Mobeen Azhar has questioned whether the documentary genre will “end up in a situation where buyers with the biggest cheque books get bigger access,” but senior Sky and Amazon execs have shot back.
The BAFTA-winning documentarian raised fears that public service broadcasters with shallower pockets will end up in a “special space without money” that he compared to a “desert island,” while the best contributors opt for docs greenlit by the money-laden U.S. streaming services.
“That’s why I think [paying contributors] is an issue and I know it already happens,” said Azhar, who has made a wealth of docs mainly for the BBC.
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Azhar debated with BBC, Sky and Amazon doc bosses this afternoon at the Edinburgh TV Festival over the practice of how much to pay contributors, or whether they should be paid at all.
Sky’s Poppy Dixon shot back at Azhar. “You are presuming that [a contributors’] primary motivation is money,” she said. “The art of negotiation is about building trust and representing yourself by telling an honest story. The money is what follows, it’s a conversation that happens on a case-by-case basis.”
“Long gone are the purest days when no one pays contributors,”added Dixon, who compared contributor’s personal stories to “their own IP,” meaning it is fair to pay them.
Prime Video’s Harjeet Chhokar, who has worked on a number of big-budget Amazon sports docs, backed Dixon. “We demand so much of contributors’ time and are often in their houses until midnight or 1 a.m,” he said.
BBC docs boss Clare Sillery’s view sat in the middle of Dixon’s and Azhar’s, as she explained how her team pays a “nominal fee” to contributors rather than large sums of money.
“If people take time off work, need childcare or we are using their gas and electricity then we have to pay them back,” she added. “But we have to know editorial independence is there because it affects [someone’s] motivation in giving a story.”
Sillery added that the BBC will never pay institutions such as police forces or the NHS beyond reimbursing staff for finding archive footage.
According to Jane Root, the ex-BBC Two controller who runs Welcome to Earth with Will Smith indie Nutopia, audiences expect a “financial relationship” for series like Netflix’s Drive to Survive, but crime docs, for example, are trickier to approach regarding payment.
Azhar also raised concerns that present-tense docs which take a long time to make will slowly die out due to funding constraints.
“Demand from streamers and PSBs for scripted is so high but I feel the doc world is thinking ‘Do we really know what we’re going to get with this project?’ and that’s a difficult place to be in,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with testimony-driven docs but I don’t know where projects that take longer to get funded are going.”
Azhar backed the BBC for taking a risk on his shows such as Scam Land: Money Mayhem and Maseratis, with Sillery saying the sub-genre is “what we are here for.”
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