11 Things You Didn’t Know About Documentary Film Lovers

Hot Docs CinemaI was honored to give the Industry Keynote at Hot Docs, a giant documentary film festival in Toronto. I don’t know what they put in that water (which was delicious, by the way) but Torontonians love, love LOVE documentaries. They have a 700 seat theater that, year round, shows docs only, and I was completely charmed by its tagline: ESCAPE TO REALITY.

Of all conventional TV and film genres, you could easily argue that documentary is the one that is most self-conscious about its artful manipulation of reality. Since much of my research focuses on the impact of entertainment and media on individuals, communities and society at large, documentaries have proven an especially exciting object of study. (I have a TEDx talk about some of this research.)

In order to prep myself for the fest – which included a whopping 197 documentaries – I thought I’d revisit some survey research that we conducted at the Lear Center on the relationship between political beliefs and entertainment preferences. We discovered in those studies that predictable patterns emerged suggesting that even our escapes from reality – to ballets, tractor pulls, and blockbuster films – were tethered quite tightly to our deeply held beliefs about the world and how it ought to be.

For a nerd like me, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.

Our archive of data – from two large American representative sample surveys, and from a smaller version we conducted in Tunisia after the Arab Spring – includes detailed demographic, ideological and taste information about documentary film fans. Hot Docs gave me an excellent excuse to mine that data.

So here’s what we did:

We compared people who expressed a high preference for documentary films to those who expressed very little interest in the genre. We looked at their politics, their demographics and their entertainment preferences and found that the most profound differences were in taste: for instance documentary lovers are

  • 55% more likely to watch educational programming
  • They’re almost 40% more likely to watch science and nature programming

Those characteristics accounted for the largest differences between the groups, and they seemed to make a lot of sense: these folks have a pronounced preference for entertainment that informs them about reality.
Preferences about book genres were similarly revealing. When I asked the audience at Hot Docs whether they would make a bee-line to non-fiction or fiction sections in a book store, they overwhelmingly selected non-fiction. So did our survey respondents.

This preference for reality-based entertainment and media was fascinating to me because our research had revealed that the documentary genre was generally preferred by people at the liberal end of the ideological spectrum. Conservatives were more likely to express preferences for entertainment programming that comported with reality: sports and business programming, for instance, with action adventure being the only fictional genre that they were more likely to prefer.

We also found that documentary lovers are about one quarter more likely to enjoy arts programming, which matched their increased likelihood to visit art museums and galleries. But just in case you were thinking that they were getting soft (ahem), they are also more likely to enjoy entertainment that contains political themes, which would seem to indicate that even when doc lovers depart from reality-based genres, they still like to grapple with the ideological issues that define life outside the movie theater or concert hall.

They are also significantly bigger fans of dramas, comedies and blues music. We asked about a dozen different sports and found that doc lovers were more likely to express a preference for baseball, compared to “doc haters.”

Demographically, the differences between these groups were far less significant than these difference in taste. But there was one exception: they were less likely to be born again Christians.

Race, income, gender, geography – we looked at all of these factors and found only minor differences between doc lovers and doc haters.

Are you a documentary film lover? Let me know whether this portrait describes you. Either leave a comment here or email me at enter@usc.edu.

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