Each year the acquisitions team at Sundance Channel buys roughly 300 films, and anywhere from 70 to 100 of those are documentaries. Realscreen spoke with Christian Vesper (SVP acquisitions & programming, IFC & Sundance Channel) about the outlook for docs at Sundance.
What are you currently looking for in terms of non-fiction programming?
Our vision of what the channel is going to be hasn’t changed that much since the acquisition [by Rainbow Media]. We’re still very focused… on bringing very sophisticated yet accessible programming that represents independent voices and alternative voices and points of view.
One of the things we’ve always talked about at the Sundance Channel is that we want our documentaries to be storytelling and for everything to be about the storyteller, [such as] author films, point of view films, so I continue to look for that. Our filter has always been to focus on the craft of documentaries so we’re looking for films that play as films and not just non-fiction. But within that context, any topic is of interest to us. It could be human rights, it could be political but it can also be lighter. [Take, for example] something like Hamburger America which we bought a number of years ago; something that is a different perspective on a subject that seems silly but can be very entertaining to the audience and thought-provoking.
One of the focuses of the last few years for the Sundance Channel has been green programming. We launched a green block two years ago and we’re about to launch our third season on the channel. It’s a weekly, Tuesday night destination that we’ve had a lot of success with and it’s a mix of original programming that we developed in house with Lynne Kirby and her group, and acquired series and acquired documentaries, so I look for a lot of that.
How do you find the economy is affecting the way you’re acquiring, financially or thematically?
I wouldn’t say it’s [financially] affecting the way we acquire yet. Our company is doing well and our budgets were set anyway, so from that perspective it hasn’t affected us yet. And they do say that people watch TV in a recession.
Thematically and content-wise, I expect we’ll see more films on economics, maybe a year from now, though people seem to already have started. I think we’ve always programmed with an eye toward those issues anyway when the films are available. I’m really glad we focused on the green. I have been wishing we could focus on poverty or something like that, and a lot of the docs we buy have been discussing the rich world versus the third world, and even within the US. Those sorts of topics maybe will get more currency and maybe we’ll have more appetite to buy and air those sorts of films now that it’s become more of a topic du jour. Again we look for films that open up that issue via someone’s personal story.
Internally we’ve discussed the idea of what we’re doing in documentaries as a way to make up for the fact that all the papers are closing down their foreign bureaus. People actually are interested in what’s going on around the world now, and yet the news organizations have less money than ever to report on that. Not that the films that we buy necessarily qualify as unbiased reporting – they definitely have an agenda – but hopefully we create a context in which that’s clear and we present various agendas.