Let’s face it: documentaries are no longer "niche." Since 2020, documentaries have been the fastest-growing genre on streaming platforms. Data compiled by Parrot Analytics showed that between January 2018 and March 2021, the number of documentary series soared by 63%, while demand for them skyrocketed by 142%.
This explosion in demand has resulted in many distribution outlets turning to reality TV production companies to steer projects to completion. But the culture clash between reality TV and documentary is having unintended, negative consequences in the edit room, as producers are pressured to deliver quality content with increasingly shorter schedules.
Out of this tension, the Alliance of Documentary Editors (ADE) was born—the brainchild of a small group of editors and assistant editors (AEs) advocating for better working conditions and codified ethical standards in the edit room. The ADE, which has now grown to over 1,000 members nationwide, also champions diversity, inclusivity and mentorship in documentary post-production.
The ADE officially released its Guide for Documentary Schedules at the Editing Day panel at DOC NYC last fall, aiming to assist production companies in adopting realistic editing schedules, which ultimately will result in a higher quality product.
To quote from the Guide:
"Documentary editing is a marathon, not a sprint. Documentary editors work on difficult subject matter, doing intensely creative and emotionally exhaustive work for months at a time. Long workdays burn out editors and result in sub-par work. Working longer hours does not mean more work gets done."
"Documentary editing involves months of processing, organizing, and viewing the footage shot, in order to understand the material. It also requires enormous creativity, experimentation and risk-taking, all of which take time. A popular misconception is that the editor’s job is merely to ‘stitch together’ the film per the vision of the director. In most documentaries and documentary series, there is no script. It is in fact in the edit that the vision or story is discovered and/or written. Because the documentary editor is also writing and shaping the story, the edit schedule for documentaries is necessarily much longer than reality TV or fiction."
The guide was based on data from hundreds of professional editors and assistant editors, with decades of experience working in documentary film and television. It explains how a compressed, rushed, unrealistic post-production schedule—typically intended to keep the budget down—ends up driving costs much higher. It also provides basic guidelines to ensure a cost-effective edit, while amplifying the creative contributions of the editing team:
"For an average documentary, a good rule of thumb for scheduling is one month of editing per 10 minutes of finished content."
"From the editor’s perspective, the ideal edit schedule for a series falls between 16-18 weeks for a TV-hour episode (42 mins) and 20-24 weeks for a full hour (60 min)"
Documentary spoke to three experienced documentary editors who, as members of the ADE’s Best Practices Committee, were directly involved in the creation of this guide (Full disclosure: I was also a member of this committee).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: How did the ADE come about?
KIM ROBERTS (Food, Inc.; The Silence of Others; The Hunting Ground; currently directing Couples Therapy): The genesis was an email thread, about a show that was looking for an editor, that went out to a bunch of editors in August 2018. One of the terms was a non-negotiable 12-hour workday. There was a back-and-forth among the editors about these terrible things they were seeing, and how bad things were getting. We started meeting documentary editors and assistant editors, at first just to talk about what could be done. And then at some point we realized that we should form a group and start addressing some of the problems.
CHRISTY DENES: (Bring Your Own Brigade; Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror; Love & the Constitution): I remember an article about the Documentary Producers’ Alliance in Documentary magazine and thinking, What a great idea; editors need this! We talked to Kristin Feeley at Sundance, who provided space for us to meet up. She was familiar with the Documentary Producers’ Alliance and was able to give us a lot of advice that was really useful.
D: Now, the average person is well-versed in watching documentaries, and docs have become a significant revenue-generator for both networks and streamers.
CD: Yes, there is a lot more interest in nonfiction, and this partly has to do with the obsession with true crime. Because of this interest, people are stepping into this space and making great content that fuels more interest, so it becomes a beneficial cycle. But also, the heads of these creative industry distribution outlets know that it’s so much cheaper for them to invest in nonfiction content.
D: But the work hours have become longer. What changes have you noticed in workload since you first started editing documentaries?
KR: I’d worked predominantly in feature docs up in the Bay Area and then came down to LA There wasn’t a lot of money in it, but it was extremely humane. I would work out of people’s homes or little offices, and everybody was working eight-hour days. I started noticing the change from the stories assistant editors would tell me—they were being forced to sign contracts for 12-hour non-negotiable workdays with no overtime. I realized I wanted to preserve what I was able to experience in this industry, which allowed me to have children and a healthy work-life balance, and keep my sanity as I worked on diverse projects. When I looked at the emerging editors and assistant editors, I saw people getting health problems, burnt out. They told me they thought they could never have kids because the hours were terrible, and the work was just too draining.
CD: I started in New York City, as a production assistant, and then I saw that the editor had a humane work-life balance. She would come in at 10:00 and leave at 6:00—whereas the producer and I were working until midnight doing the budget and making phone calls all the time. I had my first child when I was done being an AE and was ready to be an editor, and it took me years to make the leap. I really felt like having children penalized me. I’m catching up eight years later. So, I feel that shift happened at the wrong time for me. It was right when I couldn’t work at night anymore, I couldn’t work long hours, I couldn’t be at anybody’s beck and call.
You now have to just put your whole life aside and hustle on this one project in order to make that name for yourself, and that’s what is expected.
BO MEHRAD (The Punk Singer; Boiling Point; Making Black America): One of the first jobs I ever had was when I was in film school in the Bay Area. I was working on a decently budgeted documentary funded by HBO, and I remember seeing how the editor, Arnie Glassman, worked, and how he lived. I realized that being in one place and concentrating on one film, one project at a time, really appealed to me.
So, I went to a small production company that did doc-style TV, and I started working as an assistant there 15 years ago. I was one assistant serving two editors who wanted nothing to do in terms of interaction with their assistant. That idea of mentorship was not there. But as far as hours go, that place was really humane. You worked 10:00 to 6:00; that was it. Maybe you would stay late when you were finishing your show, but that rarely happened.
But when I made the jump to editor and started editing a feature doc, in this person’s amazing house overlooking Central Park West, everything in this place was custom-built. Yet, I was getting paid less than what I made as an assistant. After the rough cut, I got fired because I was told I wasn’t working hard enough. The idea that there was no mentorship and that there was a sort of a free-floating idea of what hard work looked like—that was really troubling to me.
D: And now with remote editing, editors have even less human contact with an AE. The previous production I was on had a revolving door of AEs. You would barely get to know one before they were replaced.
KR: The AE job has gotten so technical. The demands on the AE, as we have more and more footage that they’re trying to transcode and take care of, have changed the job in ways that make it harder and harder to have any mentorship.
In the beginning, we noticed a few big problems. One was this ballooning workday. Two was the fact that there was no longer a clear path from assistant editor to editor. So, building back the bridge between assistant editor and editor had to be a part of it. I should mention, there are other editing organizations but they don’t include assistant editors and don’t focus on documentaries. Our needs were different, and we wanted to be able to be inclusive in a way those weren’t.
The third pillar is diversity. One of the first things we did was a wage survey among people that were starting to show up for these meetings. It eventually revealed that at the editor level, there was a glaring lack of diversity but at the assistant level, there was a great amount of diversity.
Then the Best Practices [Committee] came about to address how we can push back on this industry that is clearly on a trajectory toward faster, faster, faster! And the way they get things faster is by shortening the edit. In terms of trends, the biggest trend that I’ve seen is in the doc series, as Christy said, and how that is influenced by reality TV and other non-scripted TV formats. Then that bleeds out into everything.
We decided that as an editing community we could push back against that by creating a big enough organization. We have such a resource in all of our different members and their experiences; we could use that to create for the first time "best practices" documents.
D: What do you think is causing this shift in timelines?
KR: There’s movement among directors and the producers: You have producers who are coming from reality TV, you have directors who are coming from features into series, you have editors who are coming from reality or fiction or news programs. All of those are different cultures with different understandings and different ways of doing things. The clash leads to this kind of Wild West feeling where nobody has any clear idea of how long things should take, and everyone’s just making up numbers based on their own experience, or what somebody tells them. And the only people who are not part of that conversation are editors, who actually have the experience.
The editors are brought in after somebody has come up with the schedule; sometimes it might be the streamer, sometimes if it’s a TV show it’s the broadcaster. But other times it’s just a showrunner, or a producer, or somebody who’s made a decision that their project is going to be easy and fast. What you see now is, everybody feels like their project is the one that is going to break the rules and be able to come together so quickly because they’re organized and they’ve got it together. I see a lot of different places at fault and a lot of lack of understanding.
CD: We’re not only the ones with experience; we’re the ones who actually have to do it. Especially in documentaries because the film is created in the edit; there’s nothing to work with until we start. We have to actually come up with something to show people.
BM: I worked for an executive producer who came from 60 Minutes, so he was a big shot. We started out with three editors. And then they said, "You guys need to work longer; we’ll just order some pizza, we’ll work all night, we’ll figure it out." And I said to them, "My brain stops working after eight hours, so you’re not going to get anything from me, even if you’re sitting in the room with me having pizza." And then, as the project progressed, they kept on hiring more and more editors who came from reality TV. The product spoke for itself. It was just bits and pieces of different things that made no sense.
D: It’s really difficult to be creative under pressure, and it’s really difficult to produce quality work under an unrealistic deadline; you don’t really have time to think. And then, diminishing marginal returns set in when you’re working late at night.
KR: You hear this thing a lot in series: "We want something that is a premiere doc series, something like The Jinx or Wild Wild Country, or Making of a Murderer, and we want it in two months." No one looks at what the schedule was for those documentaries. I think a lot about Jonathan Oppenheim’s modes of documentary editing: the artistic model and the industrial model. The editors in the artistic model are creative collaborators with a director, and many directors still see editors in that role. In the industrial model, the editor becomes this interchangeable worker, like on the factory line. It changes how creative the editor can be, because if you’re a plug-and-play editor, then you are just following a script and you’re going to get content that is increasingly repetitive and formulaic.
CD: For me, the genesis of wanting to get involved in ADE was in large part because of having gone through several experiences of being hired on a documentary series and going in thinking, "This is going to be great, and the people seem great," and then just having it become this slow-motion train wreck, because nobody was taking into account how much time was needed. The frustration of being told, "We don’t have the budget," but then seeing so much money just being wasted. Once it gets to that point, [the streamer] has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars but they don’t have a show yet. So of course they’re going to put more money in to save the content, to be able to air something.
D: What was the reaction at the launch of these guidelines at DOC NYC, and more recently at Sundance?
BM: At the DOC NYC panel, we were talking about practical, real things and what the ADE guide is trying to do. We had a producer on the panel, which was really helpful, because it’s not an us-versus-them kind of attitude; it’s a collaborative thing. We all want a sustainable workplace; we all want the project to be as good as it can be.
CD: At the Art of Editing event at Sundance, there was a lot of discussion of the Guide and anecdotal evidence that it is reaching producers and having an impact. In the breakout rooms, people reported that they have been interviewed by producers who reference the guide, and even if they haven’t yet offered a schedule in line with it, they are acknowledging that it is reasonable and helpful.
D: What reaction would you expect from the production companies who read these guidelines?
KR: People could think it was editors versus producers, but it’s not. In documentary, we are really on the same page with them. We have looked to the Documentary Producers Alliance from the beginning, both in terms of a model of how to organize and as partners facing the same problems. They were the first ones to come on board and support us with this document and talk about how useful it would be for them to have it.
CD: I really believe that our suggested way is the most cost-effective, efficient and cheapest way to make a documentary. This is looking out for the bottom line. This isn’t just, We want more money to sit around in front of the computer for longer. On a series that I worked on, they went through months and months of editing, with eight story producers, six editors and three assistant editors. And then the product they had was terrible because they kept sending it in too early, and just reworking the same bad content over and over. I quit and then a few weeks later [the streamer] fired everyone and hired a new team of reality TV people. They spent a fortune on a not-very-good series, about a really interesting topic, and it could have been a flagship show.
D: Most people outside of this field are not aware that most documentary editors don’t belong to a union. Despite creating content that nowadays generates significant profits, we are still freelance, without any job security, group health insurance or pensions. It’s not about how much we get paid, it’s about the other benefits that come from being in a group or a collective.
KR: The way I see it is, this Best Practices is a way to test the waters of how we can change the industry just by sheer good faith. It’s getting harder and harder for people to find editors and assistant editors because there is so much content, and there’s so much abuse that when they’re done with the show, people take months off because they are just so wiped out. It’s unsustainable for everybody.
CD: But I think that the existing guilds, especially IATSE, are making a huge miscalculation by not stepping into this growing corner of the industry that is going to usurp their members’ livelihood if they are not involved.
But it’s not looked at, the onus is on us, and we have no power. We’re not organized and we generally work in very small teams. There’s no HR department, so when you run into a problem, like harassment, or just something that makes you uncomfortable, there’s no one to go to.
BM: I think unions stay away because as much as documentary has grown, there’s still the [belief that] narrative is the gold standard. Because we’re not narrative, the work of doc editors is not recognized on a big scale.
D: What other initiatives is the ADE spearheading?
CD: We have a committee working to try to increase visibility, to advocate for inclusion in awards. This is the first time that documentaries have been considered and commissioned as mass entertainment. We are thinking about the moral and ethical implications of that shift in context. People make assumptions based on the history of documentary but are those assumptions going to be undermined because people are now investing in documentaries to make a profit?
KR: The BIPOC Documentary Editors Database, which has been created to encourage greater diversity in the editing room.
BM: Next, hopefully, we’re going to try to come up with a Best Practices guide for AEs.
CD: And the mentoring and shadowing program [for people starting in the business].