TIFF ’18: Sales agents talk platforms, the long tail of doc acquisitions

New distribution channels and ancillary markets were in the spotlight at the TIFF Doc Conference panel “What do sales agents and film representatives want?” on Tuesday (Sept. 11). The panel, hosted ...
September 12, 2018

New distribution channels and ancillary markets were in the spotlight at the TIFF Doc Conference panel “What do sales agents and film representatives want?” on Tuesday (Sept. 11).

The panel, hosted and moderated by TIFF’s international documentary programmer Thom Powers, explored the strategies used by buyers in identifying promising projects as part of the 2018 TIFF Industry Conference.

Panelists were Amanda Lebow, media finance agent at entertainment and sports agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA); Jessica Lacy, partner and head of the international and independent film department at ICM Partners; Kevin Iwashina, senior associate at Endeavor Content; and Rena Ronson, head of the Independent Film Group and partner at United Talent Agency (UTA).

The main focus of the panelists was on the diversity of platforms for non-fiction projects, and the availability of secondary markets to exploit intellectual property.

First up was the move away from theatrical distribution in favor of new platforms, or old ones that have found new life as outlets for docs. Theatrical releases are still a big part of the equation, but they’ve receded, the panelists agreed.

“I’ve been selling movies for 20 years, and when I first got in the business, if I sat with a filmmaker and said, ‘There’s this great cable broadcaster that’s going to want to buy your movie,’ I would have been fired before I could even sign the film,” said Iwashina. “Now that’s really part of the dialog, and more importantly the filmmakers are excited and understand the value of linear and non-linear broadcasters because of the reach and the ability to captivate audiences and activate them.”

With that move away from a theater-first mentality, distributors now also see more collaboration across media companies.

“You have places like CNN, Starz and Epix wanting to partner up with places like Neon and Magnolia, and even Sony Pictures Classics now as they’ve seen the success of films like RBG (pictured) and Three Identical Strangers,” said Lebow. Traditionally, one distributor would have owned the film and licensed out rights after a theatrical run, but now those networks are getting in on the ground floor and staking a claim on the docs at the outset.

As Lacy puts it, the divisions between distinct departments have been collapsing as films move between platforms more freely, so choosing which films to represent now means looking at more options. “I find I’m collaborating more and more with all of those divisions,” she said. “Whether it’s Netflix, Hulu or these companies, you’re dealing with the same executives looking at what’s the best way to put this together… Is this a three-part limited series? Is it a feature-length narrative? Or does it lend itself to being six or more episodes? You have that flexibility now.”

Ronson frames all of this in the language of intellectual property. “Very often if you have a really great piece of material, and your first outing is in the documentary space, there are lots of avenues that you can explore,” she said, mentioning an upcoming narrative feature based on 2014′s Meet the Patels and the upcoming Fred Rogers drama spun off from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? And those only skim the surface. There are opportunities for TV series, podcasts, books, original songs and recordings, and more.

She’s currently working on how to expand on last year’s Icarus, the feature-length doc about the Olympic doping scandal in Russia. “Is this better as a narrative feature? Is it better as a limited series like Narcos? What’s the next step for it? That’s something that we always collaborate on with the entire team,” she said.

While there are loads to consider in non-fiction distribution (not least of which is quality content), the discussion focused largely on how to package documentary content to reach as large an audience as possible, and how to look ahead to the best ways to make use of platforms and ancillary markets.

The conclusions were fairly unanimous: theatrical distribution no longer reigns, and documentaries can often have a second (or third or fourth) life in other media. These are some of the major considerations when choosing which docs to represent.

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