Documentary Business Reveals Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor

Highlights from several recent international documentary events show that the non-fiction business is booming — but only for certain kinds of films.
Documentary Business Reveals Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor
"Circus of Books"

In the swelling marketplace for documentary content, there’s a widening gap between the rich and the poor. At this year’s springtime film festivals showcasing new nonfiction premieres and projects in development—Tribeca in New York, and Hot Docs in Toronto—the disparities in the industry were glaringly evident.

On the marketable end of the spectrum, HBO kicked off Tribeca with Roger Ross Williams’s engaging tribute to “The Apollo,” while Netflix announced a worldwide deal for Rachel Mason’s “Circus of Books,” about her parents’ West Hollywood gay porn bookstore, which already had the backing of TV hit-maker and Netflix producer Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story,” “Glee”), and was the only finished acquisition announced during the Festival. Other corporate-affiliated nonfiction included the devastating “After Parkland,” the first feature-length production of Disney subsidiary ABC Documentaries, and other HBO docs, including Antoine Fuqua’s Muhammad Ali portrait and Erin Lee Carr’s USA Gymnastics abuse film “At the Heart of Gold.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of other documentaries screened without distribution partners in sight, and dozens of other documentary filmmakers scrambled to cobble together financing for new projects. With more commercial entities intent on making and releasing nonfiction, it’s an exciting time. But similar to Hollywood’s cooption of indie film in the 2000s, much of that energy is going towards predictable places—celebrity-focused films, true-crime, pop culture scandals, docu-thrillers, and light entertainment—leaving everything else in the lurch, or at least, more restrained financing and distribution prospects.

“There’s something interesting going on in the marketplace,” said prominent documentary sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment. “If we pick the right horse, it means multi-million-dollar box office, but if we don’t, we may spend too much for the wrong horse.”

Old vs. New

Canada’s Hot Docs Forum, a key international co-financing marketplace, and its behind-the-door Deal Maker sessions, which ran concurrently with Tribeca this year, also reflects the wide divides in the current doc world; principally, old vs. new models of doing business. At one point during the 20th anniversary of the two-day pitching Forum, which saw 21 projects in development, Swedish TV’s Axel Arno put it best: “As commissioning editors, we feel akin to dinosaurs.”

Indeed, the Forum model—in which emerging filmmakers pitch their projects to a room full of a (mostly) older generation of international public TV buyers—may be going extinct. Earlier in the week, Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, the industry head of the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), told a Hot Docs audience that IDFA’s signature Central Pitch would not return in 2020.

While international pitch events still provide an important launch-pad and level of heat for the chosen projects, everyone knows that documentary filmmakers would rather get in bed with  single all-rights global buyers (i.e. Netflix), which only take private meetings, than trying to make a range of pacts, one by one, with a bunch of broadcasters from around the world for a fraction of the cash.

The 2019 Hot Docs Pitch Forum

Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of the International Documentary Association, and a veteran moderator of the Hot Docs Forum, acknowledged that there are changes in funding. “It used to be mostly TV-financed,” he told IndieWire. “But now there’s a rich mix of potential financing, from new companies to funds to equity groups like Impact Partners and the Chicago Media Project.” Kilmurry added the major public broadcasters in Europe such as Arte in France and BBC Storyville in the UK “can bring large support, but the smaller markets are quite modest.”

For instance, RYOT Films (“On Her Shoulders”) had already committed $630,000 to one of this year’s top Forum pitches, “Light Darkness Light,” which combines intimate verite filmmaking with CGI animation and other visual effects to tell the story of a blind Anglican priest who is implanted with a “bionic” eye. That makes the $10,000-$20,000 that smaller international broadcasters can provide for licensing deals look like a pittance.

“As the marketplace expands, there will be more funding available for ‘smaller’ documentaries,” said Endeavor Content senior associate Kevin Iwashina. “But there will be more pressure for them to rise creatively amongst the available content in the marketplace.”

Context vs. Ambiguity

Another gap in the industry appears to exist between the mandates of international broadcasters vs. other outlets. This could be seen in debates around the Hot Docs Forum decision-makers table between foreign commissioning editors asking for more context, more science, more narration, or more facts, while a limited group of festival programmers and U.S. funders suggested that ambiguity and nuance should be embraced.

“I see it less as a ‘divide’ and more as different type of scouting job,” said Sundance programmer Harry Vaughn. “As a Sundance programmer, I’m on the lookout for any and all highly compelling stories from bold, visionary voices. A perk, and a challenge, of my job: there are no sharp or set guidelines to follow.”

But in many cases, international broadcasters don’t have such freedom. The Forum’s most artistically audacious project, Bo McGuire’s Southern queer family self-portrait “Socks on Fire: Uncle John and the Copper Headed Water Rattlers” (described by one attendee as “Southern Comfort” meets “Tarnation”) was warmly embraced—but with reservations. One of the most enthusiastic responses came from BBC Storyville’s Mandy Chang, with a caveat: “As long as I get the green light from above, I’m in,” she said, leaving her decision to the higher-ups, who may have a different mandate.

“Socks on Fire: Uncle John and the Copper Headed Water Rattlers”

On the other hand, “the great thing about the platforms,” said Ina Fichman, producer of another top Forum pitch “The Bones,” a captivating docu-thriller about the high-stakes business of dinosaur bone trafficking, “is that they like creative stories.” “The Bones” held the attention of international broadcasters, but Fichman said she was also planning for a potential 4-hour serial version for streamers.

Similarly, another hot pitch that could hit “the platforms” was “Instant Life,” co-directed by Mark Becker (“Art and Craft”) and Aaron Schock (“La Laguna”), which follows the alluring, stranger-the-fiction story about a late-1950s toy known as The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys and one widow’s battle to escape the dark legacy of its creator, Harold von Braunhut,

her late husband. But Schock told IndieWire that things didn’t really come together for the film until Hot Docs. “We’re in a much better place than we were just a week ago,” he said, thanks to pending deals for representation and productive initial discussions with platforms and broadcasters.

There were other strong projects pitched at the Forum, but it’s hard to know where they’ll end up in the current business environment, where a massive influx of documentary productions may be creating a distribution bottleneck.

Endeavor’s Iwashina suggested that such a surplus of content could actually benefit smaller distributors. “I think public broadcasters and international channels will have more opportunity to acquire quality films as supply increases,” he said, while “independent distributors will be able to position themselves as a quality alternative to larger distributors given their precision in marketing.”

At Hot Docs, you could see how filmmakers were coming up with original ways to tackle familiar topics to distinguish themselves in the crowded market, such as the Forum’s two unconventional and complex examinations of climate change: “Colour of the Wind,” a cinematic portrait of monster dust storms that travel across the earth, which won a CDN $20,000 prize from a group of private donors, and “Plan C for Civilization,” Ben Kalina and Jen Schneider’s look at the thorny issue of solar geoengineering (as one expert comments, “geoengineering is a really bad idea, but it may be our least bad option”).

There were also a number of projects focused on female empowerment, the best of which, Lin Alluna’s “Twice Colonized,” a compelling profile of Inuit activist Aaju Peter, and winner of two awards totaling $30,000 CDN, set itself apart by focusing not only on its protagonist’s ferocity, but also her deep-seated personal vulnerabilities.

What’s the Fate of Foreign Docs?

There is one area of the business where less endowed broadcasters still play an essential component in the nonfiction ecosystem: foreign-language documentaries, which have long been abandoned by larger U.S.-based companies, platforms, and even festivals. Out of Tribeca’s 12-film Documentary Competition, for example, only two entries weren’t in English. Tribeca’s winner, Scotland’s “Scheme Birds,” an intimate and lyrically shot kitchen-sink-realist portrait of a working-class Scottish teen that is also subtitled, was beloved by critics, but will likely remain a hard-sell in the U.S.’s risk-averse documentary market. Fortunately, for foreign docs, PBS’ POV still holds a few slots every year for far-flung stories.

But that leaves foreign documentaries reliant on piecemeal international deals to reach their financing goals and audiences. That’s the likely fate of the Hot Docs Forum’s most promising international projects, such as Myanmar-based filmmaker Hnin Ei Hlaing’s “Midwives,” a brave story of two midwives who work side by side in a makeshift medical clinic, which won the Forum’s top $30,000 CDN “first look” prize, and two projects from Iran, “Maya,” about the bond between an Iranian animal trainer and his tiger produced by Doc Society, and “1001 Nights Apart,” a portrait of different generations of ballet dancers in Iran, where “dancing” is technically forbidden.

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