After two years of online events, Sunny Side of the Doc returned in-person this week for its 33rd annual edition in La Rochelle, France.
The conference has focused on bringing in new voices this year, resulting in 67 countries represented among the 2022 attendees, the most in the event’s history. It’s also allowed emerging talent to participate in eight pitch sessions, which includes 48 projects from 22 countries in total. The pitch sessions include traditional documentary genres like science, wildlife and arts & culture, as well as immersive works and projects tailored for digital media platforms.
Sunny Side of the Doc also used this New Voices initiative to highlight Ukrainian documentary projects and talent in several sessions, as well as to more heavily focus on working with teams in countries like Italy, Spain and Finland through coproductions.
Mathieu Béjot, head of strategy and development at Sunny Side, sat down with Realscreen to discuss the new elements at this year’s conference, as well as the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is still having on the event.
“New Voices” is the theme for Sunny Side of the Doc this year. How did this initiative come about, and what kind of effect has it had on this year’s event?
There’s several layers. [First,] it’s the feedback we got from the industry. A lot of broadcasters, platforms, producers are really on the lookout for new, different voices. The search for new voices was accelerated by the diversity and inclusion movement, which is great. I think a lot of broadcasters and platforms are realizing they need to have documentaries and programs in general that reflect their audiences, which are more and more diverse. And you need this search for authenticity with having a different and a more authentic point of view on the subjects you’re dealing with.
During COVID, with the need to set up a lot of coproduction just to be able to carry on with your project when you couldn’t travel internationally, all of a sudden we’ve realized the need to not just have the traditional type of coproduction with big broadcasters or big partners in key territories, but also just for shooting purposes or to complete your product. I have a feeling, by talking to people in the industry, that people are realizing that if you’re dealing with local coproduction companies it’s not just to do exactly the same work as a Western team would be doing if you sent them there, but it’s also a different perspective — sometimes, different ideas or projects are pitched after that. So it’s really a way to make sure not only that the industry is more inclusive, but that it’s also more and more creative.
We thought this was really a good moment to say, look, the industry needs change, there’s so much that’s been happening in the world in the last few years. Not just from the pandemic, but also calling into question our economic development models, plus the situation in Ukraine. There’s so much that’s going on that we felt like now is a good time to embrace change, new voices, new ideas, new perspectives on everything in the world.
We decided not to call it “Diversity and Inclusion,” because that doesn’t resonate in certain countries, but rather “New Voices,” meaning emerging talents from under-represented communities and under-represented countries. So obviously, diversity and inclusion is part and parcel with new voices, but to us, this is even broader. That’s why we’ve really tried to reach out to new countries, people not usually represented at Sunny Side, to make sure Sunny Side would be a platform between its very strong European and international base, and newcomers in the industry.
There’s a lot of talk about coproductions at Sunny Side of the Doc this year. How much does that go hand in hand with the idea of change and new voices?
Coproduction is really in Sunny Side’s DNA. We have pitching sessions and we added a couple this year, including one for new voices. So we’ve really defined ourselves as facilitating international financing and international coproduction. And we know that we do need to include new players. For us, bringing in those people and also taking them by the hand, showing them how the industry works, because we know we cannot just sell them accreditation and expect them to have a great market. We have to make sure that they feel welcome in the international documentary community, that they find their way around, that they understand how to navigate that system. So we’ve done a lot of mentoring in advance, mentoring on-site. We have experts that are available for newcomers on any subject, from how to work with Spain to how to work on impact campaigns, through to festival strategy, international distribution, and international coproduction.
What other new aspects did your team add to this year’s event to draw in attendees?
What we’re trying to do is really make sure that distributors find their place at Sunny Side. Traditionally, we are a coproduction market. The circulation of completed programs is important to us as well. We’re not trying to recreate other markets. The beauty of Sunny Side is to have something business-oriented but casual. Having said that, we know that distributors are more and more important in the financing process, either through direct investment or by helping put together some financing, and we want to make sure they are completely included. We are putting distributors in our pitching sessions, for instance in the Q&As and one-on-one meetings; we had a distributors session this morning, and our sellers lounge is something new as well that’s really targeted at distributors so they can have a place to meet without the inconvenience of being stuck on your stand all day long. So we’re really trying to make sure this part of the industry is integrated in Sunny Side.
Obviously, we’re working on trying to attract more streamers as well, and not just the usual suspects you can see at every single event. It’s not easy and it’s not going to be done in one go, but we’re trying to reach out to newcomers with FAST channels and to specialized platforms as well, because we know they’re playing a more and more important role. So that’s why we have two panels, one on arts & culture streamers, one on streaming strategies. I’m confident that next year we’ll be able to expand our reach and include platforms that are maybe a bit more unexpected.
What kind of effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on this year’s event?
In terms of formats, there’s been some lessons learned from the COVID era. I have to admit, we didn’t really like online markets — it doesn’t work as a market, but there’s been some interesting lessons. All our pitching sessions are hybrid, with all the pitches pre-recorded. There’s several advantages [to this]: [for example], people who may not be able to travel will [still] be able to take part in Sunny Side, especially important when you’re doing “new voices.” We have discounted rates for the global south, for Central and Eastern Europe, for newcomers, but still, just the sheer fact of travelling to Sunny Side can be [difficult for some]. So participating online is a way of expanding outreach for producers and for decision-makers. And also for ecological reasons: offering this possibility to take part online is also a way of making sure the event is getting greener.
But also, [this has] raised the level of the pitches. We’ve seen some fantastic pitches, much better than [from] people who hate speaking in front of an audience on stage in a big auditorium. Plus, you can send pitches to decision-makers in advance, who can screen them and say they want to meet this project or that project.
More and more, we’re trying to mix [in-person and online], and we have online activities throughout the year to engage the documentary community. But for us, the in-person market here is still kind of the climax. This is where it happens.