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FilMart: Booming Documentaries Still Need Support, Careful Positioning

The growing demand for diversity of stories and content on digital and mobile platforms has given a new boost to documentary films. But reaching audiences increasingly requires a combination of creativity and smart use of technology, industry experts said at a panel discussion at Hong Kong FilMart on Tuesday.

Documentary films are among the most sought-after content at this year’s FilMart. Recognizing that, market organizers put on the thematic section, Doc World, for the first time. It features over 200 exhibitors showcasing new productions.

Speaking at the panel debate, executives form the U.S. and China agreed that traditional ways of distribution and advertising are no longer as effective as they used to be. Connecting with the younger generation is harder still.

Patrick Connolly, VP of programming at AMC Networks, Sundance TV Global, said video-on-demand is important for future growth of the documentary segment, but appropriate marketing and promotion are key to success. “We buy films that have shown at some film festivals. Films that have ‘film festival pedigree’,” Connolly said.

Summer Song, director of copyright operations at Beijing-based China Visible Influence Pictures, said the company’s mobile app DOCO, an online platform specializing in documentaries, already has 2 million registered users. And to engage people born after 1990, the company runs both online and offline events, with the aim of establishing a community.

The app records and predicts users’ behavior by analyzing their choice of titles, the amount of time they spent on each title, and whether they watched each episode all the way through.

Chinese audiences have diverse taste in documentary titles, but are particularly interested in culture, heritage and history shows. She said some titles have achieved more than 23 million views and earned profits exceeding $160,000 (RMB1 million) from paying viewers. “People actively search out what they want to see. Many also take the initiative to share titles that they think are great, or give them high ratings on [Chinese movie website] Douban,” said Song.

Digital and mobile platforms also play a major role for Daniel Braun, co-president of Submarine Entertainment, which has recently released “Wild Wild Country” on Netflix and will soon be releasing “Evil Genius” in June. He said that, although streaming releases are key, timely theatrical releases can still be important for certain titles.

“Theatrical gives the perception that a film has value,” said Braun. “Chasing Ice,” by the company’s boutique distribution label Submarine Deluxe, had a what he called an “opportunistic release” as the weekend of the film’s release was also the weekend when Hurricane Sandy hit the US.

“We had lots of press bringing up the whole issue of environment and climate change, that global warming is real. We sold a lot of group tickets to non-profits and companies. We had close to $2 million box office, which was very successful,” he said.

But despite FilMart’s efforts in boosting the trading of documentary films, Hong Kong-based Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ruby Yang (“The Blood of Yingzhou District”) accused the Hong Kong government of not providing enough support for documentary filmmaking.

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