Home Entertainment ‘Deadlock,’ ‘Lady Bird Diaries’ Director Dawn Porter Sketches Roadmap for Documentary Makers...

‘Deadlock,’ ‘Lady Bird Diaries’ Director Dawn Porter Sketches Roadmap for Documentary Makers in Challenging Marketplace at Cannes’ MipDoc

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MipDoc keynote speaker Dawn Porter is coming to Cannes to discuss not only the challenging doc marketplace, but also how to work and prosper within it.

In the last few years the doc industry has favored a handful of big-name filmmakers, like Porter, who are commissioned to make one-off films or docuseries. Over the last 12 months two of Porter’s docus were released: “Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court” which was financed and distributed by Showtime and “The Lady Bird Diaries,” which was financed and distributed by Hulu/ABC News.

But budgets for commissioned projects, even those with well-known documentarians attached, have diminished significantly since the pandemic, due in part to corporate consolidation. The shrinking number of nonfiction distributors has hit directors of independently made docs especially hard. The major streaming services, who were spending millions to acquire indie fare five years ago, lost interest in garnering titles out of festivals. Porter’s most recent feature documentary “Luther: Never Too Much” about musical icon Luther Vandross premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January but has yet to be acquired.

“If you work in nonfiction film you are intimately aware of budget cutbacks and slower commissions and the soft theatrical market,” says Porter. “We are all aware of the problems but we can’t just take our films and go home and pull the covers over our heads. What I want to lean into at MipDoc is what are people doing in order to get through this period? How do we work smarter? How do we collaborate more? How do we support each other through the slowdown, which is quite real.”

Porter didn’t set out to become a documentary filmmaker. She was an attorney before she entered the nonfiction community with her directorial debut, “Gideon’s Army,” in 2013. Since then she has made 22 documentary features and shorts including “Trapped” (2016), the Netflix original series “Bobby Kennedy for President,” (2018), CNN Films’ “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (2020), Apple TV’s “The Me You Can’t See” (2021) and the ESPN doc series “37 Words’ (2022).

Porter isn’t the only one who has benefitted from her prolific workload. Via her production company Trilogy Films, the director hires teams of people to help her get it done. Despite the dismal doc landscape, she is determined to continue to keep her projects afloat and those who she employs intact by doing things differently.

“The rumors of the death of nonfiction have been overstated,” say says. “I don’t think that’s true, but I think that we have to examine how we are working and how we are pitching and who we are pitching to.”

At Cannes Porter plans on getting to know more people working within the international docu market.

“At MipDoc I’m going to talk about being diversified,” she says. “Doing things at different price points and doing things for different people. We can’t just do business the same way we have been. So what does that mean? It means your budgets are lower. It means you have to do more work to promote your work, your company and your capabilities to the buyers. It means you have to be more proactive. If you are not good at those things, then it means you should think about partnering with people who are willing and able to do that.”

Porter adds, “It’s hard for everybody right now. But I’ve seen some signs of positivity.”

One of those signs happened at Sundance 2024 when several indie doc titles sold to Warner Bros.Discovery and Netflix “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” and “Daughters.”

“Non fiction is always going to have a place in the entertainment ecosystem,” says Porter.