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Reality Checks: Is Toronto’s Documentary Market About To Boom?

Reality Checks: Is Toronto's Documentary Market About To Boom?

Michael Moore’s latest political entertainment “Where To Invade Next?” is sure to be the biggest documentary event at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. But it won’t be the festival’s only nonfiction find.

This year, there are reportedly 50% more documentaries than last year, and several big names will be unveiling their latest projects, including Barbara Kopple’s “Sharon Jones,” Morgan Neville’s “The Music of Strangers,” Amy Berg’s Janis Joplin portrait “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” and the late Sydney Pollack’s “Amazing Grace.” In addition, the festival will host the world premiere of David Guggenheim’s “He Named Me Malala,” the first nonfiction release from powerhouse distributor Fox Searchlight since 2007’s “Young@Heart.” Searchlight’s re-entrance into the nonfiction business could be a sign of things to come at this year’s festival.

Like the Oscar-hungry fiction films at the festival, Toronto has a reputation for launching splashier docs, featuring recognizable celebrities (in this case, Yo-Yo Ma, Janis Joplin, Sharon Jones, Aretha Franklin, etc.). Obviously, these are easier sells in the marketplace. Indeed, many in the documentary industry will be pointing to A24’s successful release of “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, as resounding proof of their commercial potential.

“I can’t say we won’t reference ‘Amy’ when we’re talking to buyers about ‘Sharon Jones,'” said Josh Braun, co-president of Submarine, which is selling the Kopple film. “I think it has that same crossover appeal.”

For Braun, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said, suggesting that “Amy” could help other documentaries gain interest as they head into Toronto. At the very least, it could encourage A24 to pick up another nonfiction film. “Everyone is hoping that the success of ‘Amy’ will lead the company to find other documentaries that would work,” he said.

While A24 is not undergoing any major strategic shift towards nonfiction, A24’s Heath Shapiro acknowledged, “We would definitely be open to doing more docs.”

Other distributors, such as The Orchard and Magnolia Pictures, have also seen nonfiction breakouts this year with, respectively, “Dior and I” and “The Wolfpack.”

There is certainly no shortage of documentary buyers. “I think it’s really quite vigorous,” said The Film Sales Company’s Andrew Herwitz, who cites theatrical and VOD distributors such as Oscilloscope, IFC, Magnolia, and new brand Alchemy — not to mention small screen buyers such as Netflix, HBO, Showtime, National Geographic, and Discovery, as well as Vimeo and public television. “As platforms multiply, there’s an increasing opportunity to monetize various streams of revenue,” he said.

With so many different platforms, however, Herwitz explained that it can be complicated to split different rights between different companies. “It’s beneficial that there’s so many different buyers buying different kinds of rights, but it’s crucial that everyone gets the rights they need.”

The Orchard’s Paul Davidson said that the marketplace for documentaries, in general, is highly competitive. “With consumers having become more exposed to the genre through theatrical, broadcast and streaming on demand services like Netflix and Prime, the appetite has grown exponentially for great, engaging docs,” he said. “With respect to TIFF, there’s obviously a solid line-up of docs, which we’re excited to screen.”

According to Oscilloscope’s Dan Berger, however, Toronto will not be as competitive as Sundance. “One thing to keep in mind is that some of the higher profile ones aren’t really on the market,” he said. (“Malala,” for instance,” already has Searchlight, and Netflix has already claimed Morgan Neville’s other documentary, “Keith Richards: Under the Influence”).

TIFF’s documentary market may also be lukewarm because last year’s Toronto offerings did not make much of an impact in theaters: For instance, two of Submarine’s most prominent nonfiction titles from 2014, Nick Broomfield’s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” and Marah Strauch’s “Sunshine Superman,” despite terrific reviews, didn’t perform at the box office, though they did receive high-profile cable launches: HBO for the former, and CNN for the latter.

A vast number of Toronto’s documentaries are also in languages other then English, which makes them a tough sell in the North American marketplace. Though U.S. reps like Submarine and The Film Sales Company will be hustling such promising global docs as “The Flickering Truth,” which takes place in Afghanistan, “Thru You Princess,” set in both Israel and the U.S., and  “A Journey of a Thousand Miles,” about Bangladeshi policewomen in Haiti, their foreign tongues make them “more challenging from a commercial perspective,” explained one sales agent, who preferred not to be identified.

There’s also another perennial issue with nonfiction titles at TIFF. “The narratives always overshadow the doc programming,” said the sales agent. “There are a lot of movie stars, and that’s what the theatrical distributors are focusing on.”

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