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Hot Docs’ Sean Farnel

Hot Docs' Sean Farnel



Sean Farnel – The present and future of documentary films

Hot Docs was founded in Toronto in 1993. The current organization HOT DOCS is now in its 18th year and will be held this year from April 28 to May 8. It is a filmmaker and market oriented event for creative documentary, the largest of its kind in North America. The Hot Docs Forum was founded ten years ago and is an event dedicated to helping new documentary films find financing.

By guest blogger Peter Belsito

Sean comes from northern Ontario in Canada, ‘the great white North’, from a small mining town. He attended film school at Concordia University in Montreal.

His first film job was at Cinefest Sudbury, a festival founded by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). He then went to Toronto and worked alongside TIFF Founder (and current CEO of the TIFF organization) Piers Handling. Sean kept tracking lists (including Film Festival lists) and invited prints and films to TIFF and he also attended programming meetings.

He liked documentary film but at that time (1998) there was no action around them at TIFF and so he took over Documentary programming at TIFF as these films began to take off. By 2003 documentaries began to sell out and get hot. Documentaries began to make money theatrically.

Sean began programming the TIFF documentary strand ‘Reel to Reel’ in 1999. He was by now a full time TIFF staffer, also running the educational series ‘Talk Cinema’ (now called ‘Reel Talk’). Given the success of this series, he decided to launch a documentary series in Toronto, and so approached Hot Docs to partner on Doc Soup, which now has over 1200 subscribers for its monthly screenings. (The series is now also in three other cities – Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary.) As the series grew Hot Docs was happy and as they had no Director of Programming they hired him full time in 2005.

When Sean went full time to HOT DOCS in 2005 as Director of Programming it was the first time the organization filled that position / job title. His goal was to build a programming culture . ‘We wanted to embed programming into the core of the Festival. This included relationships with filmmakers and with hiring and developing a team of curators. We want them to take chances. We want to keep our staff while bringing new staff in. We want to make Hot Docs known for programming. The foundation is programming.’

HOT DOCS has set up the DOC SHOP which is a B to B only digital online marketplace where bona fide film buyers and programmers can watch thousands and thousands of film titles and initiate deals for them.

Sean’s main goal of establishing a deep programming culture at HOT DOCS has succeeded and is in place. They now are addressing the core issue for filmmakers – documentary films and money to make them. Sean sees a current dual importance in growing audiences for documentaries and expanding the investment pool.

His view (as a Canadian to be sure) is that documentary film funding has 3 sectors.

Sector 1 – They are trying now to keep broadcasters engaged, as this section (in Canada) has historically funded documentaries. They also include here private companies and equity money (i.e. this last is some individual writing a check for a film with whatever conditions are agreed to.)

Sector 2 – Government (blogger’s note – this of course is the BIG difference between Canada and the US, i.e., government support for ‘the arts’, the Canadians are better at this.)

Sector 3 – They are working hard now to attract the philanthropic organizations and NGOs.

Sean considers the current US ‘system’ of financing documentaries to be ‘hybrid’. Broadcasters (privately owned and some government money) such as HBO and PBS support documentary filmmaking to ‘some’ degree, as does an organization such as the Sundance Institute. In the US due to government withdrawal from and ever decreasing government funding most money is private. There is a resulting (from lack of government funding of the arts and also because there’s lots of money in the US) big philanthropic culture in the US. Self financing among filmmakers is also frequent.

In Canada documentaries and fiction films are primarily government financed, either through public broadcasters or government initiatives. ‘This is the big difference between the US and Canada’.

The strategic vision of Sean and HOT DOCS team is ‘to create more space for documentaries through programming and audience development. We also want to work with distributors and various kinds of exhibitors to make more space for documentaries on all platfroms, traditional and emerging’.

He also points to ITunes Canada which has developed a content partnership with them and now offers a HOT DOCS space on ITunes.

He wants to continue to develop content and marketing partnerships with companies so they’ll give over more space on their platforms to HOT DOCS content. E.g. HOT DOCS now has DVD line for sale ‘The HOT DOCS Collection’.

Their dates are pre Cannes in early May for the main Festival.

Their HOT DOCS ‘brand’ is their curatorial stamp on their films. ‘We’re the gardeners of that content, the audience has learned to trust our taste and thereby we’re developing more people to watch more documentaries. So, in the end, we want our films to not be just festival films but also they need to reach that wider audience and of course to make money’.

The DOC SOUP Series is ‘one way we’re keeping in touch year round with our 1200 subscribers through monthly screenings in a total of 4 cities. And of course in a country as vast as Canada the question also arises as to how will we reach really remote areas and the widely spread out population?’

‘We feel our role changing, progressing and so we always ask ourselves how will we adapt to rise to meeting new challenges and opportunities?’

HOT DOCS Festival admissions are now approximately 120,000. This audience number has tripled within the last 5 years. Their budget is approximately 1/3 government, 1/3 corporate sponsorship screenings and 1/3 earned revenues.

In their effort to increase ‘film trade / business’ outreach they have developed during festival time the HOT DOCS Forum where filmmakers meet the film business people and seek money, film financing there for future projects. ‘Commissioning editors’ (acquisitions people, buyers) from international TV stations and other companies come from Europe, Australia, Japan, the US (such as HBO, ITVS). There are also delegations of producers coming to HOT DOCS Co Production Market looking for projects to join as Co Producers, the successful European model for making films by putting international teams (with each bringing in financing shares) together.

The problems for filmmakers today are multiple.

That they all need money always is obvious. In terms of the current huge, sheer volume of films presently flooding ‘the market’ (throughout the world) Sean sees ‘no divide now between amateurs and professionals’. Once a film is made, or while it’s being made, the question is how to raise your ‘product’ (work of art?) above the crowd? Funders are paralyzed by the number of submissions. This is the reality:
– There is always more product flooding the ‘outlets’
– Prices have plummeted 1. because of this volume, 2. because of the recent world financial troubles (affecting TV stations, distributors etc) and 3. because recent technological advances (digitization etc and we must never forget the cinema is an art form AND a technological medium) which have changed the pricing structure for completed films from past years and this new environment and the money thus coming to films has not yet been settled.

Sean sees one avenue to the future will be world film festivals becoming more active in the distribution and exhibition of films. Festivals will also become more active in the financing of films. Festivals are logical places for filmmaking funds to be distributed. For example HOT DOCS gives funding to Canadian produced documentaries. They recently have controlled and distributed to various films 300,000 Canadian dollars.

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