This post originally appeared on Film Independent’s blog and appears here with their permission.
It’s a great time for documentary films. Films as varied as “Blackfish” and “Amy” have found a home in the mainstream market, gaining distribution and having successful theatrical runs.
At last month’s Film Independent Forum, Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of the International Documentary Association (IDA) sat down with Josh Braun, Co-President of Submarine Entertainment, and talked about the elements successful docs have in common. Documentary filmmaker Laura Gabbert (“City of Gold”) moderated the evening. Here are six takeaways from their conversation.
Everyone wants their film to debut at the top festivals to increase its chances of being acquired and distributed. “The reality is that most documentaries don’t premiere at Sundance or Toronto,” said Kilmurry. “That’s the one percent, if you look at the people who apply for those festivals and the number of people they take.”
Kilmurry said filmmakers shouldn’t overlook smaller, doc-centric festivals. “[Distributors] still look at places like Full Frame and True/False and Camden. And the programming there is really good.”
Filmmakers should also start building their audience before their premiere.
“I think one thing that’s been a big change over the last 10 years is that filmmakers, particularly when they are working on social issue documentaries, are building these communities of interest along the way,” said Kilmurry. “It’s almost like they’re doing marketing and outreach as they’re producing, and I think that is really effective for having an audience who’s prepped for your film.”
Understanding the international market
“I know for me, trying to understand the international marketplace is confusing,” said Gabbert.
“There’s an added level of complication when you start to sell your film internationally,” conceded Kilmurry, but he suggested filmmakers pay serious attention to the international market and recommended attending one of the big foreign festivals to learn more.
“Nothing beats going to a place like Sheffield (England, home of the Sheffield Doc/Fest) or Leipzig (Germany where Dok Leipzig takes place) and sitting in a forum and talking to other filmmakers and sales reps, to commissioning editors to get a sense of what the landscape looks like,” he said.
Braun helped break down the possibilities that exist in the international marketplace. “The whole world is open. We often get into these little ruts when budget is $700K and we’re selling the US rights for $500K, and we’re thinking we really want to recoup,” said Braun. “Well, we’re more than two thirds of the way there with $200K to get from the whole rest of the world. That’s not a guarantee it’s going to happen, but it’s a much better equation than, say, $50K for all rights in North America.”
Bearing with the American market
According to Braun, the American market is having trouble breaking with the past when it comes to documentaries.
“I think there’s an older guard approach that, to me, is coming from a time when documentaries were perceived to be more for PBS, more educational. And then there was a wave of films like Supersize Me and Spellbound and March of the Penguins, that were big successes and were very commercial.”
Braun turned to Kilmurry to see if he agreed that documentary representatives still aren’t fully realizing the possibilities of the marketplace.
“Yeah, I think that’s right,” Kilmurry responded.
Finding the right budget
“People talk about there being a sort of sweet spot for sales. Like your budget needs to be at a certain point in order to recoup,” commented Gabbert.
“I’m always glad when this topic comes up,” said Braun. “I was at an industry conference where people were pitching projects, and every project was $1.3 million. [I said], ‘No, I can’t abide by this injustice.'”
Braun said that while there are exceptions and some docs do require a budget that large, most do not.
“There’s this separate world of social action and issue films that managed to tap into a community of investors, and so if their goals are not to make money or to recoup their money, then that’s great. I don’t fault anyone for budgeting one of those films at $1 million or $1.3 or $1.5, because in the end they are thinking about those films in different ways.”
“For me, it’s not like every budget has to be $200K or $300K. But when someone goes, ‘Our budget is $3 million and we need to recoup every penny or we’re going to lose our house,’ I’m really hesitant to come on board a film like that, even if I love it.”
Braun recommended a budget range of $300,000 to $800,000 for most documentaries.
Leveraging your Netflix deal
The panelists spoke at length about the positive impact Netflix has had on the documentary market.
“They’re so prevalent in the doc world right now,” said Braun. “More than anything, it’s good to know that Netflix can be a partner, not just in that magical possibility of being the Netflix original that has the billboard three blocks from here—that’s great for any film…but they also license rights, and those licensing deals you can actually build into a theatrical window. So there’s more flexibility.”
But it’s important to know that Netflix favors universal rights, which may complicate some deals when it comes to selling your film.
Braun offered an example, “If they’re offering you a large enough number, but the number of rights you can exploit in each country are curtailed, [you have to find] a balance. If you’re getting $600K from Netflix, but you can no longer sell to Sky in the UK—because it’s a pay platform and they have a complete blackout on other pay platforms worldwide—that’s one place you wouldn’t be able to sell it. But you might be able to negotiate selling it to a free channel, like BBC, maybe 18 months after the start of the license.”
“Too often filmmakers don’t put their own fees into the budget,” said Kilmurry. He explained that by paying yourself along the way is the best way for a documentary filmmaker to make sure they’re covered when it comes time to repay investors.
Braun agreed. “I don’t fault people who are able to raise money and pay themselves,” he said. “I’ve been caught in the middle when investors go, ‘Why is this budget $700K? I see that they’re paying themselves.'” Braun’s response: “People have to live!”
“We’ve worked with filmmakers who did not pay themselves a penny and invested the sweat equity and it paid off. But there’s no guarantee of that,” said Braun.