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Reality Checks: Which Docs Will Pop Out of SXSW and Tribeca (and Will Buyers Bite)?

Reality Checks: Which Docs Will Pop Out of SXSW and Tribeca (and Will Buyers Bite)?


After Sundance, industry excitement and expectations are
decidedly more subdued when it comes to the documentary market. After all, it’s
hard to compete with Park City as the preeminent launchpad for American
nonfiction — take note; out of the 2015 Oscar doc shortlist, 9 out of the 15
titles premiered at Sundance. You just don’t get the same concentration of
heavy-hitters at other festivals and markets throughout the year. 

READ MORE: Ethan Hawke, Jake Gyllenhaal and More Headline 2016 SXSW Features Lineup

But with a small
number of buyers at Sundance 2016 (Amazon, Netflix) gobbling up most of the
films, you can bet that rival distributors will be looking to fill their
slates, paying close to attention to this year’s SXSW, Tribeca and Hot Docs
festivals for new nonfiction gems. “People still need new movies,” said Cinetic Media’s Linzee
Troubh. “It’s not frenetic, but there’s still plenty of good movies and
business to be done.”

SXSW: Fans First

At SXSW, Troubh feels there is a bit of “disconnect,” she
said, “between what works well for audiences and what’s most valuable for
buyers.” One potential exception may be “The Overnighters” director
Jesse Moss’ latest doc “The Bandit,” a buoyant look at the making of “Smokey and
the Bandit” and the relationship between star Burt Reynolds and his stuntman, Hal
Needham, which could satisfy both fans and the industry alike.

Cinetic is also repping Keith Maitland’s “Tower,” one of the
more eye-grabbing nonfiction titles at SXSW. Described as an “animated and
action-packed look at America’s first mass school shooting,” the film has the
backing of name executive producers, Luke Wilson and Meredith Vieira.

At SXSW, another prominent sales company, Preferred Content,
will be unveiling “Silicon Cowboys,” which tells the story of the young
entrepreneurs who took on IBM in the 1980s with their rival personal computing
company COMPAQ.

“Every year, SXSW and Tribeca are the next major stops,” said Submarine’s Josh Braun, who is repping at SXSW, among others, Alexandre
Lehmann’s “Asperger’s Are Us,” Laura Dunn’s Wendell Berry portrait “The Seer,” Matt Ornstein’s “Accidental Courtesy:
Daryl Davis, Race & America” and Jake Oelman’s exotic insect photography doc “Learning
To See.”

“Three years ago, we had a big success at Tribeca and a
tricky time at SXSW; in another year, it was the reverse,” he added. “They each
have their challenges.” Braun, for instance, doesn’t expect to make deals on the
ground at SXSW. “We start the process there, and then between SXSW and Tribeca
is a healthy time to figure out deals,” he said. “But it’s more difficult after
Tribeca because Cannes is right around the corner.”

  SXSW may also be the go-to place for music docs, because of
the festival and the city’s strong music scene, but because there are so many
of them it can be a challenge to land a deal.

SXSW’s marketplace could also be dampened by the fact that
there are no industry screenings or industry office to service buyers. “It’s
just not what we do here,” SXSW head of film Janet Pierson told Indiewire. “There is a democratization that happens here that people love or complain
about, and that’s what differentiates us from other fests. We’re presenting
this work, and there’s a lot of business that goes on,” added Pierson, “but
it’s not one of our talking points.”

Tribeca: Doc
Explosion

Tribeca has several things going for it in terms of its
docs. Though there may be a glut of titles and the starry narrative entries can
get all the press, the docs are often a better bet for buyers. “Tribeca is a good testing ground for docs,” said Troubh, “because the audience” — urban sophisticates — “overlaps with the same audience
that’s going to see them when they’re released.”

Among Cinetic’s high profile docs at Tribeca are Ted Braun’s “Betting on Zero,” described as a “riveting financial docu-thriller” about the
nutritional giant Herbalife and “Obit,” Vanessa Gould’s look at The New York
Times obituary writers.

The Film Sales Company’s Andrew Herwitz is not representing any
films at SXSW this year, preferring instead to focus on Tribeca and Hot Docs, the
latter which announces its lineup soon. “I have noticed that the films
premiering in Tribeca and Hot Docs continue to grow in prominence,” said Herwitz, who is selling Joseph Martin and Sam Blair’s surprising story of an
anti-Semitic Hungarian politician “Keep Quiet” out of Tribeca.

“In my
experience, for films with international expectations and relevance,” he said, “Tribeca
and Hot Docs are the places that filmmakers really want to premiere at.”

Submarine Entertainment’s Tribeca slate looks particularly
strong this year. Among the films they’ll be selling are Tim Marrinan and
Richard Dewey’s “Burden,” about controversial performance artist Chris Burden,
who had himself shot and electrocuted in the ‘70s; the drone warfare doc “National
Bird” which premiered in Berlin to favorable reviews; Jenny Carchman’s “Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James
Arthur Ray,” a portrait of cult leader James Ray; and Daniel
Gordon’s “Don’t Look Down,” which
follows entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s attempt to sail a hot air balloon
across the Atlantic and Pacific. 

Other high-profile nonfiction Tribeca world premieres on
buyer’s watch-lists include nuclear meltdown doc “Command and Control,” directed by Robert Kenner
(“Merchants of Doubt”); Ferne Pearlstein’s comics-studded “The Last Laugh,” about humor and the Holocaust; and “I’ll
Sleep When I’m Dead,” a look at DJ Steve Aoki.

Will there be headline-grabbing purchases at this year’s post-Sundance
festivals? Some strong docs came out of the fests last year, including SXSW
winner “Peace Officer,” and Tribeca entries such as “Peggy Guggenheim: Art
Addict,” “The Birth of Saké,” “Democrats,” “In Transit,” “Thank You for
Playing,” “(T)ERROR,” “Uncertain,” “Tom
Swift and His Electric Rifle” (renamed “Killing Them Safely” after an IFC
pickup), “Very Semi-Serious” (acquired by HBO) and “Crocodile Gennadiy” (acquired and renamed “Almost Holy” by The Orchard), among others. Many of
these films are only now beginning to be released — both “Thank You for Playing” and “The Birth of Saké” open theatrically on the same day this month, March 18 — but
deals have been modest.

READ MORE: New York-Centric Doc ‘The First Monday in May’ to Open 2016 Tribeca Film Festival

According to The Film Sales Company’s Herwitz, the
critically acclaimed “The Birth of Saké” received the kinds of offers that
would have put a financial burden on the filmmakers if they pursued a
theatrical release. “The all-rights offers were so small that it was clear that
the filmmakers would be better off financially to parcel out the rights,” he
explained.

Not exactly the most heartening words to hear as filmmakers
enter the festival circuit. But it’s the complicated reality of the post-Sundance
landscape.

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