Top Docs Hit Sundance Hoping That In-Person Screenings Can Boost Rocky Market

For documentary filmmakers seeking distribution for independently made projects, Sundance is the golden ticket. It’s where a few lucky doc directors can nail down seven-figure deals with major distributors including Netflix, Amazon or Apple TV+ every year. But this year, with streamers not only tightening their purse strings but also increasingly commissioning their own content, and even shunning more provocative political-leaning fare, the Park City market for indie nonfiction features will be more competitive and likely less lucrative.

Last January at Sundance 2022, which was an online-only event, the doc market got off to a strong start. Several Sundance nonfiction titles sold, including “Aftershock” (Disney’s Onyx Collective and ABC News), “All That Breathes” (HBO), “Descendant” (Netflix), “Last Flight Home” (MTV Documentary Films), “Fire of Love” (National Geographic), “Mija” (Disney+), “Nothing Compares” (Showtime) and “The Territory” (National Geographic). But as the year wore on, economic unease and the merger of major brands significantly reduced the number of docs being bought out of festivals.

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

But despite the decline in acquisitions, doc industry veterans such as Submarine Entertainment sales agent Josh Braun aren’t fretting about Sundance 2023.

“It’s definitely a more challenging landscape,” says Braun, who is bringing nine acquisition titles to the fest, including “Beyond Utopia” and “Invisible Beauty.” “But in talking to various distributors going to Sundance, it seems like every company that buys and releases documentaries is looking for films and is looking to fill their lineup.”

Braun, with his blue chip slate, can afford to be optimistic. The number of slots left in distributors’ respective lineups seems to be dramatically dwindling, but what every platform is still making room for are docs that could garner an Oscar nom later in the year.

“Distributors are making films that they think are going to work on a prestige level, but they just aren’t getting the [award] nominations,” says Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa. “Realistically, the best bang for your buck is to just buy a movie that’s really good and to de-risk yourself. Even if you pay a premium for that movie and it costs two or three times what the production cost of it is, it’s cheaper than investing all this time and energy on a film in-house that can only work if it works on an awards basis.”

Last year four docs acquired out of Sundance — “All That Breathes,” “Descendant,” “Fire of Love” and “The Territory” — made the 2022 Oscar documentary shortlist.

“The power that the independent filmmakers still have is that a streamer can’t manufacture the magic of a deeply personal documentary that is emotionally resonant and becomes a sensation because of how it makes people feel,” says Everett. “If you’re just trying to follow the algorithm, it can’t predict intangible things like that. I don’t think that the algorithm would have predicted that ‘All That Breathes’ would be such a huge hit this year. So I think the streamers really understand that, and they go out looking for their awards.”

Observers also see a reluctance to board overtly political fare recently from streamers. “Streamers especially don’t want their audience to feel challenged,” says Ishikawa, who is selling seven titles at Sundance, including “Kim’s Video” and “Going to Mars.” “Things can be provocative, but streamers don’t see audiences as wanting to watch something that goes against their moral or political beliefs or is challenging politically. So I think that’s partially some of the reluctance from streamers to really engage in politically centric docs.”

Adds Annie Roney, founder of documentary distribution agency Roco Films,  “We are hearing from the streamers’ own mouths that they just are not interested in docs that aren’t really entertaining and easy to market.” 

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

“The collapse of CNN Films is just an example of where corporate America is heading around political docs and streaming content,” Dreyfous says. “A lot of the distributors where these important speak-truth-to-power documentaries have landed are shifting their mandates. There’s a number of us in this business who are thinking that we may have to create a company just for political docs, where you have a minimum guarantee for P&A, and you bring the films to theaters, and then you license them to the streamers after you can prove that there’s an audience for them.”

But despite this market condition, the Sundance program comprises numerous social issue-oriented documentaries that involve 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 under threat as a secretive organization is about to allow massive extraction of seabed metals to address the world’s energy crisis. Even though it’s a geopolitical film, Roney is repping the doc.

“A lot of social-issue films or political films are localized,” Roney says. “Often, it’s a U.S. story that may have some universal tidbits that can cross into other territories. But ‘Deep Rising’ is truly a global film for humanity. It’s bigger than a political film. It’s about planet Earth, and the stakes are high. So the film is going to resonate in any territory in 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 executive produced by Everett. 

“Tracy’s film is so emotional, and it applies to 50% of the U.S. population, so I think that there’s a great big audience appeal to it,” Everett says. “It’s a film that streamers could make an exception for.”

Dreyfous’ Impact Partners has two documentaries at Sundance, “Going 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 docs that should sell without a problem. But Dreyfous, who admits that less-commercial Impact docs did not get into Sundance, hopes not only upbeat fare sells. 

“We need to send a signal to the streamers that you can’t do this without supporting the independent ecosystem,” Dreyfous says. “Sundance started 40 years ago to disrupt the studio system. I feel like now we have to disrupt what is the corporate streaming environment.”  

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