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Braun Brothers Sail Their Submarine Into Oscar Doc Waters

Heading into sundance 2020, twin brothers Josh and Dan Braun keep fielding the same question: “What is this year’s ‘Honeyland?’”

It’s not a surprising question because the Braun brothers are the co-founders and co-presidents of Submarine Entertainment, the New York-based sales, production and distribution company that sold Oscar-nominated “Honeyland” to Neon 12 months ago after its Sundance premiere.

What is surprising is that, according to Josh, all those inquiring are “of course buyers who passed on ‘Honeyland’ last year.”

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, “Honeyland,” about a nomadic Macedonian beekeeper, garnered three 2019 Sundance awards. Earlier this month, the doc made history when it became the first nonfiction feature to be nominated for documentary and international film Academy Awards
in the same year.

In addition to “Honeyland,” Submarine is also behind the sale of two other Oscar-nominated docs: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s “American Factory” and Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy.” Josh Braun served as an executive producer “The Edge of Democracy.”

Submarine sold both films after their Sundance 2019 premieres to Netflix.

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Last year, Submarine also brokered a deal with Amazon for the rights to Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang’s “One Child Nation,” which made the doc Oscar shortlist. About China’s previously enforced one-child policy, “One Child Nation” garnered the 2019 Sundance U.S. documentary grand jury prize. It marked the fifth time in five years that a Submarine film won the category. The four previous winners were Derek Doneen’s “The Price of Free,” Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s “Dina,” Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s “Weiner” and Crystal Moselle’s “The Wolfpack.”

Launched in 1998, Submarine has become the go-to sales company for nonfiction films. Their criteria are the films that “hit us in a visceral way,” the brothers say. Music, pop culture and true crime are just a few of the subject matters the brothers gravitate toward. (Submarine is behind true crime hits including
“The Keepers,” “Wild Wild Country” and “Evil Genius.”)

With a robust slate consisting of 13 documentaries seeking distribution, this year the company may have more than one “Honeyland” up its sleeve. Prior to Sundance, the Braun brothers sold David France’s doc “Welcome to Chechnya,” about a group of activists risking their lives to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ persecution in the Russian republic of Chechnya, to HBO Documentary Films. The duo also presold “Crip Camp” to Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Prods. and Netflix. “Crip Camp,” which tells the story of a camp for disabled teenagers in upstate New York, opened Sundance this year. It marks the eighth time in eight years that a Submarine-repped doc, including Academy Award winners “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) and “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013), opened Sundance.

“It’s a weird thing,” Josh says. [Opening night] is not something we have ever lobbied for.”

Morgan Neville, helmer of “20 Feet From Stardom,” remembers that night. “After having this incredible screening, Josh, Dan and I spent the next 12 hours traveling from condo to condo meeting with different distributors who were making offers on the film,” Neville says. “It was this old-school Sundance experience, but one of my producers — somebody who came out of the music industry — said as we were driving from one condo to another at 5 a.m., ‘I’ve never seen somebody do business like this. Are you telling me that if we don’t sell it tonight, we’re missing something?’ And Josh said, ‘Tonight, we’re the one documentary that’s for sale and we’re the belle of the ball and everybody’s interested. But tomorrow there are 30 more great films opening and the day after there will be 30 more. If we don’t sell this film tonight we are missing a huge opportunity.’ In that moment Josh brought his expertise and he was 100% right.”

Radius-TWC won out that night when it bought the film’s North American rights. Following that experience, Neville hired the Braun brothers to sell his 2015 docs “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” and “Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal.” WME co-sold “Best of Enemies” with Submarine.

“The documentary community is small and there are only a few people who are exceptionally good at navigating that [sales] world,” Neville says. “Josh and Dan are both film nerds in the best possible way. They aren’t slick. They are very unorthodox and aren’t selling for a big agency. They love art, music and they love weird, so they take on films that are not just slam dunks, but films that can also be tough to sell.”

In addition to sales, the Braun brothers produce and develop. Submarine has two projects in production and about 15 in development. But Dan says 60% of business comes from sales while 40% stems from production and distribution via Submarine Deluxe, the company’s boutique distribution platform.

The brothers have also worked extensively in the narrative fiction space and found homes for Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and back in 2015 were behind Mark and Jay Duplass’ seven-picture distribution deal with the Orchard.

But, “we inevitably veer towards the docs,” Josh says. “So I guess it’s becoming more of a trend that it’s an all-doc lineup.”
This year’s Submarine sales lineup includes the political coming-of-age doc “Boys State”; “The Fight,” about ACLU’s egal battles; and Ryan White’s “The Assassin” (co-repped with Endeavor), about the mysterious murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s brother in Malaysia.

“I’ve worked with Josh since the beginning of my career,” says White. “We usually begin strategizing the distribution path for my films before anything has even been shot. So, for me, [Josh] is not your stereotypical sales agent that swoops in at the end and represents a film when it gets into Sundance. He’s part of the process from the beginning.”

The brothers’ understanding of nonfiction films’ shifting market as well as the genre’s fickle trends is unrivaled.

This year, with the need for content at an all-time high due to new streamers hitting the scene, including Apple, Disney
and HBO Max and WarnerMedia, Dan says Sundance 2020 will be the testing ground for the health of the doc market. And despite corporations backing many streamers, as well as Apple’s recent decision to drop Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s sexual-assault docu, “On the Record,” the Braun brothers reject the idea that the nonfiction space has moved to a corporate age in which all fare must be “safe.”

White’s “Assassin” is one of many geopolitical films heading to Sundance, but despite selling his past films to Netflix and Hulu, Josh and Dan aren’t sure if his latest doc will appeal to streamers due to the film’s North Korea focus and the 2014 Sony hack.

“We would completely understand if any company interested in that film would be hesitant,” says Josh. “But it’s an incredible story with gripping material. So I think maybe the biggest, most corporate companies would have to think twice, but at the same time they also might say, ‘Well this film is good enough that we want to take a chance.’ But that is absolutely a perfect example of a film that has some potential controversy baked in and maybe the right distributor would actually embrace that and take advantage of it.”

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