Documentaries Could Sell Big at Sundance 2019, But Buyers Should Exercise Caution

From Dr. Ruth to Miles Davis, some major non-fiction stories are coming to Park City this year. But will last year's track record bode well for them?
A still from Ask Dr. Ruth by Ryan White, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres Program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by David Paul JacobsonAll photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
"Ask Dr. Ruth"

Will the recent box office success of documentaries impact sales at this year’s Sundance Film Festival? “Hell, yeah,” said Magnolia Pictures Eamonn Bowles, whose company released “RBG,” one of last year’s top-grossing documentaries.

While documentaries have experienced greater theatrical market share and overall ticket sales in past years, 2018 will be remembered as the first time four independently-released nonfiction films earned more than $10 million, three of which (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” “RBG,” and “Three Identical Strangers”) premiered at Sundance (the fourth, “Free Solo,” premiered in Telluride).

Reflecting the widespread interest in uplifting real-life stories as an antidote to the dire political climate over the last 10 months, the four films reached a total box-office of nearly $60 million, while another seven documentaries surpassed $1 million (lead by titles such as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Death of a Nation,” and “Whitney”). It’s this renewed appetite for entertaining nonfiction, along with more streaming companies outside of Netflix hitting a film festival that’s continually premiering the year’s top documentaries, that could propel Sundance 2019 into the record books.

Many industry insiders say bigger companies are already scouring for breakthrough documentaries at the impending Festival. “Right now, it’s the most exciting time it’s ever been for the documentary market,” said Delirio Films’ Rafael Marmor, a producer on Sundance docs “Ask Dr. Ruth” and “Mike Wallace is Here,” who attributes the enthusiasm to the large number of outlets looking for nonfiction.

“We are hearing from at least three or four companies that don’t normally go after docs and are now saying they’d be interested,” explains sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment. The company is representing such high-profile Sundance entries as Participant Media’s “American Factory” and Verve’s “The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” which has all the makings of another “Three Identical Strangers.”

Both titles are available for acquisition and are likely to be scooped up by distributors, along with the Mike Wallace doc, being repped by CAA, and other buzzed-about nonfiction, including “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” from Matt Tyrnauer (“Valentino: The Last Emperor”) and the Harvey Weinstein #MeToo doc “Untouchable,” produced by two-time Oscar-winner Simon Chinn (“Searching for Sugar Man,” “Man on Wire”).

Braun has already pre-sold a couple of his company’s Sundance titles, including “Ask Dr. Ruth” to Hulu and Magnolia, and “Apollo 11” to Neon. There’s even a documentary on Submarine’s slate that didn’t get into Sundance and yet it’s still gotten traction. “We’ve had a barrage of calls from companies who are saying, ‘Since you didn’t get in, why don’t you just show it to us?’” says Braun, “so now we may presell it.” (He declined to offer specifics.)

"Apollo 11"
“Apollo 11”

Veteran sales agent John Sloss of Cinetic Media, which is looking to sell at least nine documentaries (including those on Miles Davis, Molly Ivins, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Stieg Larson), notes the sheer number of global SVOD platforms in play. “There’s signs of life at Netflix after they took a little bit of a break last year, spurred on by competition from Apple, Google/YouTube, Hulu, and AT&T,” he said.

But such competition could overvalue the documentary market, as it has in the past for certain over-hyped fiction films, with sales prices going beyond what’s fiscally sound.

“Operating under the assumption that a doc can make $10 million, I can see these companies spending a lot of money that they might regret later,” said Bowles. “The independent film world is not like selling toothpaste. It’s very much about the individual films, and what sort of nerve they hit.”

Despite Magnolia’s stellar track record with documentaries (releasing “RBG” and “I Am Not Your Negro,” and older films such as “Food, Inc.” and “Capturing the Friedmans”), Bowles acknowledged that a traditional distributor like Magnolia may not be able to compete with the corporate streaming companies. “I think we generally have a good reputation among documentary filmmakers, but it makes it harder to compete when you have absolutely irrational amounts of money being paid at film festivals,” he adds. “Netflix has a different economic model than those companies who need audiences to buy a ticket.”

Neon’s Tom Quinn is more aggressive, and said the company, which released “Three Identical Strangers,” can go to toe-to-toe with Netflix. If prices are high, Quinn said, “It’s worth the value, because we’re buying the film at the highest level of their worth.”

Though sales agents welcome the competitive bidding wars in the high altitudes, they also don’t want to play into the conspicuous consumption of nonfiction. “I don’t think it’s strategic to use those four films that made over $10 million,” says Braun. “There isn’t necessarily a direct corollary.”

Sloss agreed. “If people are overreacting, then that would concern me,” he said. “I’m not interested in putting the all-rights distributors in fiscal hardship.”

And buyers certainly don’t have to go too far back to see a time when documentaries didn’t perform as expected. Only a year ago, the market was littered with nonfiction films with hot topical content that made big waves at Sundance, but then stumbled at the box office, such as “Step,” “City of Ghosts,” and “Whose Streets?”

But the wider documentary marketplace may be able to withstand growth, in both the number of docs picked up and the cost of buying and releasing them. Even if last year’s documentary box-office surge was just an upward tick in an ever-rotating cyclical market, “I don’t think the audience interest in true stories and inherent drama of these stories is a cycle,” said Sloss. “I think that’s evolutionary.”

Sloss and others point to the fact that whatever happens in theaters, there’s still circumstantial evidence that documentaries continue to over-perform on streaming platforms.

Delirio Films’ Marmor said the current marketplace is driving the need for bigger documentaries; both Delirio documentaries had budgets over a million dollars. “In this newer documentary landscape, I think the scope and scale of what you’re trying to do can be larger,” he said. And it certainly helps if you’ve got cultural icons — such as Dr. Ruth or Mike Wallace — at the center of your doc. “When you have an iconic character — someone who you thought you knew — and you’re getting under the surface to know them better, that’s very attractive to audiences, and to buyers,” said Marmor.

Indeed, Magnolia’s Bowles joked that his company had “very good luck” releasing documentaries about elderly female icons (from Iris Apfel to Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

Then again, distributors say the hype around this year’s docs will inevitably match the quality and commerciality of the films. “I think next year is going to be as big, if not bigger than last year,” said Neon’s Quinn. “It’s a natural progression of what people want. But if the films aren’t there or don’t deliver, it will be a different story.”

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