Sunny Side ’17: The future of history

LA ROCHELLE, FRANCE — The 2017 edition of the Sunny Side of the Doc market is now open, exploring the theme of “history” via international current affairs. That sentiment was top ...
June 20, 2017

LA ROCHELLE, FRANCE — The 2017 edition of the Sunny Side of the Doc market is now open, exploring the theme of “history” via international current affairs.

That sentiment was top of mind at the inaugural panel on Monday (June 19) where a session titled “The Future of History”, moderated by Shunter Media MD Stephen Hunter, approached a number of international distributors to determine where history programming is headed and what are the potential routes the genre could travel in the years to come.

Here are a few key takeaways from the session:

War is the undisputed heavy weight champ

Real history on television is making a comeback thanks in part to war-oriented documentaries, the single genre of history film that resonates in all territories across the globe. On a granular level, war films focused on the subcategory of Adolf Hitler tend to far outperform all others in the genre, Hunter told the room of delegates. And if doc makers are able to colorize and digitize the former German leader, all the better.

To prove the global obsession with World War II, Hunter noted some of the forthcoming series related to the second global war: Nazi Treasure Hunters, The Definitive Guide to WWII, Blueprint of Evil, Hitler’s England, Project Nazi and ZDF’s Hitler Circle of Evil, which was once pitched to Hunter as “Downton Abbey meets Hitler.”

“Audiences can’t seem to get enough of it. I was talking to a German distributor earlier this morning and he said ‘We need new tyrants.’ Oddly enough in Germany, North Korea rates very highly, so maybe North Korea is stepping up to the plate to help [producers],” Hunter said.

Don’t forget your anniversary

The second category to rear its head in documentary as a current and future mainstay is the anniversary genre.

Anniversaries remain a big draw with audiences across the globe and super-serve the one-off specials and feature-length documentaries. German audiences seem to have a desire for dramatic reconstructions with CGI and big stories; archive is king for the French; British viewers love living history; and the U.S. holds a nostalgic view of its history.

Hunter cautioned that producers must be mindful that anniversaries tend to prey to very nationalistic and tribal fevers.

“The problem is people want to see their own stories… That’s a good healthy thing, but for producers it’s a conundrum. Stylistically, we’re all splitting and fracturing,” he added.

The middle class documentary is dying

The biggest trend in the present day is “Go Big or Go Low,” according to one distributor.

Budgets in the community of documentary makers are starting to mirror the direction of society in general, Hunter stated. Large sums of money are flowing into the very few hands that are able to attach a star-studded name to their projects.

Without the celebrity, networks are asking producers to create series at a low rate of US$90,000 or $100,000 per hour. Meanwhile, the “middle class” is disappearing altogether, with it having become increasingly difficult to produce programs in the 200,000 to $500,000 per hour range, delegates heard.

However, the emergence of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have meant that the SVOD giants, in their efforts to dominate the factual market, have spearheaded a resurgence in the feature documentary category once reserved for viewers of arthouse cinema.

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