It was a good year for several documentary filmmakers who sought and found distribution for independent projects at major festivals. But for many nonfiction directors, this year’s festival circuit hasn’t proved as fruitful as it once was.
Before the pandemic, streaming services flocked to film festivals to fill their slates, but now that media conglomerates are consolidating, brands are merging and Netflix is tightening its portfolio, film festival documentary shopping sprees have slowed down. In addition to mergers and economic malaise, there’s been a surge of streamers like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple and Disney either pre-purchasing docuseries or ordering their own non-fiction projects.
Some of this year’s festival favorites were commissioned docuseries, including “The Janes” by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes (HBO), “We Need to Talk About Cosby” by W. Kamau Bell (Showtime), “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” by Rory Kennedy” (Netflix), and “We Feed People” by Ron Howard (National Geographic).
“The trend we’re seeing is both good and bad for the documentary landscape,” says Josh Braun, sales agent for Submarine Entertainment. “If you’re a documentary filmmaker who has a movie that’s commissioned by a streamer, then you applaud and you’re happy. If you’re a filmmaker who took a different route and financed a movie (independently), and he premiered at a festival, it’s a bit tricky.
Braun filled in and executive produced the 2022 Sundance hit “Fire of Love,” about famed French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Herber. After the documentary’s virtual premiere in January, there was a bidding war, which ended with National Geographic paying in the mid-seven figures for the film.
“‘Fire of Love’ worked fantastically, and it was a great thing for everyone involved,” says Braun. “But for other movies that went down the same path, it wasn’t as quick (a sale), and it wasn’t necessarily as rewarding financially. I think we are in a tricky landscape. Going to festivals like Sundance without a cast and hoping for a big deal can happen, but it’s not guaranteed.
Other documentaries distributed at Sundance include: “Aftershock” (Disney’s Onyx Collective and ABC News), “Last Flight Home” (MTV Documentary Films), “Mija” (Disney+) and “Nothing Compares” (Showtime). But two Sundance 2022 titles that received a lot of buzz but have yet to find distribution are Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s “The Exiles,” about three dissidents exiled from the Tiananmen Square massacre, and “The American Dream and Other” by Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes. Fairy Tales,” about growing inequality in America and better pay for Disneyland actors.
Earlier this year, Disney, Walt Disney’s great-niece, spoke to Variety to find a cast before the premiere of the Hot Docs movie. “The (platforms) that Disney doesn’t own, and there aren’t very many of them, are run by people who are vulnerable to the same criticisms (made in film),” she said. “So it’s really hard to imagine them wanting to take this doc and make themselves vulnerable. But if I have to stand in Times Square on a grandstand with a megaphone, I’m going to make sure the movie gets seen.
Eventually, the Disney heir decided to distribute “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” himself. It will launch in theaters and on major VOD platforms, including iTunes and Amazon, on September 23.
“The Exiles,” which won the Sundance Documentary Grand Jury Prize, remained on the festival circuit until last spring. The film delves into America’s complicity in China’s human rights abuses, which may be one of the reasons streamers aren’t taken with the film.
Although documentaries are a cornerstone of the outlets business model, streaming services are media conglomerates that don’t seek to offend governments or other companies. Instead, Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple are hungry for more subscribers and content that reaches the widest possible audience. And that content has increasingly started to fit into a specific mold, which is business-driven and focused on true crime, sports, music, or celebrities.
Among filmmakers, there is a growing sense that Hollywood has entered the era of corporate documentary. “It’s a good skeptical lens to apply because it’s a force in what shapes our storytelling now that we need to pay close attention to,” Toronto Film Festival documentary programmer Thom Powers told Variety a year ago.
Powers has selected Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s ‘The Grab’ docu to premiere at this year’s TIFF. The film, which exposes land grabs carried out by international governments and other powerful agencies trying to secure food and water outside their borders, premiered on September 8. It hasn’t found a buyer yet, but if Powers is right and this is the era of the documentary business, anyone can guess if a streaming service will support a film that takes large oscillations in China and Saudi Arabia.
Documentary makers have paid close attention to what streamers are buying – and what’s shown at major festivals. The 2022 docu-lineups for South by Southwest and Tribeca Festival, for example, were both celebrity-heavy.
Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s “Still Working 9 to 5” focused on the origins and success of the 1980 film “9 to 5,” while also addressing gender inequality and workplace discrimination. work, but despite filmed interviews with and audience support from “9 to 5” stars Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, the film has no distributor. That’s also the case with Casey Neistat’s “Under the Influence,” about 23-year-old YouTube phenom David Dobrik. Another non-political film from SXSW still looking for distribution is Jessica Edwards’ “Skate Dreams,” about the rise of women’s skateboarding.
In June at the Tribeca Festival, four celebrity-led docuseries premiered, including Sean Mullin’s “It Ain’t Over” (about baseball legend Yogi Berra), “On the Line: The Richard Williams Story” by Stuart McClave (about Venus and Serena Williams’ father), “Butterly in the Sky” by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb (about the PBS children’s series “Reading Rainbow” and its iconic host LeVar Burton), and ” Subject” by Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall, about documentary stars including Michael Peterson (“The Staircase”) and the ethics of non-fiction filmmaking. All four documentaries are still on the festival circuit and still looking for distribution. Politically oriented Tribeca documentaries, including Cynthia Lowen’s “Battleground” (about abortion), Josh Alexander’s “Loudmouth” (about Al Sharpton) and “Rudy! A Documusical” (about Rudy Giuliani), also failed to find SVOD distribution. (Abramorama and Roco Films will release “Battleground” in theaters on October 7.)
“It takes a little longer than normal,” says Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa. “Part of it is simply because it was the summer and the instability of the market that shook all sectors of the market, not just the cinema. This is frustrating for a lot of people, especially because Tribeca has created a lot of high-profile business documentaries about famous people or big news stories that can really work in the market.
But Ishikawa adds that all is not lost for the docuseries which have caused a stir on the festival circuit this year but have not found takers.
“That’s not a bad thing, necessarily,” he said. “I understand the concern, but the reality is that there are enough distributors who need content who aren’t producing it themselves. HBO, Netflix, Showtime, they’ve always created their own content, but they’re always looking to complement it, and non-fiction is usually a much better and profitable acquisition than a high-end star-studded scripted movie.