what is concealed by current ideologies, yet they still strive to occupy a prominent position in our contemporary media ecology systems.


1 Auguste Orts was founded by artists Herman Asselberghs, Sven Augustijnen, Manon de Boer, and Anouk De Clercq.
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.