As the distribution landscape continues to evolve, it's difficult for filmmakers to keep up. How can one possibly anticipate trends in an ever-changing marketplace? Documentaries, in particular, are subject to extreme variability; forecasting success at the box office for nonfiction films can be akin to reading tea leaves.

"We all work in the shadow of Michael Moore," said Molly Thompson, founder of A&E Indie Films, at a recent panel at the 2018 AFI Docs forum and film festival. "Fahrenheit 9/11 did $150 million in the box office. Nobody has the magic formula!"

While there is indeed no panacea to the problem of predicting success in the documentary distribution landscape, Thompson and her fellow panelists—Amy Letourneau, SVP of PBS, and Diane Weyermann, President of Documentary at Participant Media—are in the business of trying. Read the most salient takeaways from "The Right Fit: Finding the Best Distribution Partners for Your Film" below. The panel was moderated by Kevin Iwashina, an agent at Endeavor Content. You can also watch it in its entirety here.

Your Funding Choices Matter

Which is the better option: to make a film with independent funding and try to sell it later, or to strike a deal with a platform that wants to fund your film and show it, such as Netflix or HBO? 

The answer to this question, according to the panelists, depends on your priorities. First, you should ask yourself which is more important: creative control or a surefire source of funding? 

"If you finance [your doc] independently, you have all the risk and all the freedom," said Thompson. "If you work with a network, you will have to give up some control, but you're going to get more financial support. It's a matter of weighing the variables."

Among the variables you should weigh are where you'd like your film to eventually land. If you're dead-set on Netflix, for example, this is something you should think about from the financing stage.

"We very much still believe in documentaries going into cinemas."

"What's important, as a filmmaker, is to think about what you want to do with your film," said Weyermann. "Decisions you make from the financing stage forward could really impact your capacity to distribute it a certain way. If you take money from X, you won't be able to distribute on Y platform. That's something to be aware of."

Thompson brought up an important consideration. "Recently, the Emmys changed their rules," she said. "Broadcast TV competes with streaming platforms, so we usually don't partner upfront with a broadcaster or someone with U.S. domestic rights, because it would inhibit us [from getting an Emmy]." As a result, A&E Indie tries to "keep the ability to broadcast first before it goes on Netflix for Emmy consideration," Thompson said.

Breakouts Depend on Zeitgeist

This summer has been a banner season for documentaries. Three, in particular, can be considered "breakouts" by most standards--RBG and Won't You Be My Neighbor have each grossed $12 million at the box office thus far, and Three Identical Strangers has already grossed more than $1 million, despite opening just last weekend.

"Films like RBG remind us that you don't know what the factors are that are going to make something break out," said Thompson. "It's a question of timing, execution, and having the right partners. There are so many variables."

"It has a lot to do with timing," Weyermann added. It's about catching the wave. There's a zeitgeist. There's a desire to be inspired." Wyermann said that Participant, which released RBG, attributed some of the film's success at the box office to the fact that it appeals across generations. "We're hoping that having RBG do well will lead to more doors opening," she said.

New Platforms, New Horizons

Some of these open doors are platforms that have recently embraced documentaries. "That's the good news from the last couple years—so many platforms have opened their doors to documentaries," said Thompson, "which wouldn't have even considered doing documentaries before."

That being said, "the theatrical model is definitely not dead," said Weyermann. "We very much still believe in documentaries going into cinemas. We find that the communal experience of going into cinemas is really important and we care about taking that message further. But we also know that there aren't many docs that will take that path, and the other pathways that are open—broadcast, streaming—these are massive platforms where you can reach many, many people, and sometimes they're more financially lucrative for filmmakers. We're very open to working with everybody across the board."

"Last year we did three films at PBS," said Letourneau, "and they all looked very different. We defined success for them in very different ways." One of the films was Dolores, which PBS picked up out of Sundance with Lens. "It went on to have 1.5 million people watch at broadcast," Letourneau said. "It was also the 11th best-grossing doc of last year."

Next, there was Abacus, which, according to Letourneau, "had less success at the box office, but was an awards darling." PBS organized over 700 community screenings for the film. "It really resonated with a conversation that we wanted to have as a country," she added.

Finally, PBS also distributed on Bill Nye: Science Guy, which "was huge with a younger audience that might not normally engage with some of our content," Letourneau said. "It was great to be the oldest person in the room, for once!"

Pitch the Panelists

If you're interested in distributing with A&E Films, PBS, or Participant, you're in luck. Each panelist 

"I try to be very accessible," said Thompson, "but often I can't look at everything myself. Somebody else will look at [your film] for me sometimes."

As for Participant, "we are open to submissions," said Weyermann. "My colleague, Elise Pearlstein, runs the new projects and development team. We look at everything that comes in!"

According to Letourneau, submitting for broadcast on PBS is as easy as going to this website. "It has all the contact information for all of the strands," she said. "For my team, for theatrical, I have people going to festivals and looking." Their contact information can be found here.

"But do your research," Thompson cautioned. "Don't show up in Diane's office and pitch her a documentary about antique cars. She's not going to make that film. Believe it or not, a lot of people don't do their research. So know who you're pitching."