Optimism for non-fiction filmmakers at fest

The recent success of theatrical docs such as “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Buck” is providing cause for optimism for non-fiction filmmakers in Toronto.

Like Sundance, which saw a healthy number of doc sales, Toronto has a reputation for world preeming docus that have legs beyond the fest.

Bess Kargman’s “First Position,” about ballet school hopefuls, looks like this year’s “Spellbound,” with buyers immediately on the phone following its standing-ovation Sunday preem.

“Paul Williams: Still Alive” was a slam dunk with auds on Sunday night, while Jonathan Demme’s “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful,” about a New Orleans matriarch rebuilding her home after Hurricane Katrina, will preem Tuesday, as will “In My Mother’s Arms,” a docu about a Baghdad orphanage.

Toronto opened with the world preem of Davis Guggenheim’s U2 docu “From the Sky Down.” Pic, which Showtime picked up just before the fest, marked the first time a docu opened Toronto.

In a city which many festgoersagree has one of the best auds for appreciating documentaries, the preem went over well. Toronto, which also hosts the huge spring Hotdocs fest, will also soon see the opening of a new docu-focused theater.

And on Saturday, Cameron Crowe-helmed documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty” screened at the fest. Wim Wenders dance-focused docu “Pina” also nabbed a fest berth.

Interestingly, some of the most successful pics of the past few months have been specialty documentaries: Take IFC’s release of “Buck,” which went on to earn $3.9 million in theaters, while the distrib’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” helmed by Werner Herzog, took $5.2 million.

An hour before the start of Monday’s day-long Documentary Conference at the fest, short docu publisher Cinelan and project partner GE announced an exclusive distribution pact with video-sharing site Vimeo for the innovation-themed Focus Forward project of 30 three-minute docus, to be directed by leading filmmakers from around the world.

The breakfast announcement — attended by fest docu stars Morgan Spurlock (“Comic-Con: Episode 1V – A Fan’s Hope”), Jessica Yu (“Last Call at the Oasis”), Nick Broomfield (“Sarah Palin — You Betcha”) and Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”) — also added Intl. Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) to the growing roster of fests (Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca) on board to preem programs of the finished shorts, followed by day-and-date multi-platform release via Vimeo.

“Our mission is to support the artistic vision of filmmakers whose creative approach to documentary informs the style and substance of their work,” said IDFA director Ally Derks. “So we expect great things from the high caliber of filmmakers involved.”

Focus Forward shorts have already been commissioned from Spurlock, Berlinger, Yu, Lixin Fan, Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney (fest-preeming “The Last Gladiators”), Steve James, Barbara Kopple and Ross Kaufman.

The series’ overall theme is the power of world-shaping inventions — and it’s already flush with great ideas.

On Monday Yu revealed her short will focus on Jack Sim, a.k.a. Mr. Toilet, a retired Singapore businessman who founded the World Toilet Organization (no joke) in 2001 and established the world’s first toilet college.

“He’s made it his mission to bring the issue of sanitation to the world,” said Yu. Her water-issue feature docu “Last Call at the Oasis,” which world-preemed Friday, is receiving buyer buzz, according to Submarine.

Cinelan topper Karol Martesko-Fenster said he is actively working on developing partnerships with several other top film festivals, the National Film Board of Canada and industry partners as well as courting top docu filmmakers.

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