Sundance 2023 Documentary Sales and Beyond: Stark Realities, Golden Opportunities
Distribution strategist Peter Broderick, whose articles on microbudget filmmaking were foundational in the early days of this magazine, publishes a weekly newsletter that is a must-read for anyone tracking the independent film industry. A recent edition, his report on Sundance 2023 documentary sales, has prompted discussion and clarified important current trends in non-fiction acquisitions. This report is reprinted with his permission. Sign up for Broderick’s newsletter here. — Editor
“Every independent filmmaker should learn the lessons of Sundance. This year’s festival revealed critically important developments in the indie ecosystem.” Let’s start with the same two sentences that began my Special Report on Sundance 2019. At the end of that bullish report, I wrote ”I hope we are at the beginning of a Golden Age, but it will require progress on several fronts to achieve.”
Four years later, Sundance revealed that the Golden Age of major sales and numerous acquisitions is over for documentary filmmakers. Later in this report I’ll highlight Golden Opportunities in the New World of Distribution.
This year I saw 31 films at Sundance, as I had in 2019. The quality of the documentaries was exceptional as usual, but the lack of response from distributors was alarming.
Documentary sales during Sundance were the worst in years
Twelve U.S. docs in competition = zero sales
Twelve World docs in competition = one major sale: The Eternal Memory. The rumored sales price was $3 million to MTV Documentary Films.
Plus a doc from the Next section = one sale, Kokomo City, to Magnolia.
Two U.S. docs in competition sold before Sundance: Little Richard: I Am Everything to Magnolia, and Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV, to Greenwich Entertainment/PBS Films).
Among the other World competition docs, some sales were made before, during, or after Sundance. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood made international territory sales and was picked up by Greenwich Entertainment for the U.S. Fantastic Machine also made international territory sales.
More sales of U.S. competition docs were expected to be announced at the European Film Market (which takes place during the Berlin Film Festival), but none were. Four months later no more sales of U.S. competition docs have been announced.
This was a complete reversal of what happened four years earlier when I reported, “Acquisitions at Sundance 2019 were at a fever pitch, breaking all past records… The percentage of docs acquired from U.S. Documentary Competition may have been the highest ever.”
Streamers bought no docs at Sundance
Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ and Hulu didn’t buy a single doc in Park City or in the following months. This was a sharp contrast with their acquisitions at recent Sundance festivals, some of which were at breathtaking prices. Streamers paid the highest prices for fiction features. Netflix bought Fair Play for $20 million. Apple TV+ purchased Flora and Son for $20 million.
Streamers brought their own celebrity-driven docs to Sundance
These included: Still: A Michael J. Fox Story (Apple TV+); Stephen Curry: Underrated (Apple TV+); Judy Blume Forever (Amazon Prime Video); Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields (Hulu via ABC News)
Streamers have sharply narrowed their doc priorities
The clearest example of this was Netflix, which was targeting:
- celebrity-driven docs
- true crime docs
- music docs
There is one other amorphous category:
- docs with great worldwide appeal
In 2019, Netflix brought to Sundance The Edge of Democracy and The Great Hack and bought American Factory and Knock Down the House (the latter for $10 million). Provocative political documentaries seem to have no place in Netflix’s current doc priorities and may also fall outside the priorities of other streamers and distributors. In addition to Knock Down the House, Boys State sold for $12 million to Apple TV+ and A24. Fire of Love (National Geographic) had a mid-to-low eight figure sale. If they had premiered at Sundance 2023, would they have been purchased at all? Narrowed priorities are a critical problem throughout the industry. Many of the excellent docs at Sundance this year that remain unsold would have had multiple suitors at previous Sundance festivals.
Sundance 2023 was a wake-up call for documentary filmmakers. It highlighted the chilling ways the old world of distribution is changing. Shrunken acquisition priorities are greatly limiting opportunities for independent filmmakers seeking deals from streamers and other distributors. It is now clear that even the top festivals can have little impact on sales.
Sundance provided invaluable lessons for filmmakers ready to learn them:
Transform your festival strategy
Stop your magical thinking about festivals. Understand that they can be helpful but are not essential. Many docs that have been extremely successful never went to a single festival. Most festivals will have little or no impact on your distribution. A few select ones can be helpful but there is no guarantee they will be.
Too many filmmakers spend too much time applying and obsessing and too little time researching and strategizing. There are good reasons to attend festivals, even if they don’t lead directly to distribution. There can be a lot to learn and many networking opportunities. They can be helpful in building a profile. Instead of blanketing festivals with applications, I recommend designing a customized strategy that is selective, realistic and up to date.
Avoid looking backwards
The industry is plagued by memories of the ways things used to work. We are living in a time of rapid and seemingly constant change. The old world of distribution is crumbling before our eyes. There is inertia everywhere we look. Out-of-date distribution agreements are still being used that include rights no longer important but fail to include new rights of great value. The focus on territory-by-territory rights ignores new global opportunities, including worldwide virtual premieres, like the record-breaking one for The Wisdom of Trauma.
During the COVID years, many industry leaders acknowledged that things were changing rapidly. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any clear sense of how to make the most of these changes. They failed to come up with new ideas and didn’t try new approaches. They just settled back into familiar ruts.
Don’t be seduced by algorithms
Algorithms can only look at what’s already there. To quote my brilliant friend, Sheila Hayman, who is making a film with a different view of artificial intelligence, “Algorithms don’t understand anything: culture, humanity, relationships, politics, humor. Having no concepts and no understanding, they can’t predict what might come next. All they can give you is a mashup of what’s already happened. They may find content to fill slots. They won’t help streamers find ground-breaking films.”
EIGHT GOLDEN OPPORTUNITIES
I’m very hopeful that Sundance will inspire independent doc filmmakers to look beyond old world distribution models that are no longer working.
Here are eight golden opportunities in the new world of distribution:
Global virtual screenings – Five Seasons pioneered global screenings online. It went viral in 72 hours and reached an audience of more than 1.5 million viewers around the world.
Direct distribution worldwide – The Wisdom of Trauma revolutionized direct distribution reaching 4 million viewers in 236 countries and territories during its 7-day virtual premiere. The filmmakers launched their film with an online summit. They kept all their rights except educational and connected with viewers directly.
Hybrid distribution strategies – Distribution control is as important as creative control. Splitting rights among distribution partners and retaining some key ones enable filmmakers to design customized strategies. Implementing these strategies stage by stage maximizes revenues, audience, and impact.
Fast forward revenues – All The Lonely People created an innovative model to generate money, awareness, and partnerships during production. The team designed interactive presentations with scenes from their unfinished film and used them for special events across the country.
PBS plus underwriting – Many filmmakers have worked with NETA to have their films screened on PBS stations around the country. A number of them have attracted significant underwriting, with totals as high as $480,000, which doesn’t have to be split with PBS or the stations.
Strategic partnerships – Partnering with nonprofits, companies, and government agencies can help build awareness and excitement in target audiences, generate revenues, and increase impact. Since Age of Champions blazed this trail, many filmmakers have received critical in-kind and financial support from key partners.
Conferences – Making plenary presentations at annual conferences can be a very effective way to reach leaders and key organizations in the field that your film focuses on. This can provide perfect networking opportunities, great word-of-mouth, and speaking fees.
Affiliate marketing – Pioneered by Food Matters and Hungry for Change, this approach incentivizes organizations/influencers to urge their members/followers to rent or buy your film directly from your website. In return, they receive a percentage of the revenues their recommendations generate.
Independents need to be as creative about bringing their films into the world as they are making them. They can experiment with new approaches and embrace innovation, which old world distributors seem incapable of doing. Filmmakers shouldn’t forget the contrasting fates of Netflix and Kodak. In 2007 Netflix took a huge risk. After delivering a billion DVDs, it began digital delivery, an innovation that transformed the company. Kodak’s fear of innovation doomed it. Kodak could have changed its image from “the film company” to “the image company.” Sadly it saw the iceberg up ahead but couldn’t turn the ship.
Filmmakers should seize this opportunity. I’m very excited about all the innovations that will come from independents with nothing to lose and everything to gain!
© 2023 Peter Broderick