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Hot Docs 2020: Decision Makers Discuss the Newly Virtual Edition of the Forum, Deal Maker and Distribution Rendezvous

Hot Docs was one of the first of the Spring, 2020 film festivals to forge ahead through the pandemic chaos and reemerge on the online side as a more streamlined event. North America’s largest doc fest took the hybrid approach of postponing public screenings while providing a Hot Docs at Home streaming option to those social distancing in Canada. It also transferred its conference and market to the digital realm. Hot Docs also expanded its industry running dates to a whopping full month (April 30-May 31) of online accessibility, uploading everything from the “Why Art Matters in a Time of Crisis” keynote address by Kenyan filmmaker Sam Soko (director of the Sundance-premiering doc Softie), to live streamed panel discussions like “Surviving and Thriving in the Age of COVID,” to micro-meetings and “Close Up With…” sessions. Add to this the Hot Docs Hangouts (informal Zoom networking events) and a significant number of the Hot Docs 2020 official selections available for guests to stream through The Doc Shop, and one could almost forget that sheltering in place was supposed to be a trying thing.

And business did indeed get done, including hundreds of one-on-one pitch meetings during Hot Docs Deal Maker and the Distribution Rendezvous. But beyond the impressive quantity, what quality was found through these laptop connections and transactions? To find out the answer to this question and more, Filmmaker reached out to a handful of Hot Docs participating movers and shakers and doc-makers to give us the clear-eyed scoop. (Read Part One, “The Doc Makers,” here.)

Part II: The Decision Makers

Charlotte Cook (Co-Creator & Executive Producer, Field of Vision, and former Hot Docs Director of Programming); Adel Ksiksi (Manager of Planning & Scheduling, Planning & Scheduling Department, Al Jazeera Documentary Channel); Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs (Film Fund Director, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program); Bob Moore (Partner at EyeSteelFilm, Hot Docs 2020 Don Haig Award recipient); Noland Walker (Vice President of Content, ITVS)

Filmmaker: So what are the top pros and cons of participating in an industry market online?

Moore: Pros are that it’s a little more serious and focused — and certainly a lot quieter than in some of the hectic rooms. Cons are everything else. There’s no human engagement really. And if you don’t already know the person you’re meeting with beforehand, it’s almost impossible to make a real connection.

Cook: There were very fews cons for me personally. In many ways it felt more collaborative, with everyone feeling really supportive of the filmmakers pitching under these circumstances. I felt I got as great of a sense of the projects as I would’ve in a regular forum.

Walker: Experientially, there is nothing better about participating in an online industry market in comparison to participating in person. However, when one steps back and looks at the big picture there’s the environment to consider, right? Plus, it’s something of a marvel that it is possible to have an online market at all, let alone a market that allows one to connect with the work and the makers in meaningful ways, as was the case with Hot Docs. The Hot Docs market is always very well curated and the energy of the Forum is hard to beat. You can’t replace the unanticipated conversations and chance meetings you’d normally have when you’re online, and that’s a drag, but one can still walk away with interesting prospects when it’s all said and done.

Molnar-Szakacs: Online formats have allowed us to engage with artists in a more focused, less hectic environment. It’s also allowed more members from our team to be more actively involved in the cultivation of artists and their projects, which wasn’t possible with limited travel budgets. Of course, I miss the serendipity of bumping into industry colleagues, and the unexpected connections that form from shared in-person experiences.

Ksiksi: It becomes true and possible today to deliver many industry services through a market online, such as education and health, as well as the filmmaking industry. Online film distribution can reach wider audiences, and allows for screening films at your place (wherever you are) at any time. Not to mention filmmakers can pitch their projects without any in-person pressure. It’s also a cost optimization solution.

But I worry about the social impact gap that the online festival will create due to the lack of group screenings, and direct contact between filmmakers and decision makers. Also the collapse of so many film industry sectors, most notably cinemas. Building a film’s reputation requires a complex set of steps — audience rating, media awareness, distribution, etc. And the time difference between countries makes things difficult.

Filmmaker: What is the biggest change(s) you would make to ensure the most productive virtual experience in the future? (Or is this even the future?)

Walker: Zoom is Zoom. Hard to get around that. But the sooner the participants can have the project materials in hand the better. I know a lot of people (like me) won’t look at a lot of the sample materials, treatments or budgets until just before their appointed meeting, but a longer lead would be better so that when people are in the Zoom meetings we can get beyond the presentational aspects of it all more quickly.

Cook: The one real benefit to communicating virtually is removing some barriers to entry. And not only in reducing expenses for filmmakers with travel, accommodations, etc. But that it gives greater accessibility across the board — for filmmakers who may live somewhere without access to festivals and markets, or aren’t able to attend both physically and/or economically.

The two things we really lose are the theatrical experience, which I think we really have to fight to keep as it’s important for filmmakers, audiences, venues and film culture in general, but also filmmakers being able to meet each other and form those creative support systems that are so vital. So I hope the future looks like a balance of the two — retaining the experience and social need, but with greater accessibility and a lower barrier of entry.

Moore: I think a lot of people are understanding that the future will involve more virtual meetings and festivals and that a lot of major festivals will have some virtual elements going forward no matter what. I think Hot Docs did the right thing in making most of the industry events on-demand rather than live. It was more realistic, and enabled folks to engage on their own schedules.

I’ve also been thinking a little about the role of the “matchmaker.” It’s a concept that’s been around at some industry events and festivals for a long time, but that could be put to good use in a virtual setting. Since the whole thing feels very ephemeral, having folks associated with the festival reaching out personally to arrange meetings and suggest events could be a really good way to increase engagement.

Filmmaker: Has the pandemic changed what you’re looking for in a project?

Molnar-Szakacs: What hasn’t changed is our commitment to supporting films from emerging and established makers, who are revealing something about the world in beautiful and provocative ways. I think what has changed is that alongside filmmakers we are grappling with what the unfolding implications are on their work — not only for the safety of artists and their collaborators, but in how they are considering the wider context in which they are making work now. We want to know how this changes their own approach to their project, as well as the ways the pandemic has impacted the people who have trusted them with their stories.

Ksiksi: In fact, there’s no big difference between pitching a project online or face to face, since most of this aspect has been prepared ahead of time. We listen to the different presentations and select what we think would be suitable for our audiences in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Moore: We’re adjusting plans on a weekly basis. Mostly we’re sticking to our guns on what we want to make in the next year or two, but every production has to ask of itself whether the current situation needs to be reflected in the film. For some films it doesn’t. For some the entire premise needs to be revisited. And at the end of the day it’s pretty straightforward — we’re documenting the world and the world has changed a little. So we adjust.

Cook: For us it hasn’t changed it at all. We’re still always looking for films that have a different or unique perspective. We will always be wanting to support those films and haven’t changed our strategy in any way other than funding features earlier in the year to try and get funding out now (rather than waiting towards the latter part of the year as is usual, due to the timing of pitching forums).

Walker: ITVS, like many, is pivoting to consider more projects in late-stage production, as well as projects in development in the short term. But a great project is a great project, and we certainly wouldn’t limit ourselves to either of those stages. As far as content area is concerned, we are always looking for material that can help people see themselves or the world around them in new ways — projects that transcend the notion of “timely” and delve with insight into the deeper (and more ambitious) questions of what things mean.

Filmmaker: What are your biggest concerns going forward? A dearth of films in 2021 due to production shutdowns? An overabundance of coronavirus-related docs?

Ksiksi: My first big concern is the delay of current projects in production. So many of the films today have been postponed or delayed due to the pandemic, so this will affect deliverables and related processes. In fact, we don’t even know when the production business will start functioning as normal. I can only hope not to face an excess of COVID-19 pandemic-related projects.

Molnar-Szakacs: Nonfiction filmmakers were already grappling with unsustainable economic models before the pandemic hit. The effects of COVID-19 are disproportionately impacting historically underrepresented communities, so we are even more committed now to figuring out how we as funders grapple with this. What can we do to ensure filmmakers remain their usual resilient selves? How can we support filmmakers from these communities and enable new work that allows artists to thrive in the industry and to continue making meaningful work?

Walker: From an industry standpoint, my biggest concern going forward is what COVID-19 will do to the filmmaking community. This is about more than a one-year cycle of films. This is about people and survival. We talk about wanting a diversity of voices, but who are the people that will not be able to survive the cascading effects of COVID to come back economically? We’ve had a “Golden Age” of documentaries in recent years because of innovations in technology (in both production and distribution) but also because of a bigger, significantly more diverse talent pool! What stories will we have and who will be telling them moving forward?

Cook: I don’t really see there being a dearth of projects in 2021, though so many filmmakers have had their projects sadly put on hold due to not being able to film, and also [have experienced] a loss of access to fund-raising. I also don’t see a scenario where we get double the films, but perhaps I’m getting that wrong. We are getting a huge influx of coronavirus-related films, but I understand that it’s in filmmakers’ instincts to document. And we do need independent and varied viewpoints on the situation. My worry is for filmmakers being able to survive and thrive. That’s the main concern for me, and for Field of Vision — trying to think about ways to keep supporting filmmakers overall.

Filmmaker: Any further thoughts on the overall Hot Docs digital edition itself?

Cook: I thought the team did an excellent job with the Forum. It was really enjoyable to take part in, and it felt truly international by virtue of everyone being in their own country while joining in. The industry team made it exceptionally simple and clear, and it was technically superb.

Moore: They moved mountains, and did a beautiful job. I congratulate the whole team on pulling off the improbable. I also can’t wait to not do that again next year and instead see everyone in person!

Ksiksi: Shifting a festival with all its activities to digital is not that easy. But Hot Docs had already had some of those activities — for example, The Doc Shop with its online screenings — available online for awhile now. I was really pleased to see that the Forum went online. It was so very successful, and I give my thanks to the backstage team that worked so hard to make that possible. I would add that in the future I hope festivals can find an online solution for hosting group screenings with a live Q&A.

Molnar-Szakacs: I’m amazed by the incredibly strong projects and this vibrant community of industry. Hats off to the Hot Docs team!

Walker: I think it’s Darwin who gets credit for establishing the centrality of adaptation to the evolution of the species. The team at Hot Docs clearly took those lessons to heart.

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