Sundance ’18: The evolving doc distribution landscape

PARK CITY, UTAH – The “Docs on PBS—Distribution 360″ session on Saturday (Jan. 20) at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah set out to discuss the evolving distribution ...
January 23, 2018

PARK CITY, UTAH – The “Docs on PBS—Distribution 360″ session on Saturday (Jan. 20) at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah set out to discuss the evolving distribution landscape while attempting to assess the best path forward for documentary filmmakers.

Moderated by NPR television critic Eric Deggans, the panel featured acclaimed filmmakers Alexandra Dean (Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story); Steve James (ABACUS: Small Enough To Jail ); Eugene Jarecki (The King; pictured); Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor); and Sam Pollard (Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me).

Filmmakers have long preferred their films to receive the silver screen treatment through national theatrical distribution. But realistically, linear television is the best platform to guarantee a sizable audience.

“Ultimately you want a film that’s going to be seen by the most people, that you can build a campaign around,” Neville told the audience at the Filmmaker Lodge.

Pollard agreed with the Best of Enemies helmer, noting that he would love for Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me — an entry in PBS’s ongoing ‘American Masters’ strand — to receive a theatrical run. “But now that it’s been at all these festivals and it’s been creating a lot of buzz, when it goes on television I know that it’s going to have a lot of folks watching it.”

But for a first-time filmmaker, the kind of press and exposure that comes with a domestic or international theatrical release can be important in helping a particular project stand out.

There’s a lot of noise broadcasting on linear television competing for the viewer’s attention. For a documentary project to break through the clutter and win eyeballs, it needs every advantage it can get.

But figuring out a strategy that can net up-and-coming filmmakers a theatrical run can be extremely difficult, Dean explained.

“What it turned out to be was getting it into the right collection of festivals. You don’t quite understand until you’ve done it that certain festivals are really marketplaces for getting theatrical distribution,” she said. “There’s really only a handful, and the rest of the festivals are a completely different beast. You’re there for different reasons but you’re not there to court a theatrical distributor.”

An enduring and expanding relationship with American pubcaster PBS – particularly with ITVS and ‘Independent Lens’ – has contributed to Eugene Jarecki’s confidence that audience viewership will be well-maximized during broadcast. That in turn liberates the filmmaker to get creative in pursuing recognition that it’s a world of ways that people need to be reached.

“Since the maximum number of eyeballs a doc is going to reach is so much smaller than the crap most people are subjected to by the mainstream system, you’re really trying to give people health food in a world where they’re being subjected to a junk food addiction at all times,” said Jarecki, director of Elvis Presley-focused musical road trip documentary The King, which was recently acquired by New York-based indie distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Like with any good health food campaign, filmmakers and television broadcasters alike have to get creative with their advertising campaign to ensure viewers will tune in.

“When I make a trailer, I put all kinds of stuff into the trailer that isn’t in the movie because the trailer is the thing most people are going to see, more than anything else,” Jarecki added.

But with an increasing number of unmentionable streaming platforms deciding not to release viewing numbers, how can veteran filmmakers prove that the documentary industry can be a financially viable field of employment to budding content creators?

For Jarecki, the idea of the non-transparent business model for documentaries creates a system in which the power of human collectiveness is eroded.

“Transparency is a fundamental first principle for anyone who believes in democracy and human dignity,” he reasoned. “It’s a horrendously dark backstory that brings us to why docs live in the marginal space they live in. They are in some measure an indicator of democracy in non-democratic times… The lack of transparency is just a new hindrance in what is already a situation in which this whole field is a struggle against the efforts of a system to keep its profits up at our expense.”

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