The docu feature biz is evolving, but will the changes result in bigger audiences? And is there a recipe that can deliver the next hit?

A panel at Sunny Side of the Doc will consider some of these issues, and Variety spoke to some of the panelists about this issue.

The choice of topic has a part to play, but the outcome may also depend on timing, the method of promotion, and the quality of the filmmaking, among other factors.

As Serge Lalou at Les Films d’Ici, one of France’s leading producers of doc features, points out, just because Nicolas Philibert’s “To Be and to Have” was a success, doesn’t mean that another doc about a teacher in a rural school will also be popular.

Recently, there has been a rash of docs linked to the financial crisis and the misdeeds of big business, reflecting the concerns of the public about the downturn in the economy.

“It is a period when people want to understand how society works, and how these big corporations work,” says Monique Simard, director general of the French program at the National Film Board of Canada.

People have turned to such films as “Inside Job” and earlier docs like “The Corporation” and “I.O.U.S.A.,” to help explain how the economic system fell apart, and have found the filmmakers’ surgical analysis refreshing.

“They put the pieces of the puzzle together in a very efficient way,” Simard says, adding that these types of films offer something that is lacking on most TV news shows. “Television news reporting is superficial. It looks at the news every day, but it rarely gives you a long-term analysis of events.”

But audiences also seek emotional engagement in a doc, and sometimes a sense of community, and those are needs that U.K. distrib Dogwoof has succeeded in satisfying through its grassroots campaigns for single-issue documentaries such as “Gasland” and “Restrepo.”

To build such campaigns it has partnered with international aid agencies, special interest groups and other non-profit orgs to promote the pics and stimulate debate about the issues tackled in the films by using social media and other online tools.

However, this is very time consuming — a campaign can take up to nine months to get off the ground — and uses a different skillset than more traditional forms of distribution, says Andy Whittaker, chairman of Dogwoof.

The company has also embraced the growing use of non-traditional screening venues, sometimes referred to as pop-up theaters, such as schools, libraries and church halls. These can be used for one-off screenings organized by local special- interest groups to create an event.

But, says Whittaker, it is important to widen the focus.

“If you just preach to the converted, then most people are going to turn off, and you are never going to reach the film’s full potential. You are trying to target and reach the wider audience.”

But niche audiences are important in forming the basis on which a campaign can be built.

Two films about the work of choreographer Pina Bausch, Anne Linsel’s “Dancing Dreams” and Wim Wenders’ “Pina,” have both notched up impressive box office figures.

Jean-Christophe Simon, CEO of sales company Films Boutique, which reps “Dancing Dreams,” says a niche doc that appeals to a particular group of people with similar interests, or in his words, a “tribe,” can, given enough time, build into a sizeable audience.

Unfortunately, in many territories exhibitors don’t have the patience to wait for an audience to build.

“You have the odd hit but those are the exception,” says Simard. “The audiences for these niche documentaries are there, but they are spread far and wide.”

The National Film Board of Canada has come up with one way of reaching auds. Its online platform offers free access worldwide to its archive of documentaries and the figures are impressive: close to 14 million docs have been viewed in the past 2 1/2 years.

“There is an audience for these niche products and if you add them up all over the world they can be quite considerable, and have a long trail,” she says.

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