As the 2020 Sundance Film Festival readies to open Thursday, some of the biggest buzz is surrounding documentary titles, as mainstream audiences continue their hunger for high-quality nonfiction stories. Propelled by a parade of true-crime podcasts like “Serial,” documentaries like “Free Solo,” and bingeable series like Netflix’s 13-part “The Staircase,” there’s never been a better time to be in the business of making, buying, and selling real-life stories.
“The most exciting thing that’s happening in entertainment, for me, is what’s happening in documentary films,” said Bryn Mooser, co-founder of documentary studio XTR.
XTR and another newly launched player, Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim’s Concordia Studio, have seized on the doc-obsessed moment with promising results: Each company has four films on their Sundance slates, accounting for almost half of the U.S. Documentary Competition lineup. Together, they co-financed Bill and Turner Ross’ “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.”
“There’s no shortage of great projects, but there’s been a shortage of studios that want to finance or co-finance them,” Mooser said.
There’s also no shortage of buyers for those projects. For proof, take a look at what Netflix is bringing to the festival. Half of its record eight-film slate is documentaries, including the high-profile Taylor Swift movie “Miss Americana.” Netflix’s latest acquisition, made last week, was “Mucho Mucho Amor,” a profile on Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado that counts XTR among its financiers.
The price tag on those acquisitions are undisclosed, but the hottest documentaries command huge sums on the open market. In the fall, Apple TV+ paid a reported $25 million for the R.J. Cutler-directed film about musician Billie Eilish, while YouTube last month spent $20 million on a 10-part Justin Bieber series.
With the eyes of Hollywood tastemakers and cinephiles alike locked squarely on Park City, Netflix isn’t just tapping into Sundance’s built-in PR machine. It’s sending a clear message about what its subscribers — and by extension, mainstream audiences — want: prestige, filmmaker-driven stories that often invite viewers to take a deeper dive into familiar people and subjects. Call it the nonfiction equivalent of branded IP; there’s plenty of it for sale at the festival.
It’s no surprise, then, that many nonfiction titles for sale at Sundance have all rights up for grabs, a necessity for streamers looking to release films to their subscribers across the globe. For mission-driven documentarians who want to spark conversation about social issues, that’s a particularly attractive proposition.
“Thankfully, due to the explosion of digital outlets, we’re able to get those stories to larger and larger audiences and younger and younger audiences,” said Maria Cuomo Cole, producer of Sundance selection “Us Kids” (another XTR Project), which gives viewers 100 minutes to absorb new details of a familiar story: the youth movement catalyzed by the Parkland school shooting survivors. The Kim Snyder-directed film has worldwide rights available and is repped by Endeavor Content.
Netflix isn’t the only streamer looking to stock its nonfiction coffers, and features aren’t the only medium in high demand. Hulu is premiering its four-part Hillary Clinton series “Hillary” at Sundance as the streamer, newly under Disney control, expands as a general-audience counterpart to the family-friendly offerings on Disney+.
That comes as the festival continues to grow as a place to launch and sell TV series, such as “Awkward Family Photos,” which follows families featured on AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com as they recreate their original photos, forcing them to reconcile their past and celebrate their awkwardness.
“As series have gotten more important to streamers and the networks, we’ve seen Sundance reflect that, and other festivals reflect that,” said Maria Zuckerman, EVP at Topic Studios, which counts Showtime’s Day One docuseries “Love Fraud” and “Mucho Mucho Amor” among its festival selections.
While streamers have helped launch the nonfiction renaissance, theatrical distributors remain a part of the equation. National Geographic Documentary Films, for instance, is planning a theatrical release of the Ron Howard-directed “Rebuilding Paradise” following its Sundance bow.
Concordia execs Guggenheim, Jonathan Silberberg, and Nicole Stott said in an interview that the best distribution partner on a project is one who is enthusiastic about the film, understands it, and has the commitment and strength to put it out into the world. That’s especially important to them, given Concordia’s mission of creating a brand around impactful, thought-provoking content.
“Our focus is always finding the best partner for the project,” Stott said.
Concordia’s four-film slate includes Ramona S. Diaz’ “A Thousand Cuts,” a look at truth and democracy under the regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; “Boys State,” Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ look at a mock government program for 17-year-old Texas boys; and “Time,” which follows a matriarch and modern-day abolitionist’s fight to keep her family together while fighting for the release of her incarcerated husband. It’s directed by Garrett Bradley, a member of Concordia’s inaugural Artists in Residence fellowship class. All of the studio’s films have all rights available.
“Each of our four films will have a different plan,” Guggenheim said. “We’re looking for a partner with a unique sophistication in how to bring each film to the public.”