Indie Docs Were Once Hot Properties, but This Year, Filmmakers Are Struggling to Sell

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It’s been a good year for several documentary filmmakers who sought and found distribution for independently made projects at major festivals. But for many nonfiction helmers, this year’s festival circuit hasn’t proven to be as fruitful as it once was.

Pre-pandemic, streaming services went to film fests to fill their slates, but now with media conglomerates consolidating, brands merging, and Netflix tightening its wallet, film fest documentary shopping sprees have slowed down. On top of mergers and economic unease, there’s been an increase in streamers like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, and Disney either pre-buying docus or commissioning their own nonfiction projects.

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Some of this year’s fest favorites were commissioned docus, including Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ ‘The Janes” (HBO), W. Kamau Bell’s “We Need to Talk About Cosby” (Showtime), Rory Kennedy’s “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” (Netflix), and Ron Howard’s “We Feed People” (National Geographic).

“The trend we are seeing is good and bad for the documentary landscape,” says Submarine Entertainment sales agent Josh Braun. “If you are a documentary filmmaker who has a film that gets commissioned by a streamer, then you’re cheering, and you’re happy. If you happen to be a filmmaker who took a different path and financed a film (independently), and it premiered at a festival, it’s a bit tricky.

Braun repped, and executive produced the Sundance 2022 hit “Fire of Love,” about famed French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Herber. Following the docu’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 out fantastically, and it was a great thing for everyone involved,” says Braun. “But for other films that went that same path, it wasn’t as fast (a sell), and it wasn’t necessarily as rewarding financially. I think we are in a tricky landscape. Going to festivals like Sundance without distribution and hoping for a big deal could happen, but it’s not guaranteed.”

Other docus that found distribution 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 plenty of buzz but have not yet found distribution are Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s “The Exiles,” about three exiled dissidents from the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes’ “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” about the growing inequalities in America and better pay for Disneyland cast members.

Earlier this year, Disney, Walt Disney’s great-niece, spoke to Variety about finding distribution ahead of the film’s Hot Docs premiere. “The (platforms) that Disney doesn’t own, and that’s not very many, are run by people who are vulnerable to all the same criticisms (made in the film),” she said. “So, it’s really hard to imagine them wanting to take this doc on and make themselves vulnerable. But if I have to stand in Times Square on a soapbox with a megaphone, I’m going to make sure the film is seen.”

Ultimately the Disney heir decided to self-distribute “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.” It launches in theaters and on major VOD platforms, including iTunes and Amazon, on Sept. 23.

“The Exiles,” which won Sundance’s documentary grand jury prize, stayed on the festival circuit until last spring. The film delves into America’s complicity in China’s violations of human rights, which may be one reason streamers aren’t taken with the film.

Despite documentaries being one of the cornerstones of the business model for distribution outlets, streaming services are media conglomerates that are not looking to offend governments or other corporations. Instead, Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and Apple are eager for more subscribers and content that reaches the broadest possible audience. And that content has increasingly begun to fit into a specific mold, which is commercially driven and centers on true crime, sports, music or celebrities.

Among filmmakers, there is a growing sense that Hollywood has entered the corporate age of documentaries. “That’s a good skeptical lens to apply because that is a force in what shapes our storytelling now that we’ve got to pay close attention to,” Toronto Film Festival documentary programmer Thom Powers told Variety a year ago.

Powers selected Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s docu “The Grab” to premiere at this year’s TIFF. The film, which exposes land grabs made by international governments and other powerful agencies trying to secure food and water outside their borders, premiered on Sept. 8. It has not yet found a buyer, but if Powers is right and this is the corporate age of documentaries, it’s anyone’s guess if a streaming service will take on a film that takes some big swings at China and Saudi Arabia.

Documentarians have been paying close attention to what streamers are buying — and what is being programmed at key fests. 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 discrimination in the workplace, But despite on-camera interviews with and public support from “9 to 5” stars Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin, the film does not have a distributor. That’s also the case with Casey Neistat’s “Under the Influence,” about 23-year-old YouTube phenomenon David Dobrik. Another non-political film out of SXSW still looking for distribution is Jessica Edwards’ “Skate Dreams,” about the rise of women’s skateboarding.

In June, at the Tribeca Festival, four celeb-driven docus premiered, including Sean Mullin’s “It Ain’t Over” (about baseball legend Yogi Berra), Stuart McClave’s “On the Line: The Richard Williams Story” (about Venus and Serena Williams’ father), Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb’s “Butterly in the Sky” (about the PBS children’s series “Reading Rainbow” and its iconic host LeVar Burton), and Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall’s “Subject,” about documentary stars including Michael Peterson (“The Staircase) and the ethics of nonfiction filmmaking. All four docs are still on the festival circuit and still seeking distribution. Politically-oriented Tribeca docs, including Cynthia Lowen’s “Battleground” (about abortion), Josh Alexander’s “Loudmouth” (about Al Sharpton), and Jed Rothstein’s “Rudy! A Documusical” (about Rudy Giuliani), also have not found SVOD distribution. (Abramorama and Roco Films will release “Battleground” in theaters on Oct. 7.)

“It’s taking a little longer than normal,” says Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa. “It’s partially just that it’s summer and the market instability that has rocked all sectors of the marketplace, not just film. That’s frustrating for a lot of people, especially because Tribeca premiered a lot of high-profile, commercial documentaries about famous people or big zeitgeisty topics that can really work in the marketplace.”

But Ishikawa adds that all is not lost for docus that made a splash this year on the festival circuit but have not found a buyer.

“It’s not a bad thing, necessarily,” he says. “I get the concern, but the reality is there are enough distributors who need content who are not producing it themselves. HBO, Netflix, Showtime, they’ve always made their own content, but they’re always looking to supplement that and non-fiction generally is a much better, cost-effective acquisition than a high-end scripted film with stars.”

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