The pending announcement of Sundance‘s competition lineup weighed heavy on the minds of some attendees at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) Monday night local time as a sizeable group of people sat in wooden bleachers in a community center near festival’s headquarters for a panel on documentary distribution moderated by indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez. Americans and European insiders including Bjorn Koll from Salzberger/Cinema Net Europe in Germany, Jan Rofekamp from Films Transit, Stan Van Engelen from VPRO/Holland Doc here in Amsterdam, producer Bart Simpson (“The Corporation”), and Diane Weyermann from Participant Productions took part in the hour-long discussion.
Among the topics covered during the conversation were logistics for filmmakers determining how to present their work at festivals as well as how to find distribution for films both through traditional and non-traditional outlets. “One role festivals play is that they act as a filter, though maybe too much so,” said Diana Weyermann, who also opined on the strength of a Sundance acceptance. “It’s not the case that you’ve lost if you don’t get into Sundance, but it is [advantageous] because of the press and industry that are there.” Weyermann did point out, however, that a Sundance run does not guarantee box office success and cited one example of a film that screened well last year at the festival, but ultimately had limited success in theaters. “‘Murderball‘ won awards (including an audience prize and a special jury award) but only performed [modestly] at the box office.”
“The Corporation“‘s Bart Simpson said his film initially attracted attention at the Toronto fest in 2003 and then Sundance the next year because of the success of a recent Michael Moore documentary attacking, among other things, the business establishment, creating buzz for his film because of its similar subject-matter and style. “Everyone wanted to find the next ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ and there was great interest because the film was playing at Sundance.” “The Corporation,” which received public funding in Canada, was originally pitched as a four-part mini series at the Hot Docs Forum in Toronto but underwent change in length before its eventual theatrical release in the United States. Simpson said that agents had recommended that the film not be finished at more than two-hours, in order to appeal to American audiences (the final version was 145 minutes). “I’ve spoken to some [festival] programmers recently, and all of them have said that the films they are seeing now are 20 minutes too long,” reacted Hernandez. Simpson then admitted that in retrospect, the film most likely would have had more success in distribution had the film been under two hours.
In other festival related topics, panelists talked about navigating the fest scene and the increasing focus on premieres by festivals. Rofekamp also talked about the importance of TV and DVD deals for documentaries, which can equal 90% of the revenues earned by non-fiction films. That makes festival with markets quite crucial, since there are only a few key places to launch a film into the marketplace. IDFA, Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and Toronto were cited as key markets for documentaries. But there can be a challenge in that equation, as Jan Rofekamp pointed out, with fests that are increasingly vying for premieres adding to the challenge faced by filmmakers as they seek out exposure for their work. If a film doesn’t hit at its first fest or market, that can create a challenge for a seller. Its much harder to let a film build awareness through screenings at a number of bigger fests, Rofekamp said. And an even bigger problem, Rofekamp added, is the sheer number of films competing for festival slots.
He also weighed in on the temptation to release films via the Internet because it could ultimately complicate the filmmaker’s bottom line. “Filmmakers have to be careful with Internet film distribution [by making] sure that if a film goes out [on the web] in one country, it doesn’t end up going on the Internet in [other territories]. Territorial sales are important moneymakers for filmmakers. It’s not like [a Hollywood studio] that releases a film with worldwide rights.”