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Changing Documentary Release Strategies, the Rise of Podcasts and Climbing U.S. Non-fiction Budgets: Tracking Industry Change at the 2019 Sheffield Doc/Fest

Sheffield International Documentary Festival 2019

A reminder that the documentary world is rapidly evolving was once again made clear at this month’s 26th edition of the Sheffield Doc/Fest. At the festival’s two-day pitch event, the MeetMarket, as well as at the lively boutique cinema hub at Showcase Cinemas, there were buzzy talks around smartphone filmmaking, the growing rise of short-form content, the emerging marketplace for podcasts and the array of distribution opportunities now available to all forms of docs.

Addressing the festival’s diverse span of content —- subject matters ranging from gender relations and frayed international politics to Macedonian beekeeping woes — festival programmer Luke Moody said that audiences have been reengaging with nonfiction cinema over the last decade, and now there is more space for experimentation. “I think we are now in a place where there is diversity to distribute a film: there are cinemas, festivals and platforms embracing much more challenging forms. And the current generation of filmmakers have the confidence to make other forms.” Bigger films can co-exist with smaller ones, Moody added, without their cannibalizing each other in the marketplace.

The sentiment was echoed within the historic chambers of Cutlers Hall, where over 300 buyers and 62 projects attended the growing MeetMarket, where eager filmmakers pitch to buyers in one-on-one sessions. This year’s projects were selected from some 500 submissions and included both emerging artists and more high-profile talent, including the team behind McQueen, who pitched The Real Truman Show, which documents how one Japanese TV audition turned into a real-life Potemkin village. UK director Mark Cousins, along with producers Adam Dawtrey and Mary Bell, pitched The Story of Looking, detailing Cousins’s recent diagnosis with macular degeneration. On the musical side, Sally Potter and producer Christopher Sheppard pitched their Cold War song cycle, Oh Moscow; director Kathryn Ferguson brought Sinead O’Connor title Nothing Compares to the table, and Bobbi Jene producer Sara Stockmann pitched The Worlds of Eriko, an ode to Japanese classical pianist Eriko Makimura.

Patrick Hurley, Doc/Fest Director of Marketplace and Talent, noted that projects selected had international potential, adding that more are presenting themselves as series. A total of three were selected, including Jean-Pierre Canet’s Iraq, Destruction of a Nation, a timely episodic spanning the first days of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 through to the fall of Daesh.

“Filmmakers are looking for more options,” said Hurley. “The landscape for financing films has changed significantly. [Now] SVOD platforms want all rights as opposed to a more classic model where rights are split up per territory.” Hurley, who has been proactive in bringing in more potential investors to the MeetMarket, including three decision makers from Netflix, added, “Producers talk more and more about the dilemma of raising finance for new projects while retaining all rights, so we’re involving more equity financiers and production companies in the MeetMarket to help open as many doors as possible for filmmakers.”

Industry Players Weigh In

The raft of other players included sales agent and production company Submarine Entertainment (Three Identical Strangers, Apollo 11); sales agent and financier Cinetic Media (RBG, Knock Down the House), UK sales agent Protagonist Pictures (Searching for Sugar Man, The Imposter), UK distributor, sales agent and production company Dogwoof (Minding the Gap, Free Solo) and New York-based sales agent, financier and distributor Visit Films. Visit president Ryan Kampe said the company is investing more time and funding to documentaries, with three to four this year, including adventure film The Sanctity of Space and Merce Cunningham doc If the Dancer Dances, both of which sold well in Cannes. Kampe said he is looking for nimble films that are experimental or films that will work theatrically, such as Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which the company sold in 2010. “Big impact documentaries have a built-in audience and they travel more widely.”

Various forms of VOD, from YouTube to Netflix, are now vital parts of documentary release strategies. Dogwoof Head of Distribution and Acquisitions Oli Harbottle said a day-and-date theatrical and digital distribution approach with a transactional partner such as iTunes is the go-to for many of their boutique titles. He added that larger scale theatrical plays, such as Apollo 11, which was released in the States in both standard cinemas and IMAX screens, is not the norm.

Dogwoof’s diverse slate is comprised of films that typically garner strong critical acclaim and generate word of mouth. The company uses theatrical placement as a means to build awareness through traditional publicity and marketing for the digital release. Harbottle said out of their estimated 18 films a year only three or four make serious commercial box office.

“On the distribution side, it is a balance between blockbuster docs and the smaller projects that we feel passionate about. In terms of sales, we look for the more commercial end of the spectrum because that is selling into the marketplace. The more commercial docs sell into the US and other key territories [while] it can be harder to sell those smaller passion projects.”

Submarine co-founder Josh Braun agrees the market has lent itself to bigger distribution deals. “That has not happened on such a level so consistently,” he said, referencing recent US box-office successes Three Identical Strangers ($12.3 million), Apollo 11 ($8.7 million), RBG ($14 million), Free Solo ($17.5 million) and Won’t You Be My Neighbor ($22.8 million). “Part of the side effect of that is distributors want to find that next one. It’s actually creating a bit of a slowdown for anything people think is a little bit in the middle. We’re all looking for that next big thing we think could be the documentary that could make a huge box office success.”

Speaking after the packed Chicken and Egg Pictures (Egg)celerator Lab, where ten female filmmakers presented their selected films via impressive live pitches, program director Lucila Moctezuma said film applications from the US have significantly higher budgets than they did five years ago; budgets have climbed from $250,000-$300,000 to around $800,000 – $1 million. “It is a result of new money floating around the US documentary world,” said Moctezuma. Films from other parts of the world, she says, have roughly maintained their previous budget levels.

Global buyout deals from streaming outlets — such as Amazon’s worldwide buy of One Child Nation and Netflix’s of Knocking Down the House at Sundance this year — are also influencing the market. Docs that have received exposure on SVOD platform Hulu are also getting wider play with global distributors. eOne, for example, has picked up international rights to films like Fyre Fraud that tells the story of the failed music festival and its founder Billy MacFarland.

But despite all the talk of worldwide deals, both Kampe and Harbottle say these pickups are few and far between. “It’s a discussion with filmmakers — is it worth holding off, hoping to get into an A-list festival and then have a dream scenario of a bidding war where big players compete, or do you instead pre-sell the film in key territories with the more traditional financing route? I think a lot of filmmakers want to hold out for that dream situation. But look at what kinds of films are holding out for those kind of dream deals — they are typically the more obvious commercial slam dunks.”

Ania Trzebiatowska of Autlook Sales, who is selling Syrian family doc For Sama, that won the Audience award at Doc/Fest and earlier in the year the Audience and Documentary Feature awards at SXSW, said while she would like all her company’s films to get theatrical releases, that is not often the realistic scenario. And while VOD platforms are an important means to release docs, they can at times come with less lucrative deals and the possibility of getting “lost in the sea of content.” She also noted frustrations with the likes of Netflix being a documentary go-to for many viewers while still struggling to place quality foreign-language docs on “that kind of a bigger platform.”

Another panel took on the resurgence of biopics, such as Kapadia’s Diego Maradona, which HBO will release in September; the Aretha Franklin doc Amazing Grace; and Kapadia’s Oscar-winner Amy. However panelist and filmmaker Brett Story, whose The Hottest August asks people from New York’s five boroughs what their hopes are for the future, insisted she did not want to make films that were “Top 40.” “Why should we feel pressured to make the more traditional films?” she asked.

Harbottle furthered that while big commercial titles do increasingly tend to be biopics — centered around music or sports figures — “watercooler films,” or word-of-mouth titles like Free Solo or Three Identical Strangers, are also faring well. “If the story is so wild and out there, people are prepared to watch them in the cinema. There is a slight stagnation with fiction films that are coming out, and I think docs have as crazy of stories as any fiction film. If you get the right campaign out there — one that is often less reliant on traditional marketing and P&A and perhaps more focused on social media, grassroots and live events — then I think you can see these films deliver as well.”

Moctezuma agreed, also mentioning that docs premiering at major festivals are now more experimental. “There has always been a creative side with documentaries, like UnionDocs, but it is interesting to see the more creative forms receiving attention in the mainstream festival circuit. There is a wider acceptance for the less traditional titles.”

Trends Elsewhere in the Festival

Running alongside the MeetMarket was the Alternate Realities Talent Market, where a mix of traditional films in 360 to larger-scale immersive installations were presented. Judging by the summit and the feedback from decision makers, many of the industry delegates were interested in installations with arts connections. New on the buyer’s side this year were curators from museums including MOMA and London’s Tate, Barbican and Serpentine museums.

Podcasts On The Rise

Podcasts also drove passionate debate. In one panel titled “Funding and Commissioning: Podcasts and Audio Documentary,” the room was filled of filmmakers all ready to give it a shot with their first audio doc. The interest was partially sparked by Spotify’s acquisitions of podcast network Gimlet for a reported $230 million, the launch of subscription-based podcast network Luminary, and the buildup of tech platform Anchor, which aids in creating and monetizing podcasts. The panelists unanimously agreed for the first time there is a genuine [podcast] market. “Previously, if you had an idea you would go to a network like BBC, but now you can get works commissioned by a multitude of outlets, or you can self-publish and monetize with someone like Sophie Herdman at Acast that utilizes an ads-based model,” said Steve Ackerman of production company Somethin’ Else.

Herdman said the industry growth is visible as most podcasters used to be “veterans.” Now her clients are radio presenters, journalists, politicians, musicians and others who have never before recorded podcasts. Audiences are also devoting more hours of their week to podcast listening. Subjects proving successful in the audio space are comedies, such as The Ricky Gervais Show and My Dad Wrote a Porno; big storytelling ideas, such as Serial; shows supporting television series, such as HBO’s historical drama Chernobyl; interview-based podcasts, such as BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs; or crime stories that journey “outside the box,” such as The Tip-Off. “If you have an unlimited season, that can have a bigger impact globally as well,” said Herdman. “There is also a belief that you have to have big budgets, but you can narrate around clips, where you never have to leave the studio.”

Ackerman also reminded that securing an audience is key via social media or publicity, as Netflix-like algorithms are not as sophisticated with most podcast channels. He used British production company and distributor Fremantle’s recent launch of its scripted podcast label Storyglass and its two inaugural shows, Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Director’s Cut (WT), as examples, saying they are making the same mistakes as “everyone else” as their shows are difficult to find. Overall the consensus of the panel agreed that as the bigger platforms get involved, the harder it will be for independents to rise to the top. If you have a podcast idea, get involved now, the panelists urged.

Shorts on the Table

Short films were once again discussed throughout the fest, with larger production entities such as ESPN, The Guardian, British Film Institute, and even the cosmetic retailer Lush Media all open to submissions and funding. But the statistics of receiving funding were less than hopeful, with The Guardian financing only 20 “ambitious” docs that fit its news agenda out of 1,500 annual submissions. Charlie Phillips, The Guardian’s head of documentaries, mentioned this year’s Oscar-nominee The Black Sheep as one of their more high-concept films they nurtured from the pre-production stages. Lush’s video producer, Erica Edwards, said the brand receives approximately 150 submissions a month and funds one to two of those that are “stories that matter to the company.” She mentioned Little Pyongyang — a stylized story of one North Korean reticent to leave his homeland that screened at last year’s Doc/ Fest — as an example.

She added that “big name” celebrities were not of interest, saying Lush is instead looking for more subtle stories. Adam Gee, the commissioning editor at Red Bull Media, said he goes to festivals to search for talent rather than let submissions come to him. When referencing influential shorts, he cited films such as the Oscar-nominated feature doc Minding The Gap that started out as a skateboarding short and later turned into a feature doc about “something much more.” “Be open,” he said. “You never know where your short will take you.”

In regards to distribution, most of the platforms preferred a festival premiere slot, followed by a more flexible distribution approach -— whether placement on the company’s respective YouTube channels or leaving it up to the filmmakers to make their own long-term release plan.

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