Biz in flux, but documentary fest flourishes

With many screenings sold out, including those for the opening docs — helmer Thomas Balmes’ “Babies,” about a year in the life of four newborns in different parts of the world, and Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn’s “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage” featuring the Canadian band — Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, already looks like a hit.

In fact, the biggest concern at the 11-day fest, which kicks off its 170-plus pic slate in Toronto on April 29, is whether the airline backlog caused by the cloud of volcanic ash over Europe that grounded many flights would allow filmmakers travelling from 41 countries, industry players and seven regional delegations to reach Toronto in time for Intl. Co-Production Day on April 30.

But Canada’s doc industry converges on the city with more urgent concerns.

The lucky ones — including local vets Shelley Saywell, John Zaritsky and John Kastner — have a berth for their work in the Canadian Spectrum sidebar, which will bring their docs to the attention of international funders and buyers; others have snagged a coveted pitch spot in the Toronto Documentary Forum on May 5 and 6.

But flux in the domestic industry has many on edge and is bound to be a topic of conversation at scheduled micro-meets and upscale parties.

Tough economic times have seen traditional international co-production options for one-off docs dry up, and Canuck producers of such content — usually funded by a combination of broadcaster dollars and tax credits — were hard hit last year when commercial giant CTV axed its doc commissioning editor and pubcaster CBC cancelled “The Lens,” a key docuseries strand.

Just last month the province of Saskatchewan shuttered its pubcaster SCN-TV, which supported both local and Canuck docus.

The National Film Board, still a vital funder, is putting more of its capped resources toward new media innovation.

Overall Canuck doc production dipped 12% to $431.5 million in 2007-08.

Production companies that make both doc series as well as one-offs are the most stable part of the industry.

But to tap into the government’s recently launched C$350 million ($340 million) Canadian Media Fund, all projects must include a robust multiplatform component, a natural extension for docs but not necessarily an area of expertise for producers.

The CMF also earmarked $3.5 million for a fund for English-language docs, called POV, named after the industry slang for point of view. This welcome new resource comes with strings attached.

“The POV program allows filmmakers to access funding not controlled by broadcasters,” but producers must find a broadcaster for the project before the money is released, says Montreal-based producer John Christou, who is also chair of the Documentary Organization of Canada.

This isn’t so easy now that fewer broadcasters are spending money on docs, in favor of cheap reality shows.

And it’s not yet clear what will happen if docmakers get the promise of funding, prep their projects but then can’t find a broadcaster. This uncertainty is causing concern.

“If broadcasters return to commissioning independent docs, then the POV fund will be a success, but if they refuse, POV probably won’t be renewed,” Christou says. “Alternate funding doesn’t mesh well with traditional in our Canadian scene; it’s one or the other.”

Christou says the new wave in financing is branded content, such as the Greenpeace-funded “Petropolis,” helmer Peter Mettler’s doc about the environmental impact of oil sands extraction in Alberta, or director Bert Deveaux’s antipoverty doc “Poor No More,” funded by more than 50 orgs including unions and student bodies.

“While many filmmakers are embracing these opportunities, others have strong ethics that run against that trend,” Christou says.

Still, there’s no question Canuck auds love docs. Some 122,000 Torontonians attended Hot Docs in 2009, up 42% on the previous year.

Fest is extending its aggressive branding strategy beyond the city. Its popular monthly series, Doc Soup, now unspools in arthouse venues across the country, it has introduced a DVD line with Toronto distrib Kinosmith and a free online screening library with more than 1,000 titles.

Fest also continues to partner with broadcaster CanWest on a fund, launched in 2008, to help Canuck docmakers develop and complete projects.

“There’s a new world order emerging for distribution, and festivals need to take a lead and provide a spine to these new models,” says Hot Docs’ artistic director Sean Farnel, former Toronto Film Festival doc programmer.

He says Hot Docs is looking at initiatives similar to Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca, such as the simultaneous preems of docs both at the fest and on-demand from local cablers and satcasters.

“Documentary filmmakers are a resilient bunch — it’s the first thing on the job description,” Farnel adds. “There’s been an incredible creative movement over the past decade, but it’s tenuous times, so we need to add value as part of Hot Docs’ overriding mission to show everything documentary can do.”

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