Austin Translation: Sean Farnel, SnagFilms

Sean Farnel (pictured), former director of programming at Hot Docs, talks to realscreen about his new role as an acquisitions consultant at documentary streaming website SnagFilms, and reflects on the changing nature of SXSW.
March 13, 2012

Sean Farnel (pictured), former director of programming at Hot Docs, talks to realscreen about his new role as an acquisitions consultant at documentary streaming website SnagFilms, and reflects on the changing nature of SXSW.

What are you excited to see at SXSW?

Jeff is the film I’m going to see next. It’s one of those films that I know nothing about other than that people are saying good things about it – I think ‘Jeff’ is a good title for a film too, somehow. I’m obviously also cheering for some of the films that I’ve seen elsewhere, especially Indie Game – this festival is the perfect vessel for it to have a kind of breakout, obviously, because of all the interactive community that’s here. It’s a film for them – that’s its niche audience – so I hope it can really leverage South By Southwest.

What are your thoughts on SXSW and where it sits in the documentary circuit?

It’s really interesting, I’ve been coming here for eight years – I did miss last year – but when I started coming here the Interactive conference was a little thing in the corner with some pimply faced kids, and we didn’t know much about what they were up to.

Now when you come here, it’s clearly swallowed the festival in some way, and you can’t navigate the conference center through the masses of people that are among that industry – I wonder if the film side is getting a bit lost in all that now.

It’s difficult for me to connect with film people here – it used to be really easy, you’d just bump into people on the streets and in the hallways, and now the ratio must be 1:100 of Film people to Interactive people. One of a film festival’s primary jobs is to get people together and talking face-to-face – we all do a lot of different kinds of communication, but this is our one opportunity to meet and have a different kind of interaction.

That’s a bit of a challenge here and something I’m sure they’re aware of and hopefully can deal with, given the enormous challenges of presenting a film festival in the context of this major interactive event.

Do you think the quality of the films is getting better?

Yeah, there are always a few gems here. I think they’re showing about 60 featured docs here this year, so there’s a lot of programming. You have to dig around in that pile a little bit, but inevitably you discover some of the year’s best docs.

Films that missed Sundance for one reason or another can break out here – with Marwencol, with Undefeated, every year there’s that one film, and that’s why I’m here, to find that film or those films.

You’re working with SnagFilms now as acquisitions consultant. How are you finding it?

Well, I just came out with them to Berlin and did my first round of meetings at the market there, and the first thing is that it’s been an incredible learning curve for me. The digital distribution/VoD market is incredibly complex – it reinvents itself every couple of months – so even people that did it three months ago now have to relearn it.

But it’s amazing – the big thing about me and this sort of new professional path I’m on, is learning new things, and my main goal is to really try to create some conditions in which documentaries are commercially sustainable. I just have to learn that market and I think that Snag is showing a big commitment to documentaries – more than any of these aggregators have.

They also now have an increasing commitment to curation and to putting not just quantity but really good quality up on their platforms and through their various pipelines. So, so far so good.

Are you finding it different from film festival programming?

Oh absolutely! I’ve been fortunate to program at two major festivals – TIFF and Hot Docs – and you pretty much got what you wanted. This is more of a situation where you’re negotiating and you can’t get everything you want.

It’s not as simple as emailing an invitation letter to a producer – there’s negotiation involved, there’s lots of back and forth and it’s incredibly different. But I’m applying the same kind of basic sensibility to the films that I’d like to see Snag acquire as I did to my festival programming, which is a notion of applying a democratic taste, some rigor and some playfulness to the platform.

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