As I write this, Toronto is still in the midst of documentary fever, courtesy of what’s appearing to be a wildly successful edition of the annual Hot Docs festival and conference. This year’s fest has packed 171 films into 11 days, and sold out screenings and line-ups snaking down city streets have been in abundance. So much for the death of the documentary.
This year, I had the honor of moderating a panel for Hot Docs’ Industry component. Dubbed ‘Distribution for a New Era,’ the session brought several international distributors together to discuss the new distro paradigm. It’s true that there are still docs that give good box office and get great buzz – witness Examined Life, directed by Astra Taylor and exec produced by Ron Mann (whom we profile on pg. 50), which earned highest box office per screen in the U.S. during a one week run at New York City’s IFC cinema. Then there’s the unlikely success of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Sacha Gervasi’s touching doc about a likeable, if unlucky, heavy metal band (see pg. 54).
But these are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Thus, the panel assembled (including Anais Clanet from Paris’ Wide Management, Udy Epstein of 7th Art Releasing, Laure Parsons from Zeitgeist Films, Annie Roney from ro*co Films International and Louise Rosen of Louise Rosen Ltd.) addressed the hot button topics and hype surrounding new and emerging distribution models. Among the topics discussed: the pros and cons of opting for ‘piecemeal’ distribution, where different rights are parsed to assorted partners; what to watch out for when chasing TV deals (ie. broadcasters that are wary of projects that have already launched online and that have theatrical distribution), and the growing movement towards semi-theatrical distribution.
Of course, any discussion about a new era in distribution wouldn’t be complete without examining the ol’ WWW. The options for filmmakers to get their work seen online are growing exponentially, be it through the big players like YouTube and Hulu that are making more room for full-length docs (see pg. 10), through doc-specific portals such as SnagFilms or via innovative initiatives such as Cinelan, which offers three-minute non-fiction films to various major online partners. The opportunities the Internet provides to connect with niche audiences, not just for one release campaign per territory but perpetually through the long tail, seem to be tailor-made for doc makers. With growing numbers of filmmakers, indie prodcos and even broadcasters investigating Web-friendly options such as Creative Commons licenses, whereby creators can allow anyone to share, distribute and create new works out of their own material (see pg. 25), the possibilities for grabbing eyeballs on the ‘Net are seemingly limitless. Now if only someone could figure out a way to monetize the damn thing.
Of course, even though there are myriad avenues by which filmmakers can get their work out there, it’s just a piece of the puzzle. A bloody big one, but a piece nonetheless. In a world where commissioning editors are buried under heaps of pitches and projects with only so many dollars to work with, even in a ‘new era’ of distribution, a fundamental truth still applies: whether it’s shown in a theater, at home, or in an art gallery or museum, your film still has to fulfill its mandate as a documentary: to illuminate, educate and inspire.