Documentary Filmmakers Turn to Non-Traditional Distribution to Get Their Films Seen

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The growing amount of homeless, independently made documentaries has made film festivals like Hot Docs, arguably more important than ever before. Many docus that premiered at Sundance 2023 but have yet to find distribution are part of the Toronto-based documentary festival’s lineup, which in turn allows those titles to stay on buyers’ radars.

But corporate consolidation, along with streamers’ current mandate for nonfiction content that fits into one of three boxes – celebrity, true crime, or sports – means that many docu filmmakers will eventually have to turn to non-traditional distribution to get their films seen outside the fest circuit.

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Tracy Droz Tragos’ docu “Plan C” follows a grassroots organization fighting to expand access to abortion pills across the United States. The timely film premiered at Sundance in January, but despite good reviews, Tragos hasn’t found distribution for “Plan C.”

“We are hearing things from the big buyers like, ‘The subject matter is hugely important, and it needs to get out there ASAP, but we don’t have the space,” says Tragos. “Or, ‘We’re blown away by the film, but we’re so rarely acquiring docs.’ Or, ‘Unfortunately, this is a bit of a tough topic for us.”

After attending several festivals, including SXSW, Tragos decided to “listen to our enthusiastic audiences clamoring to share this film with their communities” by starting a Kickstarter campaign. The money raised will help various non-profits and organizers promote the screening of the docu at locations throughout the country.

“I’m still hopeful that we will have some measure of a theatrical distribution, whether we four-wall it ourselves or work with a distributor,” says Tragos. “We’ve been told to be patient and that we might find a streamer, but we will for sure carve out this educational, nonprofit festival space where we honestly think we can reach the most people.”

Tragos is one of many independent voices hoping a distributor will come along. But for those directors who don’t find a home for their docu on a streamer or with a theatrical distributor, there are other, less profitable options. They include self-distribution, selling territory by territory, as well as Gravitas Ventures – an all-rights distributor that acquires and distributes narrative films and documentaries across all TVOD platforms and select films theatrically. The company also seeks out licensing deals with SVOD platforms. After the SVOD window, Gravitas releases the project on AVOD services.

“We are in talks with pretty much all of the larger agencies representing films that were at Sundance, South by Southwest, and the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival,” says Guentzler. “We have been able to increase the quality of the overall films that we are releasing because some distributors pulled back and some distributors are no longer with us.”

Gravitas acquires films on all levels, either by offering minimum guarantees of different ranges and through a revenue share model. Most recently, Gravitas garnered North American rights to two documentaries: Ashley Avis’ “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” and Julian Rubinstein’s “The Holly.” Last year Gravitas released Sundance grand jury prize documentary winner “The Exiles.” Most filmmakers releasing a docu via Gravitas hire their own publicity team.

In addition to 70 world premieres, this year’s 30th edition of Hot Docs also includes numerous docus that have already had buzzy premieres at not only Sundance but South by Southwest, Berlin, and CPH:DOX. They include: “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” “Joan Baez I Am a Noise,” “Praying for Armageddon,” “Confessions of a Good Samaritan,” “Invisible Beauty,” “It’s Only Life After All” and “A Still Small Voice.” Each film is seeking distribution.

“The tyranny of some of the bigger players really can create a seismic impact across the board,” admits Hot Docs’ programming director Shane Smith. “We believe in amplifying and showcasing every film in the lineup because we want to try and help build a future for each doc through the platform and the profile that the festival can offer.”

Impact Partners, a documentary film funding company that has provided millions of dollars in equity money to over 100 documentaries, including the Academy Award-winning “Icarus” and “The Cove,” helped finance Alexandria Bombach’s “It’s Only Life After All,” about the Indigo Girls, and Penny Lane’s “Confessions of a Good Samaritan,” about kidney donation.

Just last year, Impact Partners sold two of their films, “Aftershock,” about America’s maternal health care crisis, and “Mija,” about two daughters of undocumented immigrants to Disney. At Sundance 2023 Disney was nowhere to be found. Neither was Netflix, Amazon, Hulu nor Apple. Thus far, only six Sundance 2023 docs have sold: “Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV” (Greenwich Entertainment), “Kokomo City” (Magnolia), “The Eternal Memory” (MTV Documentary Films), and “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Magnolia). “And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine” and “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ each sold to various territories.

Jenny Raskin, Impact Partners executive director, says the current market has come as a “shock” to doc filmmakers, who, in recent years, became accustomed to streaming services spending millions on politically bent, commercially unviable docus like “Knock Down the House,” which Netflix bought for $10 million in 2019, and “Boys State,” which Apple and A24 acquired for $12 million in 2020.

“Currently, there’s a push towards more commercial, more common denominator fare,” Raskin says. “There’s a patience for that for a while, but eventually, companies will look for the new thing, and often that is coming from the artists. Everyone’s biggest concern is less about the financial and more about the reach.”

The sudden shift from the golden age of docus to the commercial age of docus means that filmmakers and nonfiction production companies that want to stay afloat will need to shift toward what streamers want. If Sundance 2023 is any indication, they want celebrities.

Docs that came with distribution to Park City included Amazon’s “Judy Blume Forever,” Apple’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” and Hulu’s “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” and Netflix’s “The Deepest Breath” will be at Hot Docs.

Ventureland’s John Battsek produced “The Deepest Breath,” an A24 documentary about high-risk freediving that Netflix acquired before its Sundance debut. Battsek’s “Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker” was recently released on Apple TV+. Currently he is at work on Disney’s Elton John doc “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

“Sometimes you make films, and they’re harder to sell than others,” Battsek says. “But if you’ve got a really strong story, buyers want those. Everyone wants those.”

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