Festival focus

While the current economic crisis is putting a damper on practically everything, doc-friendly film festivals are reporting substantial increases in attendance. What gives?Realscreen spoke with several programmers about their thoughts on the matter, and asked for tips on making it into their programs.
July 1, 2009

Sundance Film Festival
Programmer: Trevor Groth
Dates: January 21 to 31, 2010
Submission deadlines: August 17, 2009 for early submissions, official deadline is September 7, 2009

What does it take for a documentary to make it into the festival?
There’s not a clear specific answer for that. I think in general we as a programming staff tend to respond to documentaries that have a more cinematic aesthetic. The more conventional documentaries can be about a fascinating subject and can be very professionally done, but those tend to not excite us as much. It can even be rough around the edges but it [should] be trying to be more of a cinematic event… Within that there’s such a broad range of films that we’ve responded to over the years and what we’ve shown. In general the ones that also have a little more of a narrative arc in them tend to be something we think works well at the festival.

Since your early submission deadline for the 2010 edition of the festival is August 17, 2009 I assume you aren’t very far along in programming for next year…
No, in fact we’re at the very beginning stages. We’ve just started receiving submissions. Every year we keep thinking the numbers will start to plateau or dip for economic reasons or because of the glut of product that’s out there, but at this stage we already have more [submissions] then we’ve ever had at this stage [Groth estimates that he sees upwards of 1,000 North American and 800 international docs submitted each year - Ed.]. I think documentary is still a relatively untapped market in that the awareness of documentaries as entertainment is still growing. Looking at the last few years, the amount of work that has made a splash out there in the world, outside of just purely documentary circles, seems to be growing every year.

What are your expectations for next year, and how do you think the recent staff changes will affect the festival?
We’ve had a lot of changes at Sundance in terms of our leadership. Ken Brecher, our executive director resigned [and has not yet been officially replaced - Ed.] and Geoff Gilmore, who was the director of the festival for 19 years, left [replaced by John Cooper]. So it’s definitely going to have a different feel to it. I think we’re lucky to be in a position under the new leadership that’s in place now to be inheriting a festival that’s not broken. Sundance definitely works and so we have the strength to take some chances and implement some new ideas because the core of the festival is strong and is working. LG

Hot Docs
Programmer: Sean Farnel
Dates: April 29 to May 9, 2010
Submission deadlines: December 14, 2009 for early submissions, final deadline January 15, 2010

Hot Docs had a 42% increase in audience members for this past festival.
It was a major success. We’re still basking in the glow of the festival. It certainly even exceeded our most bullish expectations, both in terms of all the numbers and things like the audience growth and quality of the program. It was a really special year.

How do you explain the higher numbers?
I think first and foremost it’s the program. There was a wide range of interesting films and I think earlier in the festival audiences were seeing a lot of great work; that builds momentum and we just held strong. People knew it was a really great year; they’d seen good work and wanted to see more and more.
Our friends in exhibition and distribution tell us that it’s generally a good time for the movies in terms of people wanting to go out to the cinema. That might have something to do with the economy and maybe documentaries are seen as a worthy entertainment choice in tough economic times.

Did you feel an impact from the economy?
Certainly not at our box office. Obviously we know that our corporate sponsors are tightening their belts and it wasn’t a year of big growth there, but we held steady [and it was the] same with our international delegation. We thought we’d see a slowdown based on what we’d seen at other markets. [But] we didn’t see any of the big fallback that we saw in [other] markets, which gives us confidence that we’re seen as an essential event and a big part of the industry’s calendar.

How did the amount of submissions this past year compare to previous years?
I would say the territories we see the bulk of submissions from – the UK, the U.S., Western Europe – were still holding quite strong. Submissions were up again 20% which has been a steady growth pattern.

Do you expect to see an economic impact on 2010′s event?
It was a very strong year for Canadian documentary production this year. We are concerned, because we know that commissioning envelopes in Canada have been under threat and have dissipated in many cases. This year shows what can be done in a healthy funding environment and most of this work was commissioned three or four years ago. So we’re a little concerned that we’ll be able to maintain a level of quality in our Canadian productions [featured], but we’ll see next year. KA

South by Southwest
Producer: Janet Pierson
Dates: March 12 to 20, 2010
Deadlines: Submissions open August 3, 2009. Final postmark deadline is December 3, 2009

Last year was your first for programming SXSW. How many films did you screen?
Submissions were at around 3,500, and about half of those were features… We got about 1,000 films just in our deadline week, and then we had tons of late submissions after that, so it was quite an incredible crunch.

How would you categorize the audience for the event?
Other people tend to talk about us being ‘young’ and ‘edgy,’ but also ‘entertaining’ is a word that comes up a lot. We’re not bound by the same socially-oriented mandate that perhaps some other festivals are. There’s a real range of material, from the socially-conscious to the just plain fun. The two docs that people were really talking about last year, for instance, were Winnebago Man and Best Worst Movie. They’re both really entertaining, but there’s also depth to both of them.

SXSW also has music and interactive conferences. Is there going to be more of a bridge between the three sectors?
We’re very much working more hand in hand, because we’re aware of how unique and exciting this cross-fertilization is. You don’t get it just anywhere – you don’t have this preponderance of people from these different creative disciplines at the same time [at other events].

Any advice for filmmakers looking to attend?
The biggest advice I’d give is that filmmakers should understand that festivals are opportunities they should take advantage of. Festivals all have different personalities. At SXSW, you have to be ready to do a lot of work to present the film to the press, make sure you have good materials, make sure you can speak about your film and present it well. You’re connecting with the industry but you’re also connecting with the creative community and interacting with filmmakers. That can affect your career in a million ways that you can’t even be aware of. BW

Tribeca Film Festival
Senior programmer: David Kwok
Dates: April 21 to May 2, 2010
Submissions open September, 2009

Tribeca Film Festival announced increased audience numbers over last year. What brought about the larger attendance?
I think it’s a combination of factors. We had less screenings than we have in the past. I think it made people have to choose from fewer things. It made people go to more screenings. Also, maybe the program was a little bit stronger and so the word of mouth and the press happening around the films got people’s attention and brought some new people down to the festival.

How did economic turbulence impact things?
There were some sponsors that were lost but we did gain some. The festival this year is a reflection of what’s going on. We’ll see what happens next year.

Did any new territories submit work?
Not really. Sometimes there’s more from one territory and other times there’s less. The main territory that we don’t get a lot from is Africa and that’s the only real territory that’s not represented very well. But that’s kind of something that needs to be pushed a little bit in terms of their industry. We’re actively trying to get more African films.
[This year] we had more Canadian, UK and Australian [submissions] and got more from the Nordic region. It all depends on who’s making how many films per year and everybody’s internal structure is changing. In Australia they’ve done a massive restructuring of how their system works.

Did you see an increase in submissions?
We’re about flat with last year. KA

Hussain Currimbhoy has to select 100 films before the start of the Sheffield Doc/Fest (November 4 to 8), and as of press time he had selected eight from the 1,200 submissions. As a result, ‘My butt is in the shape of a chair right now,’ he laughs. ‘I’m just sitting here watching stuff.’

Now in his second year as programmer at the festival, Currimbhoy is taking a different approach to the task this time around. ‘Last year I programmed things way too early,’ he says. ‘This year I want to get things done later so that I have a nice snapshot of the world’s films at the moment.’

With a plan to cut the film program by about 15% to provide more focus, Currimbhoy’s hoping that the economic restrictions filmmakers might be feeling right now will force them to get more creative. ‘I’m hoping there are new approaches to old angles.’

Delegates at the upcoming International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (November 19 to 29) should be aware that they may have their appetites piqued. Ally Derks, director of IDFA, says this year the focus will be on food in the broadest sense of the word. Look for programming that explores how food is produced and also takes viewers to beautiful kitchens, among other things. She also hints that there may be edibles at the screenings.

Besides food, IDFA will also put the spotlight on Dutch films, which will now receive recognition through an award at the fest. The program Highlights of the Lowlands, which was a festival staple, has now become a competitive program. ‘We are based in Holland and the Dutch do know how to make documentaries,’ says Derks. ‘Better than fiction, I would say.’ Also look for a retrospective on the work of American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who served as IDFA’s first jury chairman. Derks also mentions that IDFA hopes to release a DVD collection of the 80-year-old’s most important films.

Last but most certainly not least, while the doc program for the Toronto International Film Festival (September 10 to 19) wasn’t available at press time, doc programmer Thom Powers says that there are plans to bring back the Doc Roundtable, which enables filmmakers to meet with distribs and sales agents in an intimate format. ‘For documentary makers who are interested in the theatrical marketplace they have a whole different set of salespeople in town for TIFF who don’t always make it to the doc-specific festivals,’ he says.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.