TIFF gives docs their due with inaugural conference

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) devoted a day to spotlighting and discussing the pressing issues surrounding documentary filmmaking. With the day boasting solid attendance for each panel, one hopes that the Doc Conference will be part of the fest's schedule from this point onward.
September 14, 2009

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) devoted a day to spotlighting and discussing the pressing issues surrounding documentary filmmaking. With the day boasting solid attendance for each panel, one hopes that the Doc Conference will be part of the fest’s schedule from this point onward.

Sunday’s Doc Conference, held at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, featured five sessions, kicking off with a keynote presentation from Liesl Copland of the William Morris Endeavor Entertainment Global Finance and Distribution Group and wrapping up with a Q&A session with Jonathan Demme, in town for the premiere of his latest concert performance film featuring Neil Young, Neil Young’s Trunk Show. In between, topics ranging from new distribution models to ethics in documentary filmmaking were given thorough examination, resulting in a well-rounded and thought-provoking series of sessions.

Copland, a 15-year industry veteran who also has stints with Netflix’s Red Envelope and Cinetic Media on her C.V., used her presentation to urge attendees to explore innovations in distribution, ranging from crowd-sourcing to the ‘fremium’ model, which advocates offering content for free during a select period in order to drum up interest, and then charging for it (akin to Radiohead’s recent experiment in which the band offered up its latest album, In Rainbows via its site with a ‘pay what you will’ model). She also touted the efficiency of utilizing social media to market work to niche audiences, citing the recent example of the marketing for Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds, which eschewed traditional marketing in larger markets for campaigns that specifically targeted certain demos. And while what used to be called new media is now more appropriately referred to as ‘not so new media,’ she urged filmmakers to not only scan the film trades but to keep their eyes open regarding tech advances and to not fear the unfamiliar when it comes to pursuing new models.

The next panel, featuring distribution strategist Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting, furthered that train of thought via a 10-point ‘Declaration of Independence.’ Within his session, Broderick detailed 10 important points to consider about hybrid distribution, which he defines as a method for filmmakers to retain rights to make direct sales of their work via DVD or downloads, as well as make third party deals with the right specialist partners. In order to effectively promote docs in a multiplatform world, Broderick says customized strategies are key – in his opinion, ‘all-rights deals are guilty until proven innocent.’

Of course, it wouldn’t be a doc conference without a discussion about where the money can come from. ‘Financing in Tough Times’ brought together Franny Armstrong, director of crowd-sourcing film phenomenon The Age of Stupid, Dan Cogan of equity investor company Impact Partners and Independent Lens producer Lois Vossen from ITVS. Armstrong’s story was particularly compelling; her docudrama about the perils of climate change is being funded entirely by contributions from people around the world, who become active shareholders in the film after making their donations. The film, to be distributed through Mongrel Media in Canada, recently notched up a place in the Guinness Book of World Records after it premiered in 62 sites worldwide by linking up via satellite to the UK premiere. The film will have its U.S. premiere in New York City on September 21, and like the UK event, it will play in a solar-powered tent linked by satellite to over 700 cinemas in more than 70 countries.

The focus shifted from financial concerns to matters ethical with a presentation from Pat Aufderheide of the Center for Social Media at American University. The Center has just issued a report entitled ‘Honest Truths’ which examines the ethical challenges doc-makers face in their work. Joined by filmmakers Geoffrey Smith (The English Surgeon, Presumed Guilty), Vikram Jayanti (Snowblind, Kasparov and the Machine) and Michael Tucker (How to Fold a Flag), the conversation was wide-ranging and illuminating, using as the ‘talking points’ parts of the report, which was culled from 45 long-form interviews with assorted filmmakers. While those polled said they try to adhere to common values, those values can be challenged by everything from broadcaster demands to budgetary constraints. While the doc-makers who contributed weren’t keen on the idea of standards for their craft, preferring to work informally, the study recommends further dialog, to ensure that the issues raised about ethics remain on the radar of those who both commission and create documentaries.

The day wound up with an informal yet informative chat with Jonathan Demme. As a director who seems equally at home with docs as he does with features (moving from straight-up docs such as Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains or Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia to concert films such as Stop Making Sense, to fiction work such as Silence of the Lambs), Demme was self-effacing when it came to discussing his own work. In reference to his concert films, Demme said making them ‘doesn’t require any stamina at all, because it’s such a blast.’

The Toronto International Film Festival continues until Sept. 19.

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