Investigating the Documentary Film Industry at IDFA Amsterdam 2018

Producing a documentary film, whether a short film, television broadcast, or theatrical feature is no small accomplishment. But, as we know from past columns and interviews with filmmakers, this is only half the battle. The second half is equally daunting: distribution.

So: I have my film, I’ve started applying to festivals, but there is no roadmap for finding an audience, a distributor, press coverage, or even a proper sales agent. What to do? In this series, I report from the IDFA – International Documentary Festival Amsterdam to investigate the state of the documentary film industry and provide helpful advice from some major players.  We focus on European distributors for broadcast, theatrical, and streaming. IDFA provides a forum, market, academy, and industry program each year along with offering a vast program of diverse and engaging documentaries to watch in their online screening room and at theaters throughout Amsterdam. I had the pleasure of watching an IDFAcademy Session entitled “Sales Strategies: About the money or the Viewers?” with Robin Smith (Kino Smith distribution/HotDocs/Blue Ice Docs), Gitte Hansen (Firsthand Films), and Anais Clanet, a feature length agent (Widehouse Distribution). 

First, some good news: a rapidly transforming industry is creating many opportunities for documentary creators of all types.  Despite all the talk about budgets, marketing, audience type, and box office mojo, everyone still agrees that a good story, well-told, is still the key to success.  Documentary films, at their best, can offer a creative treatment of reality that is just as engaging, memorable, and as profitable as ever. A filmmaker sitting next to me said afterwards, “The way it gets you is that it will transport you. I wait, I wish, I hope, to be transported every time I enter the theater and watch a documentary. Some filmmakers, I think, ‘Are you going someplace new?’ This is the key. It’s important to be an observer of the films that transport you and the audience. Study what makes them tick weighing evenly their artistry and [their] success finding a broader, diverse, and inclusive audience.”

Promote: Print materials are the marketing vehicle of choice at film festivals.  These need to be perfected. They make a big difference. Promotional materials include posters, postcards, invitations, business cards, thumb drives, maybe even DVDs in some places (always come prepared).  Make sure to hang the poster on a wall, take 20 steps back, and study what draws your attention. Is it the font, the image, the name of the movie? What captures your imagination and engages you (as a subjective passerby now) to take the next step and attend the screening or approach the filmmaker at market?

Territories: Everyone wants to sell their film internationally and often dividing the territories (USA, Europe, Asia) helps increase the margins.  A filmmaker may try and raise money for post-production or finishing costs to bring the film to a festival by selling the rights or making a worldwide deal.  Often 10-15k of your total on top of a sweet 50k if you land a big network.  But, beware, the market is tough on good films. A typical P.R. team will fly into Berlin to try and make a big show of their films, taking buyers out to nice dinners, providing cocktails before two private exclusive screenings.  It might cost an agent 15k but one buyer admits that they can only bill maximum 7k and those are costs she is willing to gamble with if it means a nice sale or series of sales down the line.  

Awards: As a filmmaker, it is best to think of festivals and the traditional film market or award events as being held for the press and to put in the advertisements.  Every buyer I spoke with voiced their frustration with selling an award winning film in the theater. As one mentioned, the general public doesn’t buy a ticket because of a festival award.  Someone walking down the street in Copenhagen, Paris, or New York knows nothing about you and only wants to be entertained. For emphasis, don’t wait around for the film industry to wake up to an audience’s increasing support for more media, more variety of media, and more access to media created by artists of all backgrounds. The film festival audience is not the same as the general public and distributors have been burned enough times to know that audiences disappear and reappear seasonally.  There is no rhyme or reason why a documentary film does well.  

Commissions: a top notch agent will invest 15-30k into your project and take it to Berlin to wine and dine it along the way if you are that good.  Only asks 25% of the sale cost if you can deliver the proper video files (DCP, DigiBeta, Closed Captioning, Errors & Omissions) from your local post-production team but that only happens if you are prepared with strong still photos, worldwide music rights secured, and all the technical requirements in perfect shape.

Marketing: A booth at a film market such as Berlin is a great way to drive exposure. Taking out advertising in Variety and Hollywood Reporter will attract attention (but will cost roughly $3000 a page) Posters, flyers, postcards, cocktail & dinner with clients, and as the saying goes “you gotta spend money to make money” becomes ever more true.  In fact, it costs money to make your film visible. And yet, after all of that, we hear the distributors say over and over an old saying. Don’t put good money after bad. A good film is a good film. And then we get sold on the idea that more exposure will be all that it needs. Most sales agents and buyers keep themselves sane and financially healthy these days through a little Robin Hood act of choosing a movie or two that will have large and widespread appeal in order to finance an important political, artsy, or otherwise difficult but socially important documentary film project. And some projects are worth the strategy of bankrolling a couple long shots. No one could possibly invest in getting it without considering their pay out if sold afterwards. Gitte Hansen and Anais Clanet, a feature length agent at WhiteHouse, spoke about the great success of the documentary The Greenway Alphabet.  The trailer really sells the film and connects with an audience.  

Anais expressed a little bit of surprise by the success of The Greenway Alphabet which did well and sold well (in Asia, specifically).  Both ROB and ANAIS stress the difference between selling a fun and joyful movie versus something more experimental, dark, or distressing to watch for many people. The Greenway Alphabet in Clanet’s words, “provokes you into thinking”.

“Sometimes you feel like a lawyer and you can only take on so many films in a year as their sales agent and international lawyer,” said Anais about her need to represent films she beleives in. The Rape of Recy Taylor a film by director Nancy Buri is a great example of this.  Clanet in the IDFA conversation with Gitte Hansen and Robin Smith (Kino Smith distribution/HotDocs/Blue Ice Docs) recalls the progression of trying to sell the film and have media buyers tell her to change the title to a title that did not include the word “rape”.  This was personal to both women. What seems like an inclusive system is only inclusive to a small few. This happens a lot in the creative arts. First, you are judged on your work, next on your work’s ability to fit within the confines of the festival, but before the filmmaker can turn around they are slammed with credit card bills and legal fees and often some financial hurdles just to get a broadcast or online streaming deal of any kind. 

Clanet’s best advice is not to blow your first premiere on anything and especially not a smaller unknown festival who say they really love your film.  Never burn a premiere. The premiere, like many intellectual properties, becomes less and less valuable monetarily as it becomes more readily available. This supply and demand can be gruelling. The Rape of Recy Taylor went to festivals, earned awards, and was passed on repeatedly by the distributors.  A few months later, a small deal came through and a fateful event took place. Oprah went on the Golden Globes and mentioned Recy Taylor’s name. Overnight, the buyers were hot again for a piece of the story.  Oprah’s validation, tapping into that very clear, very vital, supportive, and wealthy audience of Oprah was what did it. In essence, Oprah’s cultural cache floated that loan. A story about a civil rights legend produced by an accomplished filmmaker with film festival audiences and critics supporting it, cannot find a distributor without Oprah Winfrey’s support. Or, at least, it doesn’t hurt.  But here, at the IDFAcademy talk, we as the audience are asked to think not only about the film business and its many discontents, but the power of the entertainment industry’s wide, celebrity-obsessed and influential choice.

Anaid Clanet is honest and visibly emotional at times telling the story of selling The Rape of Recy Taylor, “to me it was a very strong statement, because I was feeling extremely ashamed and humbled when I saw that story because you know who am I to you know if it happens to me? I should do something because she did when she was not supposed to. Clanet adds, “it was personal, sometimes you turn into a human rights lawyer, those matters…. matter. #MeToo was brought up as an additional reason that a film such as The Rape of Recy Taylor is so important to support, “There is a lot of bullshit to swim in actually, in the #MeToo i am not for 100% the issues. there are things that piss me off. What I disagree on is not to bring out stories that matter.”  

Clanet admits, “I grabbed the film in passion” but she can only do that with the help of some more light hearted films.  Nonetheless, she admits that she has used the power of guilt in some cases when selling the importance of a certain subject to international buyers unschooled or uneducated on cultural and social upheaval, race relations, slavery, and the disenfranchised youth of political regimes looming large and powerfully corrupt. 

A sales agent balances their calendar with a dozen films per year.  This is the reality. When films come around with different potential audiences, they can take a gamble but only so much. Perhaps, walking away from a conversation of this nature, a filmmaker or documentary producer might feel a little uneasy.  The sales agents are speaking about the risk averse and fearful world of trying to convince buyers, who believe that they know their audience, that in fact a gamble on a film like The Rape of Recy Taylor won’t hurt their audience numbers, their advertising revenue, or local region’s critical acclaim. The hot debate and the question on most people’s minds at the IDFAcademy talk is, “Should I go for the most viewers or the most money?”  There are distributors that will place a completed film in the theaters with a press release sent to the top publications. On the other hand, there are distributors that will act as political organizers, bringing together an audience but partnering with larger organizations, local, national, international, and industry organizations with long lists of members and supporters. For example, a film set in the rainforest should look for a conservation or environmental NGO.  

Some people believe in the internet’s ability to swallow up all the talent and others believe the talent doesn’t always float to the top in the way they wish it would in either the festival, broadcast, or online streaming market. It does seem incredibly frustrating for most media buyers considering the once expensive price tag put on content for a few years following Amazon and Netflix’s strategy of buying films on the market to compete with other studios providing original programming.  Most production companies sell territory by territory and hope to use the territory by territory strategy to leverage deals in their favor – a kind of bonus for those who make it through production without surrendering to outside investors wanting a piece of the proverbial territory pie. As a funder, all you can think about is return on investment. A sales agent working for a film or as a small distribution company has only so much buying power in the face of a streamer but their promise of longevity sometimes wins out. Distributors will often write a contract for a period of 6-7 years standing in stark contrast to the typical one or two year contract of a streaming service. 

A panel of international agents at IDFA suggested that filmmakers should look at their films in a similar way to the birth of a child. The sales agent would be like a high priced grade school and then a very nice boarding school. They will exploit the VOD, educational market, arthouse and specialty cinemas, public and commercial broadcasters, and Asian market.  Sometimes, the relationship a sales agent has built over the years with a writer, another sales agent, or a festival press agent gives them a tip that amounts to being in the right place at the right time with the right project. An agent can help a filmmaker dissect the most interesting aspects of the project to gain an advantage when talking with the press, the programmers, and media buyers.

Sales Agents can agree that the business is crazy and difficult to track and that’s part of the challenge.. but the creativity is the only aspect that keeps everyone coming back.  Sometimes documentary films develop over 5,10,15 years and this kind of format doesn’t take on a large team. Filmmakers live a lifestyle to support films that sales agents will not take unless a producer can act as an intermediary.  A producer has a running dialogue with sales agent. A film director can have important information in a non-emotional style that will be more productive for all parties. Experience shows that the ability to take criticism and be a productive member of a creative team is more valuable than being a star. 

The unclear path to documentary film distribution success has caused many companies to work aggressively to diversify their offerings but the chance to hit gold and have a blockbuster from a low budget feature length is still within reach.  One of the most telling moments at the IDFA conference was when a question came from an audience member asking, “Do you think one of the reasons that over-the-top streaming services are winning out is because of them making decisions based on hard data rather than the prejudice of buyers?” No one on the panel was convinced that the over-the-top services were winning. They widely agreed that they only had more buying power for a concentrated period of time and were buying up more and taking bigger gambles. Robin said, ”[the streaming service] dominated the marketplace because they were outspending everybody.”  In regards to the idea that an algorithm could help in some way, there was confirmation bias to address. No one believed that a computer or data set was the right way to curate a film festival, broadcast program, or a cinema.

Robin summed it up by saying, “We all have to take risks.  That’s something that we need to be clear about when we are making business decisions.  Is this worth the risk, I mean we are hopefully catching on to what the market is reacting to. We are not always successful though.” 

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