If the Cannes Market’s Doc Corner, a hub for feature documentary filmmakers and executives, feels more crowded this year, it may have to do with the strong theatrical performance of features docs such as “Free Solo” and “Amazing Grace,” and the slew of U.S. and international titles acquired or admired at Sundance (“Knock Down the House,” “Sea of Shadows”), SXSW (“For Sama”) and Tribeca (“The Apollo”). The combination of the box office and quality product is stoking a competitive marketplace not just in acquisitions but, increasingly, in pre-production involvement.
“With a clear acceleration this decade, feature docs have imposed themselves as a major, indispensable part of the film industry, generating business and revenues, and enabling a strong ecosystem to structure itself, with specialized festivals playing a major role,” says Pierre-Alexis Chevit, project manager of Doc Corner and its conference-style Doc Day on May 21.
Chevit says one of the major talking points in the sector is “inclusion and diversity, in terms of who’s making films, but also who is getting funded and selected.”
Another key area, he says, is “impact producing” – the use of films to drive societal change as part of a broader campaign. “The champions in this area are probably Doc Society’s Good Pitch,” he adds.
The popularity and prestige of features docs is playing out across streamers, traditional cinema and broadcast. Creative use of rarely or never-before-seen archive (employing cutting-edge technologies) and adventurous approaches to reenactment are sparking audience and buyer excitement. And, thanks to the synergy between platforms, more docs are reaching audiences outside their regional bases than ever before.
As filmmakers bring innovative ideas and approaches to familiar doc subject matter, audiences are developing an appetite for intimate explorations of hot-button issues and global politics; artful biopics on celebs from the worlds of entertainment, politics and business; and revealing, immersive takes on stories or events they thought they knew — or want to know better.
The docs in Cannes’ Special Screenings offer a snapshot: SXSW doc jury award-winner “For Sama,” about 26-year-old Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, who directed with Edward Watts, for PBS “Frontline” and Channel 4; “5B,” Dan Krauss’ HIV/AIDS crisis documentary, recently acquired by Verizon Media; HBO’s climate-change doc “Ice on Fire,” directed by Leila Conners, whose 2011 doc “The 11th House” screened in Cannes (both produced by Leonardo DiCaprio); and “La Cordillera de los suenos” by acclaimed Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman, a personal visual essay and historical inquiry into the past and present of his country.
The latest sign that docs will remain hot commodities on global fest and market circuits this year was evidenced by HBO’s U.S. TV and streaming rights pickup earlier this month of “Amy” director Asif Kapadia’s sports doc “Diego Maradona,” ahead of its world premiere as an Official Selection, screening out of competition.
“What we’ve seen is a genuine, theatrical audience for docs not only in North America but around the world, and there’s a definite trend with iconic figures, where these films are seen as theatrical projects with a strong pre-sale market,” says Mike Runagall, managing director of London’s Altitude Film Sales, which took Kevin Macdonald’s “Whitney” to Cannes Market in 2016 and sold it worldwide in a few days.
Altitude, which is handling “Maradona” internationally, will this year be chatting up two highly anticipated titles, which it expects to unveil at fall festivals: James Erskine’s “Billie,” and Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s “Chasing Chaplin,” the filmmakers of which are finding “fascinating ways to bring unique archival material to life,” Runagall continues, adding, “the niche [Altitude] is trying to occupy is taking these icons plus the perspectives of singular filmmakers to theatrical audiences around the world.”
Neon release “Three Identical Strangers” had a strong premiere on CNN “with no name talent or related news event,” says CNN Films vice president Courtney Sexton, who expects “Apollo 11,” which has grossed more than $8.5 million for Neon at the U.S. box office, to perform well when it airs in June.
“The success of many docs over the past couple of years has made the landscape more competitive; acquisitions have become harder and harder,” Sexton says. Like many companies involved with docs, CNN — whose recent titles include “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” and “Halston” — is increasingly boarding projects at an early stage. “We’re sometimes fully financing, or putting in more than we used to, all of that in an effort to get these docs in our pipeline and so we can be full-fledged partners,” she adds.
“The large number of platforms is exposing more people to documentaries and creating an audience that wasn’t there before — and some of them want to try out documentaries in the cinema,” says Ana Vicente, head of sales at London-based Dogwoof, a doc production, finance, sales and distribution company that has released 24 Oscar-nominated titles.
Dogwoof’s robust Cannes slate includes, among others, Midge Costin’s “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” which is screening as an Official Selection in Cannes Classics, Richard Lowenstein’s “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” and Elizabeth Carrol’s SXSW Special Jury Award-winning “Nothing Fancy: Diane Kennedy,” about the 92-year-old British chef, author and Mexican cuisine authority.
“We also released ‘Bill Cunningham: New York’ and ‘Iris’ in the U.K.,” Vicente says, “and we have found that these portraits of characters that are mature have proven to be a very interesting way to engage audiences with storytelling and subjects.”
Reframing docs as films “first and foremost,” not separate from fiction, has been a key strategy for Neon, says head of distribution Elissa Federoff, pointing to recent box office hits “Apollo 11” and “Amazing Grace” as “very different films that are both 50 years in the making and truly experiential films.”
“I have no proof of this, but I think our world is in such a crazy bizarre place, and is often disappointing for a lot of us, and anything long-form has pretty much disappeared,” Federoff says. “And so documentary has been a way for people to get into long-form storytelling and become a place where people can go to experience human-interest stories or something in depth about their political hero or find a new hero.”