Sunny Side ’22: Distributors talk effects of COVID, streaming on factual content

LA ROCHELLE, FRANCE: This year’s edition of the Sunny Side of the Doc conference, held in-person at its usual French coastal location after a pandemic-prompted pause, shone a spotlight on ...
June 22, 2022

LA ROCHELLE, FRANCE: This year’s edition of the Sunny Side of the Doc conference, held in-person at its usual French coastal location after a pandemic-prompted pause, shone a spotlight on another sector of the content world that is experiencing flux — distribution.

The session, Distribution Download, was held on Tuesday (June 21), and came from a desire to better appeal to distributors and ensure they can find their place at Sunny Side, Mathieu Béjot, the event’s head of strategy and development, told Realscreen. It’s a sector that is seeing firsthand the impact that the influx of streaming platforms and the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the documentary and factual genres.

The panel, moderated by Bossanova CEO Paul Heaney, brought together Autentic managing director Patrick Hoerl, Off the Fence head of acquisitions Loren Baxter, and SVP of international sales and partnerships at Blue Ant Media, Gerbrig Blanksma.

The streamer/distributor relationship

Distributors have been working with streaming platforms, both big and small, for a long time now, Hoerl said. Many of these platforms rely on acquisitions, and go to big distribution companies for large orders as they often don’t have the time to pick and choose from small boutique distributors, he said, which has resulted in more editorial responsibility being placed on distributors.

“Editorial services are being pushed down to distributors. The platforms don’t have enough people to make certain choices,” Hoerl said. “Let’s say a platform wants 50 wildlife shows. They expect us at the distribution company to make editorially sensible suggestions on which 50 shows they should take.”

Hoerl also noted that a convergence of content that’s desirable to both streaming platforms and linear networks is being seen more often now, as coproductions between traditional platforms and streamers have become more common.

Baxter added that streaming platforms traditionally have taken a lot of risks in programming, and linear platforms have followed suit when those risks have found success. But she’s seeing a shift in the kinds of content favored on streaming platforms, both from buyers and from audiences.

“When streamers were targeting very international audiences, content felt very international in scope and in style. Audiences from around the world were looking at stories from Mexico or from South Africa, and they were enjoying it. Whereas we were often so used to just seeing the content that we see on our TV from our local production companies,” Baxter said.

“But we are seeing a shift again, and now streamers are looking at more localized content. So are we then going back to our more local tastes?”

The pandemic’s impact

The panel noted that since the pandemic began, buyers have become a bit more accepting of risk as audiences have gravitated towards docs on major current affairs stories, and heavier topics have become more acceptable.

Hoerl said that Autentic boasted a pair of strong sales years in 2020 and 2021, despite the pandemic. And while people were at home, as COVID-19 dominated the news, documentaries on current affairs stories or other heavier documentary topics picked up steam. That said, docs that transported people away from the pandemic also generally proved to be popular, he added.

“I think there’s more space now for shows which are somehow more related to our times, and things which are going on now,” Hoerl said. “It’s next to impossible to sell news through distribution outlets, but [current affairs] stories definitely became more popular.”

ssd 22 day 2 (2)

Finding an audience, and changing preferences

Blanksma echoed the earlier comments about the appeal of localization in content in discussing how to make catalogs relevant for wider audiences.

“Localization is a way to get more relevance for audiences, and it’s definitely something that we see quite a lot,” Blanksma said.

Hoerl (pictured, above) noted that Autentic is taking some titles they wouldn’t have five years ago. One example is the series Stone Men, which profiles the workers in an Italian quarry. The language barrier would have prevented Autentic from picking up this project previously, but they’re now more willing to take on such potentially riskier projects.

While streaming platforms have brought a great deal of attention to factual titles, which Hoerl said the industry should be thankful for, factual producers and distributors need to be aware that their titles are often going up against major films and drama series, and that competition can make it difficult for documentary and factual content to find an audience. Blanksma and Baxter noted that it’s important for titles to be noisy to cut through the clutter.

“Your doc is going to possibly go against Batman or something like that,” Baxter said. “So that’s why subjects like Tinder Swindler are attractive. It’s a unique access story, it’s quite shouty, it’s noisy. People will be interested in that in the same way they’re interested in a drama series, because it has those same format beats, those same elements that we’re drawn to.”

Photo credit: Jean-François Augé. Photos supplied by Sunny Side of the Doc.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.