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Documentary Sales Are Surging, But What’s Driving the Competition?

There has never been a more profitable time for documentaries. Here's why most industry insiders are optimistic about the trend.

“Icarus,” “Step,” “Casting JonBenet”

You could call it the “Netflix effect.” With the rise of the global VOD giant and its increasingly voracious appetite for nonfiction films, the documentary industry is anticipating a busy spring season at the Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival and marketplace.

But it’s not just Netflix, say industry insiders. The number of active buyers for documentary films suggests there’s an enthusiasm for independent nonfiction cinema that goes beyond the VOD giant.

On the eve of Tribeca, three high-profile documentaries have already found buyers: National Geographic acquired the coal-mining expose “From the Ashes,” and Gravitas Ventures bought theatrical and streaming rights to two films already partnering with CNN Films: “Elian,” the story of Cuban child émigré Elian Gonzalez, and Impact Partners’ “The Reagan Show,” a freshly relevant archival-driven doc about the staging of the former President.

READ MORE: Netflix’s Big New Pitch to Lure Top Talent: You Don’t Have to Leave Home

“It was a great Sundance and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be a great Tribeca,” said Dan Cogan, executive director of Impact Partners, which had two of Sundance’s biggest buys: “Step” to Fox Searchlight (for a reported $4 million) and “Icarus” to Netflix (for a reported $5 million, one of the biggest payouts ever for a documentary.) “It seems to me that the fundamentals haven’t changed since Sundance,” Cogan added, “and they don’t seem to be changing in the short term.”

Digital Competitors

Those “fundamentals,” according to Cogan and others in the business, are the highly competitive SVOD companies—Netflix, Amazon and now, increasingly, Hulu—which are all driving strong demand for documentaries, as well as the continuing hunt by theatrical buyers, such as Fox Searchlight, The Orchard, Magnolia Pictures, and A24 (which won the Oscar for “Amy”) and broadcasters, including HBO, Showtime, CNN, and National Geographic. “Out of that, you have a really healthy market,” said Cogan.

Netflix, to be sure, has shown that it’s particular hungry for a range of documentaries to fuel its global media pipeline. At Sundance, the company either presented or acquired an unprecedented half-dozen diverse nonfiction films, from more avant-garde fare such as Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” and Yance Ford’s “Strong Island” to more topical acquisitions, such as “Icarus,” “Chasing Coral,” “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press,” and “Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower.”

“It has been a banner year,” said Josh Braun, of prominent sales agency Submarine Entertainment. “We did multiple seven-figure deals out of Sundance, which is rare.”

Tribeca’s Hot Doc Market

“A Gray State”

At Tribeca this year, Submarine is repping a whopping 11 documentaries, including target acquisition titles such as “A Gray State,” a fascinating and disturbing trip down the alt-right conspiracy rabbit hole, executive produced by Werner Herzog and A&E Indie’s Molly Thompson; “How to Survive a Plague” director David France’s follow-up “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”; Neil Berkeley’s Gilbert Gottfried doc “Gilbert”; Greg Kohs’ man-versus-computer competition doc “AlphaGo”; and “No Man’s Land,” a look at armed protestors who occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge exec produced by Impact’s Dan Cogan and produced by Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me” fame.

If it’s any indication, last year’s Tribeca proved to be a boon to nonfiction movies, with a total of 20 world-premiering documentaries finding distribution, with Netflix, Magnolia Pictures, and FilmRise all closing deals on three films apiece.

This year, Braun is expecting an even stronger marketplace, characterizing the current climate for documentaries as “somewhere between healthy and a little unbalanced”—“unbalanced” referring specifically to the way that Netflix has elevated the acquisition prices for certain docs.

However, the dollar amounts at Tribeca—and at Hot Docs as well—aren’t expected to reach Sundance levels. “It’s not a market that’s at a fever pitch,” said Jason Ishikawa, a sales agent at Cinetic Media, which is repping such likely acquisitions as the starry “Blurred Lines: Inside The Art World” and the issue-driven “Wasted! The Story Of Food Waste.” “People make ambitious bets at Sundance, but at Tribeca, they’re looking to make smart decisions. They’re not going to break the bank; it’s never been that kind of festival.”

At Hot Docs, where Cinetic is selling New York nightlife documentary “Susanne Barsch: On Top,” the industry will continue the conversation with U.S. buyers, but also target the many international broadcasters that make the Toronto documentary event an annual pilgrimage.

Small vs. Large Screens

“Kedi”

This year, Submarine is also representing a new Hulu documentary at Tribeca, “Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine,” which won’t be seeking theatrical partners. With Hulu recently closing output deals for frequent documentary distributors IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures, Hulu appears to be increasingly positioning itself as a destination for docs.

But with the SVOD companies’ emphasis on home-viewing eyeballs, is the documentary business moving further and further away from big screens?

Braun, like others, still believes that select documentaries still have a place in movie theaters. Fox Searchlight, of course, is betting big on its “Step” release this summer, and recent releases of “I Am Not Your Negro” (by Magnolia Pictures) and “Kedi” (by Oscilloscope) indicate theatrical distribution is still viable for non-fiction features.

There are many documentary filmmakers and backers who are also resistant to the SVOD practice of dedicated small-screen distribution. Whether it’s auteur-minded filmmakers who believe their work should be seen in a movie theater or activist-minded partners who desire a robust grassroots screening and outreach campaign, there will always be documentaries that will forgo the all-rights Netflix Originals deal in favor of multiple theatrical and small screen partners.

For Tribeca’s more subtler and cinematic docs, like Drew Xanthopoulos’ “The Sensitives,” a superbly crafted and poignant account of individuals with debilitating chemical and electrical sensitivities struggling with their isolation, or Lana Wilson’s “The Departure,” an equally sensitive portrait of a motorcycle-riding Japanese Buddhist priest who helps prevent suicides in his native land, one would hope that big-screen distribution remains an integral part of their exhibition futures.

Although documentaries being seen on smaller screens may be a relatively newer phenomena, Kevin Iwashina, head of sales shop Preferred Content, indicated that it isn’t necessarily at the expense of an older viewing habit. “It’s not like there was once a hugely robust theatrical documentary marketplace that was all of a sudden destroyed by Netflix,” he said. “What Netflix and other SVOD platforms have done is to expand the access consumers have to documentary content.“

An Optimistic Outlook

Iwashina likened the current nonfiction marketplace to where independent narrative film was in the mid-2000s, with breakout successes like Oscar winners “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Capote.”

“There is a sense of optimism about the documentary marketplace,” he said. “There is innovative storytelling; there is prestige; and it’s in the nascent stages of evolving into a tangible business model.”

But if it is the mid-2000s all over again, does that mean that we’re in bubble, with an impending economic crash? Iwashina resisted that notion. “The documentary buyers are not out of touch with the marketplace; they’re making smart decisions,” he said.

Still, there could be a slight correction based on the amount of high-profile Hollywood players entering the space — from producers, such as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories, which produced the Tribeca entry “Hondros,” as well as RatPac’s Brett Ratner and Blumhouse’s Jason Blum.

“There will always be a finite number of documentaries that are going to be of awards-level quality,” said Iwashina. “However, as more filmmakers generate more documentaries, that finite number increases. Prices will come down because of the laws of supply and demand. It’s a practical economic reality.”

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