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Sundance Offers a Glimmer of Hope for the Struggling Documentary Market: ‘We’re No Longer in a DOA Situation’

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The 40th edition of Sundance proved that despite corporate consolidation, there is still a market for independently made documentaries. While there haven’t been many sales so far, there has been strong buyer interest in two celeb-focused docs — “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” and “Will & Harper,” featuring Will Ferrell — and healthy interest in others.

“The market didn’t have a pulse six months ago,” says Submarine Entertainment sales agent Josh Braun, who came to the festival with nine documentaries seeking distribution, including “Daughters,” “Gaucho Gaucho” and “Union.” “So there was a reason to be a little bit fearful coming into Sundance. But now we are feeling a pulse. We are heading in a good direction. The patient still needs some treatment, but we are no longer in a DOA situation.”

While Submarine has not yet closed deals for any of the titles, Braun is optimistic, given the fact a number of his films have received offers.

“Last year, when we went to Sundance, we had ‘The Eternal Memory’ and five or six other titles,” says Braun. ” ‘The Eternal Memory’ sold, which was a big deal, but then nothing happened. This year, nothing has sold, but four of our films have offers.”

Several titles Braun is repping garnered top Sundance prizes, including “Daughters,” which took home the U.S. Documentary Audience Award and the Festival Favorite Award. Those types of kudos will, theoretically, help Submarine negotiate deals for their docus.

Braun and other sales agents are dealing with a “pre-pandemic issue” — bidding wars. “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” and “Will & Harper” are apparently causing a sales backlog. Numerous distributors, including Max, Apple TV + and Amazon, are interested in both docus and, rumor has it, they are willing to shell out as much as $10 million for each movie. This means that not until deals for both docus are complete will major distributors negotiate for other nonfiction titles.

“I feel really good about where we are with Super/Man,” says Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa, who is repping “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story. “Last year, post Sundance, we started to wonder, what was the point of film festivals if we couldn’t get reviews and we couldn’t get buyers to show up and buy the films?” he notes.

“But movies like “Super/Man” prove that bringing a film to a festival and not screening it for any buyers prior to its premiere still works. We got a big offer on the film within 15 minutes of the film ending.”

In addition to “Super/Man,” Ishikawa came to Sundance with “A New Kind of Wilderness,” “Devo,” “Look Into My Eyes,” and the Debra Granik docuseries, “Conbody Vs Everybody.”

While Cinetic Media has yet to sign any distribution deals for those titles, Ishikawa, like Braun, is feeling much better about the doc marketplace this year.

“One issue that we confronted last year that isn’t going away is market consolidation and a real lack of (slate) slots with a lot of these companies,” says Ishikawa. “But it’s as competitive as ever, which is a good sign that multiple buyers exist. It’s not a streaming or nothing conversation. Some buyers are aggressively engaging for the right kind of film in the theatrical space, which we definitely didn’t see last year.”

Theatrical distributors like Neon are rumored to be interested in partnering with streamers on docus like “Super/Man” and “Will & Harper.” But most docus looking to find a distributor out of Sundance will not get offers from both a streamer and theatrical distributor. The majority will be lucky to find one mode of distribution.

One such film is Benjamin Ree’s “Ibelin,” which Netflix acquired on Jan. 19.

While there are more than likely to be more deals out of Sundance 2024 than Sundance 2023, the amount most filmmakers will get paid for their docs will most likely be conservative. The days of streamers plunking down the hefty checks (think “Knock Down the House” and “Boys State”) are done, at the moment, for most docus. Which is why increasingly filmmakers are selling their docus territory by territory.

“I think we will see smaller numbers this year,” says co-founder of doc fund Impact Partners Geralyn White Dreyfous, who is behind Sundance docus “Eternal You,” “Gaucho, Gaucho” and “Sugarcane” and “Union.” Then the question is, does it make sense to do an all-rights deal or should  (filmmakers) sell it territory by territory and save their ability to monetize with other countries.”

At last year’s Sudance, Dreyfous had two of the buzziest docus at the fest — “Indigo Girls: It’s Only Life After All” and “Going Varsity in Mariachi.” In December,  “Indigo Girls: It’s Only Life After All” finally found U.S. theatrical distribution with Oscilloscope Laboratories, while “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is still seeking a home.

Two Oscar nominated documentaries this year — “Four Daughters” and “20 Days in Mariupol” (which premiered at Sundance 2023) — sold territory by territory by territory. “To Kill a Tiger,” another feature doc up for an Academy Award this year, has yet to find a distributor.

But Ishikawa believes that “Super/Man” and “Will & Harper” will not be the only two docs out of Sundance 2024 that will find a big payday. 

“I truly don’t believe that there is this agreed upon finite amount of money that (distributors are) willing to spend,” he says. “The reality is these content budgets are still very high for the streamers at least.”

Braun has a more conservative outlook.

“I see it as a market that is focusing on commercial films, but also is like looking at some other films that aren’t obvious but are of great quality,” he says. “It’s not like we’re looking at it with rose-colored glasses and everything’s great. It’s more like there’s an indications that distributors are willing to be take a little more risk and I would say that’s a step in the right direction.”