The Internet and digital technologies have created an opportunity for documentaries To find new audiences; however, documentary’s capacity to overcome the challenges that the online market presents and achieve sustainability is not yet understood. This brings together research in the areas of new media and documentary in order to comprehend and assess the significance of the growing overlap between the two. Focusing on documentary distribution post-2000, in the United States and the United Kingdom, the thesis examines how the online market has influenced both the culture of documentary and the economic structure of the methods used to distribute documentary films.

This involves an exploration of the rise of digital media in relation to its impact upon the film industry and a historical review of the changes that have occurred within the documentary marketplace. The core analysis takes the form of a case study approach that sets out to identify trends in documentary distribution and generate insights into the new models that both documentary platforms and filmmakers have employed. What this research suggests is that documentary distribution via the Web requires a new framework for thinking about how films reach audiences and generate revenues. In particular, it indicates how audience engagement from the onset of production can help documentaries overcome challenges in the online market.

In line with participatory media trends, the research confirms that distribution has become more than just a mechanism for content dissemination and that, in the digital age, distribution has developed as a social phenomenon, which expands through ongoing public involvement and innovation. However, the research also indicates that alternative distribution strategies that rely upon leveraging communities must be uniquely adapted to each project and its particular core audiences.

This means that there is no singular, overarching theory or replicable model that characterises the online distribution process for documentary films. Thus, the thesis adds to our knowledge of the diverse ways in which documentary has inhabited the social space offered by new media while anchoring existing theories of ‘social media’ within specific contexts.

Documentary has fallen into a period of crisis. It also has embarked upon an era of Growth. The digital age has engendered this paradox. The Internet has opened new avenues of exhibition, causing mainstream media institutions, which traditionally have monopolised access to audiences, to progressively lose control of their most valuable assets. It also has created the opportunity for filmmakers to instantly distribute their work to global audiences and develop direct relationships with these individuals. Essentially, the Internet has challenged the long-established function and value of traditional distributors by making distribution cheap, easy, and personal.

Although the Internet has generated many opportunities for documentary filmmakers who have the necessary skills to exploit its networks, it has not functioned as a panacea for all long-standing distribution challenges. In fact, the Internet has created an entirely new set of distribution challenges, which require a new mindset, and skill set, to overcome. Generating revenue from any single documentary in the ever-growing online catalogue of content is virtually impossible without having an innovative plan for audience engagement and the resources of a well-networked distributor.

Profit is a tough pursuit and does not come from simply putting content online. Promotion is essential. Such challenges have made it difficult for documentary to demonstrate its potential to generate sustainable revenue growth in the online market. The crisis for documentary extends across traditional outlets as well. The recent evidence of financial growth at the box office has been 12 largely misleading; obscuring the reality that few documentaries have succeeded in this market. In the television market, this has effectively sustained the nonfiction film industry; documentary has fallen into decline due to public service broadcasters’ budget cuts and growing pressure to cater to commercial interests.

Although online distribution has created opportunities, documentary’s economic viability in this market remains largely in question. Ultimately, documentary not only has experienced a crisis of economics, but it also has experienced a crisis of change, which has driven forward-thinking filmmakers and distributors to innovate in an effort to uncover distribution models that work in the context of the Web.

These changes happening in documentary have augmented the need for academic inquiry into distribution. Studies of documentary have rarely considered questions of economics or what impact digital technologies and the Internet have had upon documentary’s capacity to reach audiences. In order to advance research in this field, it has been necessary to expand academia’s restricted gaze on documentary film texts and bring into view documentary’s political economy.

By moving beyond discussions of ideology and form and examining the unexplored Intersection between documentary distribution and digital technology, this research has introduced a new set of debates about documentary that focuses on the developing economics and culture of documentary on the Web. The Web’s capacity to provide access to global audiences has fostered the need to uncover new distribution models that enable documentary to generate attention and revenues and, ultimately, achieve sustainability in the converging marketplace.

As documentaries become more commercially oriented, it becomes increasingly important to examine their modes of distribution and consider how they might be successfully exploited, both within and outside the established industry systems. It begins by defining documentary, then carries on to review relevant literature, before detailing the research aims, scope, and structure of this thesis. This research uniquely positions documentary distribution within the society that supports it, suggesting that distribution should be understood as more than a fixed mechanical operation of delivering content to consumers and instead recognised as an evolving social process, which thrives through consumer involvement in project funding, development, and promotion.

Although it is commonly recognised that digital technology and the Internet have fostered participatory culture, understanding how this development has impacted documentary has required moving beyond exploring general theoretical claims and instead focusing on examining specific evidence. Ultimately, this approach has revealed that distribution becomes, in essence, a ‘cause’ that people support when it is carried out through the active involvement of a community — comprised of distributors, filmmakers, and audiences.