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Center for Media Social Impact unveils findings on most comprehensive documentary representation study to date

From the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, The Lens Reflected has released its findings as the most expansive research on representation within the documentary industry. Ultimately, the results of the study say that, from 2014 to 2020 (2021/2022 saw the study being conducted and, thus, features no date from those years), the majority of films distributed by leading entertainment platforms (i.e. CNN, HBO, Hulu, Independent Lens, etc.) were directed by white male filmmakers. In addition, the study examined the race and gender of documentary directors and protagonists in documentaries distributed amongst commercial cable, streaming and public media networks from 2014 (the beginning of the genre’s «streaming age»).

Key findings include:

  • Out of 1,423 directors (across 1,232 films studied), 81% were White (19% were BIPOC)
  • About 2 in 10 (19%) of all directors were BIPOC (273 out of 1,423 directors)
  • 70% identify as men, and one-third (29%) identify as women. Less than 1% (.03%) of the 1,423 documentary directors of the distributed films are nonbinary
  • Out of 530 protagonists identified in the studied films, 63% were White, 37% were BIPOC; 69% identified as men, 31% identified as women, and less than 1% identified as nonbinary
  • Compared to commercial media outlets, public media distributes nearly twice as many documentaries directed by BIPOC directors
  • About 4 in 10 (39%) films distributed by public media were directed by women
  • Breaking down subject matter, social issues beat out entertainment (52% vs 48%), with public media hosting social content at a 75% rate.
  • Top 5 social subjects: Government/democracy, racial justice, war/conflict, criminal justice, environment

The study does come off as US-centric in intent, sampling, and tone and only captures gender and racial data. Demographics such as class, sexuality, disability, geography, or precise racial/ethnic identification do not feature, albeit addressed by the center’s methodology. It also does not break down the production location of films included but does look at international productions (those which feature on US platforms). It should also be noted that the study looks exclusively at distributed films across major corporate and public media in the US and does not consider limited-run theatrical releases, self-distribution, or other non-traditional distribution means. Ultimately, it intends to see how the mainstream US non-fiction distribution apparatus is developing as a route for viable filmmaking careers, but also on the reality that major streamers feature larger audiences. Thus topics, protagonists, and filmmakers ultimately receive higher exposure. The study does open up interesting further questions, however. Primary among them is the issue of content ownership and its importance in facilitating lasting, diverse, and fair production ecosystems.

Find the complete studyHERE

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