How Sales Agents and Film Reps Are Viewing the Booming World of 'Non-Fiction' Film
There is an ever-growing market for documentaries. Let's hear from the sales agents and film reps who broker the deals.
The documentary marketplace is growing. With success comes inevitable change in the form of "new buyers, more complex deals, celebrity partners, and fiction remakes." These high profile films are often guided through the development and distribution process by Hollywood talent agencies, and in a panel discussion at TIFF sponsored by Showtime Documentary Films, several top agents talked new trends and opportunities.
The panelists included Amanda Lebow of CAA, Kevin Iwashina of Endeavor Content, Rena Ronson of the Independent Film Group and United Talent Agency, Jessica Lacy of ICM Partners, and the discussion was moderated by Thom Powers, Documentary Programmer at TIFF.
Rising Interest, Evolving Forms, and a Complicated World
Thom Powers began by noting that one of the trends in documentaries he's seen this year is the involvement of bigger Hollywood agencies, and according to Iwashina, this has been accompanied by a "respect for the actual documentarian, so when we're looking at all the growth of the content, whether it's on Netflix or a linear broadcaster, etc. I've never before seen such enthusiasm focused...on the actual director....whether they're young, like Derek Doneen, who just won Sundance, to the more established...artists become relevant to the creation of content in a way that I haven't seen acknowledged before."
Jessica Lacy added that another difference she's seen is how "more of our financiers, who have focused primarily on fiction films, are very interested in nonfiction films [and] I think part of that is that we're living in a very complicated world these days, and I think the stories that are being told people feel responsible for getting out there."
Ronson said that she'd noticed a shift in the audience and how they were relating to the films with unprecedented levels of engagement and revenue. "Feature documentaries .are doing sometimes better than some of the fiction independent films in the marketplace." She echoed the opinion of the others that there was something new in the quality of recent documentaries she'd seen or dealt with, an "edge-of-your-seat" quality that "perhaps comes from a shift in the filmmaker involved, or the storytelling style, but it's engaging the audience in a [new] way."
In other words, documentaries, which have been big business for quite some time, are even bigger this year, and with great leaps in storytelling have come greater audiences and money to be made, which is where the panelists come in.
"Feature documentaries are doing sometimes better than some of the fiction independent films in the marketplace." -Jessica Lacy, ICM
Powers asked the group about new buyers in the marketplace such as NEON and Apple, and Iwashina brought up how linear and non-linear broadcasters have taken on such an important role in the documentary film ecosystem: "I've been selling movies for 20 years, and when I first got in the business, if I sat with a filmmaker and said, 'You know, there's this great cable broadcaster that's gonna want to buy your movie,' I would have been fired before I could have even signed the film."
Filmmakers today, too, are excited and aware of the value of these broadcasters (FYI: linear equals a cable channel, like Showtime, while non-linear equals a streaming only service, like Netflix) and their power to "captivate [an] audience, and activate them." As examples, he mentioned Starz and NatGeo, along with new players Apple and Disney, two giants "that have not even existed, and we're already selling them films."
"If your first outing is in the documentary space, there are lots of avenues you can explore."-Rena Ronson, Independent Film Group
Doc as IP
Ronson said that as the market expands, documentary film can serve as "IP that lends itself to anything and everything, from a narrative feature TV series to books...there's so many opportunities." She mentioned the case of the Fred (Mister) Rogers story, currently at Sony, which started out as a documentary, but had on the strength of the story and personality involved, evolved into something more.
"If your first outing is in the documentary space, there are lots of avenues you can explore. With Meet the Patels, it just so happened that we were able to do a narrative remake deal at Fox Searchlight, even though we sold the rights to documentary to a [different] company at that point," Ronson admitted.
Lacy added that sometimes, with a given property "we don't know if this is this is a three-part series...is it a feature-length, or does it lend itself to being six or more episodes? And you have that flexibility now, as you have these different platforms. It doesn't matter if it's 30 minutes or 60 minutes, it can be 40 minutes."
Lebow said that another new development had to do with the jack-of-all-trades nature of the documentarian: "Our directors, because they're so capable of doing everything as a documentarian, from producing to line producing, to directing it, they're very easily slotted into learning opportunities, so either the networks will be coming to us and saying we need a great documentarian to take over the show, to give it their look [and] make it really feel premium, so instead of having our clients self-generating, they're able to slot into some really great ideas at places like HBO and Showtime and Netflix."
It's a 'Non-Fiction' World, After All
Iwashina mentioned that the members of the panel had all been making use of the term "nonfiction" interchangeably when several years ago, they would have been referring exclusively to "docs." He saw the new nomenclature as a means of describing a new format, practically. "When you look at docu-series or the expansion of that...it's filmmaker driven storytelling [and] maybe it's 90 minutes, maybe it's eight hours and those eight hours would be broken up for for eight episodes."
While the panelists agreed that there was an appetite for longer-length work, they still cautioned that not everything could be turned into a series, and buyers exercised a great deal of caution, even in this relatively unprecedented bull market. As Ronson put it, "You have to engage your audience and really keep them engaged, so it depends on the subject," and the panel agreed that the form was in flux on every front, from delivery medium to length of content. In the new, streaming world, forms are mutable in ways that they weren't before, and rules that didn't exist yesterday are being rewritten tomorrow.
To listen to the group assembled in Toronto, it's an excellent time to be in the non-fiction film business, whether you're a filmmaker, sales agent, or film rep. Of course, making a great film is still on you, the documentary filmmaker, and there's nothing to help make that magic except for talent and taste, dedication, and the luck of good timing.
Provided that you can make lightning strike, though, this is as good a time to be in documentary filmmaking as any, with more opportunities for the enterprising artist than ever before in a genre without limits, at the edge of a lucrative frontier. (Of course, this is how agents talk, and your mileage may vary. Still, though, the future looks bright!)