House of Docs was the place to be for documentary filmmakers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Set up in a casual cafe style, the five-day event brought together experienced and inexperienced filmmakers alike, not to mention some of the people they most want to meet – broadcasters, distributors and potential funders.
The opening ceremony on January 21 attracted the man behind Sundance himself, Robert Redford. Explaining that he comes to the non-fiction world neither ‘lately nor lightly’ (having both produced and narrated docs), Redford declared his commitment to raising the profile of reality-based films, not only at the annual fest but all year long. Possible endeavors include doc learning labs (with the support of the Sundance Institute) and doc programming at the new Sundance Cinema Centers (exhibition spaces for independant films), which are scheduled to open later this year in Boston, Portland and Philadelphia.
Panel discussions packed the house each day, ranging in topic from theatrical distribution to the perception of documentaries in Europe vs. the U.S. The roundtable on the creative process generated the most enigmatic discussion by far, prompting House of Docs organizer (and festival co-director) Nicole Guillemet to consider future revisions. ‘I think next year we’ll have definitely more programs or more time on the creative process,’ she says. ‘Let there be more discussions, but also make it open to people to show their works in progress, and give them a chance to have meetings, either one-on-one or in small groups.’
Response to the panels was generally good, though access appeared to be a more significant benefit than information. Panelists included the likes of CNN Productions president Pat Mitchell, HBO director of doc programming Julie Anderson, PBS director of program management Alon Orstein, the Sundance Channel’s VP of programming Liz Manne and distributor Steve Rothenberg of Artisan Entertainment. But while the lineup was top-notch, the information exchange was mediocre. Filmmaker Dana Rae Warren, who attended nearly all of the discussions and is in the process of making her first feature doc (The Edge of Their Dreams, exec produced by horror novelist Stephen King and his wife Tabitha), says she had hoped to hear more specific answers and examples. ‘Panelists don’t always realize what filmmakers don’t know.’ Still, she says the mere existence of House of Docs would draw her back again, as it brings together people she has little chance of reaching on the phone.
Funding to start up House of Docs came primarily from the New York-based Soros Documentary Fund, which provided US$45,000 in seed money. Says Soros director Diane Weyermann, ‘I saw this as something that we would be able to support in the beginning stage, sort of as a jumping off point for continued dialogue, not just as a one-off [event], but rather as a way to highlight documentaries.’ The Soros Fund also contributed money to six of the docs at this year’s festival.
As far as the deal-making is concerned, Guillemet acknowledges that most take place after the festival has ended, though she noted many heads bowed in deep discussions. Several of the filmmakers in competition came with deals already in hand. They include: Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann (Long Night’s Journey Into Day) who had previously signed with HBO/Cinemax; Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy), for PBS’ American Experience; and Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini (Well-Founded Fear) with PBS’ Point of View series. But some, like Aiyana Elliott (The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack), chose to hold out for a theatrical distribution deal. Elliott says she hopes to sign with either Sony Picture Classics or Fine Line.