Taking a Walk on the Wild Side: The Sunny Side of the Doc Documentary Market and the Vue Sur Les Docs Documentary Festival
by Craig Kirkwood
Walking down Marseille’s grand Boulevard La Canebiere towards the old
port we were stopped by two young men with cameras. They took our photo
and handed us a blank Polaroid. “Umm… thanks” I said. “One hundred
Francs, one hundred Francs” he began to bark. “No thanks” I said giving
it back. He cussed something in Arabic and moved on. I remembered the
scam from the back streets of Paris when I was an erstwhile backpacker.
Every now and then a well-heeled tourist stands on what is now a
deserted street holding a Polaroid which never develops.
Beyond the port and another ten minutes walk up the hill you reach the
Palais du Pharo where the Sunny Side of the Doc Documentary Market and
the Vue Sur Les Doc Documentary Festival are held concurrently June
16-21. It’s an amazing location. An eighteenth century palace with a
commanding view of the city, the yachts of the old port and the big
cargo ships of the new port negotiating the sea wall before heading out
into the Mediterranean. Quite a spot.
Sunny Side is seven years old. A mere babe in festival terms but quite
the “enfant terrible.” Despite it’s youth, it attracts representatives
from most of the European broadcasters and a handful from North America,
South America and Australia. In the other corner, hundreds of producers
seeking pre-sales and co-production deals fill dozens of trade stands.
The balance is met by a handful of distributors and press.
Not the mosh pit of MIPCOM and not quite the prestige of the Amsterdam
International Documentary Festival, Sunny Side is still very much a real
market and deals do get made. In fact Marseille is the market of choice
for many European documentary producers. It is sufficiently relaxed that
you can meet the commissioning editors and buyers and some even have the
time to listen, especially if you find them on the terrace sipping
I had the distinct impression that some of the buyers came out of
courtesy more than anything else, but then again there was always some
feverish activity around the bigger broadcasters and distributors’
stands. Some of the American-owned cable casters like Disney and
Sundance sent relatively junior staff, but the Europeans like the BBC
and French/German Arté all had their top dogs present, many of whom
spoke at various breakfasts and forums — a great opportunity to hear
exactly what they’re looking for.
Of particular interest to my partner, Madeline Carr, and I were the
producer’s pitching sessions. Introduced at Amsterdam some years ago,
pitching sessions are a great way to see how to sell your ideas to
commissioning editors. It is often the only opportunity new-ish
producers have to be seen or heard by the big guys. That said, Sunny
Side is relatively relaxed so there were no breakdowns on stage, but it
is still clearly hard work. While we watched, at least two projects were
given (pale) green lights from the more progressive editors (SVT1,
Sweden and TV2 Denmark) but a lot more received stony silences or
outright criticism from hard-liners like the BBC’s Nick Fraser (we want
something like “When We Were Kings” or “Microcosmos“, he said at one of the forums).
It is the European broadcasters that most producers were there to see.
Arté, along with it’s partners ZDF in Germany, La Sept in Paris, RTBF in
Belgium, SBC in Switzerland and TVE in Spain broadcast more than six
hours of documentaries per week and they pay generously for the right
The BBC, Channel Four (oddly absent) and Discovery from the UK are all
good catches. Public broadcasters from Sweden, Denmark, Holland,
Belgium, Spain, Italy, Austria and Israel all buy and pre-buy
documentaries at reasonable rates comparable with, and often far in
excess of, the BBC.
They all complain of diminishing budgets and dwindling broadcast times
for independent documentaries, but there are new opportunities opening
all the time. The new cable channels, although typically not as generous
as their terrestrial brethren, are opening up a number of new “special
interest” niches which could not exist under the public broadcasting
system. While few of these offer pre-sale opportunities to independents,
they are a valuable secondary market once the production has been made.
One of our clients, Dutch producer Mark Aardenburg, sold his documentary
on Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank to more than twenty broadcasters, mostly in
Europe after initially pre-selling to Germany’s WDR. This is by no means
The documentary festival and market are held at the same time, but are
treated as separate events requiring separate accreditation. And while
the market was always busy, the festival was dismally attended. Even for
a popular film like Ken Loach’s “The Dockers of Liverpool” there was not
more than sixty in the cinema and for many screenings there were less
than ten. There were five screens running throughout the festival, but
only one was in the Palais du Pharo. The others were in a small,
multi-screen cinema downtown making it impractical to attend. I did,
however, manage to see some of the festival screenings, but few held my
attention for long.
One exception was Johan van der Keuken’s four hour epic “Amsterdam: Global
Village”. A fascinating portrait of the Dutch capital which
manages to capture the cosmopolitan, yet village-like character of the
city. Much as I enjoyed the film, it was demanding to watch and like
most of the films in competition, it would not be particularly suitable
for television. This is an interesting dilemma for a festival/market: A
film market, on the one hand, is all about being commercial — finding
buyers and co-producers for a project and making that project suitable
for a television (or theatrical or both) market. A festival on the other
hand is, typically, about films which have artistic or cinematic merit
but which are not necessarily suitable for a wide public. This is
difficult to reconcile at an event like Sunny Side and is presumably why
few of those attending the market were interested in what was screening
in the festival.
As distributors of short films (definitely not commercial) and
documentaries (frequently not commercial) we are faced with this
contradiction every day. On the one hand we are dealing with producers
who want to get a film made that they believe in. On the other there are
TV buyers who are desperately looking for productions to fill their
documentary slots that aren’t too parochial, or too long, or too short,
or too clever, or too “arty”, but just work well and have some sense of
originality. The twain so rarely meet.
[Craig Kirkwood is the director of the Flickerfest International Short
Film Festival and a partner in Fearless Promotions, an Australian
distribution company based in Amsterdam.]