February 8, 2023

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The Sundance documentary hopes to boost private festival business

5 min read

For documentary filmmakers seeking distribution for independently produced projects, Sundance is the golden ticket. This is where some lucky doc directors can land seven-figure deals every year with major distributors including Netflix, Amazon or Apple TV+. But this year, with streamers not only tightening their purse strings but also increasingly commissioning their own content and eschewing even more provocative politically-skewed fare, the Park City market for indie nonfiction features will be more competitive and perhaps less lucrative.

Last January at Sundance 2022, which was an online-only event, Doc Market got off to a strong start. Several Sundance nonfiction titles including “Aftershock” (Disney’s Onyx Collective and ABC News), “All That Breathes” (HBO), “Descendants” (Netflix), “Last Flight Home” (MTV Documentary Films), “Fire of Love” Sold ” (National Geographic), “Miza” (Disney+), “Nothing Compares” (Showtime) and “The Territory” (National Geographic). But as the years progressed, economic malaise and mergers of major brands significantly reduced the number of document purchases from festivals.

“It’s no secret that the market for festivals throughout 2022 has steadily declined year-over-year,” said Kathryn Everett, head of film at nonfiction shingle XTR. “So it will be an interesting bellwether to see whether or not these private screenings can move the needle in the market.”

But despite the drop in acquisitions, doc industry veterans like Submarine Entertainment sales agent Josh Brown aren’t worried about Sundance 2023.

“It’s definitely a more challenging landscape,” said Brown, who brings nine acquisition titles to the fest, including “Beyond Utopia” and “Invisible Beauty.” “But talking to the various distributors that went to Sundance, it seems that every company that buys and publishes documentaries is looking for films and looking to fill out their lineups.”

Brown, with his blue chip slate, can be optimistic. The number of slots left in distributors’ respective lineups seems to be dwindling dramatically, but each platform is still making room for docs that could earn Oscar noms later in the year.

“Distributors are making films that they think are going to work at a prestige level, but they’re not. [award] nomination,” said Jason Ishikawa of Cinetic Media. “Really, the best bang for your buck is to buy a movie that’s really good and risk it yourself. Even if you’re paying a premium for that movie and two or more times its production cost. It costs three times as much, but it’s cheaper than investing all this time and energy into an in-house film that can only work if it works on an awards basis.”

Four docs from Sundance last year — “All That Breathes,” “Descendants,” “Fire of Love” and “The Territory” — made the 2022 Oscar documentary shortlist.

“The strength that independent filmmakers still have is that a streamer can’t create the magic of a deeply personal documentary that resonates emotionally and becomes a sensation because of people’s feelings,” Everett said. “If you just try to follow the algorithm, it can’t predict such obscure things. I don’t think the algorithm predicted that ‘All That Breathes’ would be such a big hit this year. So I think streamers really understand that and they go out looking for their rewards.”

Observers have also recently seen a reluctance from streamers to board overtly political fare. “Streamers don’t particularly want their audience to feel challenged,” said Ishikawa, who is selling seven titles at Sundance, including “Kim’s Video” and “Going to Mars.” “Things can be provocative, but streamers don’t want viewers to see anything that goes against their moral or political beliefs or is politically challenged. So I think it’s partly the reluctance of streamers to engage in politically oriented docs.”

“We’re hearing from streamers themselves that they’re not interested in documentaries that are truly entertaining and not easy to market,” added Annie Roney, founder of documentary distribution agency Rocco Films.

Geralyn White Dreyfuss, co-founder of doc fund Impact Partners — who has spent decades helping directors make challenging films including “Invisible War,” “The Square” and “Icarus” — worries about the current doc distribution landscape.

“The fall of CNN Films is just one example of where corporate America is moving around political docs and streaming content,” Dreyfus said. “Many distributors where this important truth-to-power documentary has landed are changing their mandate. There are many of us in this business who think we need to build a company just for political docs, where you have minimal guarantees for P&A and you bring the movies to theaters and then you license them to streamers you can prove that for them There is an audience.”

But despite this state of the market, the Sundance program includes numerous social issue-oriented documentaries that engage with politics, including Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days Mariupol,” Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s “Bad Press,” and Matthieu Rytz’s “Deep Rising”.

Narrated by Jason Momoa, “Deep Rising” focuses on the fate of the planet’s last untouched wilderness, the deep ocean, which is threatened as a secret agency plans to allow massive extraction of seabed metals to combat the world’s energy crisis. Although this is a geopolitical film, Ronnie Doc is ripping.

Rony says, “Many social-issue films or political films are localized. “Often, it’s a US story that might have some public news that might go to other regions. But ‘Deep Rising’ is truly a global film for humanity. It is bigger than a political film. It’s about planet Earth, and the stakes are high. So the film is going to resonate in any part of the world.”

Tracy Droz Tragos’ “Plan C” is another political Sundance film seeking distribution. The film, about a hidden grassroots organization fighting to expand access to abortion pills across the United States, was produced by Everett.

“Tracy’s film is very emotional, and it applies to 50% of the US population, so I think it has a great audience appeal,” says Everett. “This is a film that streamers can make an exception for.”

Dreyfous’ Impact Partners has two documentaries at Sundance, “Going to Varsity in Mariachi,” about a high school mariachi band, and “It’s Only Life After All,” about the Indigo Girls. Both are crowd-pleasing commercial documents that should sell without a problem. But Dreyfuss, who admits that the less-than-commercial impact docs haven’t made it into Sundance, hopes that only the expected fare won’t sell.

“We need to send a signal to streamers that you can’t do this without supporting the independent ecosystem,” Dreyfus said. “Sundance started 40 years ago to disrupt the studio system. I think now we need to disrupt the corporate streaming environment.”

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