As a cross-section of documentary sales exes winged their way towards the Palais for their first physical Cannes in two years, it wasn’t just the COVID-19 spit tests that marked out the experience as different – the marketplace has also changed, the pandemic exacerbating several trends.
For starters, in terms of investment in new feature-length documentary titles, most sales agents are arriving with co-pro and financing deals in mind, rather than the acquisition of completed films.
The distribution backlog caused by the closure of cinemas in key territories is partly to blame, and the earliest most agents are looking to secure films for distribution is for 2022 and 2023.
“This year I’ve had to say ‘no’ to films I really like and to stop acquiring completed titles and that, to me, is dramatic,” said Anaïs Clanet. partner and head of sales at Paris-based Reservoir Docs.
Deckert Distribution’s Liselott Verbrugge – in Cannes with a couple of fresh Locarno pick ups: Heidi Specogna’s “Stand Up My Beauty” and Francesco Montagner’s “Brotherhood” – noted that the firm usually takes on 12 titles per year, and it had already hit this total by February.
“This makes acquisition a challenge – we still have space, but it is extremely limited,” she added.
The resulting logjam has caused Reservoir Docs to turn its focus to pre-sales, although getting involved earlier in a project’s development process is also now part of the longer-term strategy, according to Clanet.
She is in Cannes seeking a U.S. partner to support Jonathan Demme’s posthumous documentary “Right to Return,” which Clanet’s sales company acquired the worldwide rights to just before the editing stage, with 15 years of footage piled up in the cutting room.
Demme’s film (which his filmmaker son Brooklyn is also heavily involved in) focuses on New Orleans’ physical and spiritual recovery after Hurricane Katrina and the doc firm is working on a rough cut to show buyers by the end of July.
“We want to participate in the editing and have a creative input. Our aim is to come on board as early as possible – with the best filmmakers you have to be there early – but it must also feed our catalogue – with political, societal or cultural twists,” Clanet added.
U.K. firm Dogwoof, a vertically-integrated company with a theatrical distribution business, sales agency and production finance arm, is preparing to push even deeper into production, following earlier financial support for titles such as “Halston” and “Westwood.”
“We’ll make some development and production hires shortly and at that point will outline a couple of titles where we’ve come onboard as creative co producers,” revealed Dogwoof head of sales Ana Vicente.
She added: “Production is something we were planning pre-pandemic: the popularity of the feature-length doc makes completed titles very difficult to acquire; co-producing allows us to secure a stake in the IP and have a hand in the development and packaging of the project,” she added.
During the pandemic, the firm also launched its own direct-to-consumer platform,Dogwoof On Demand, to exploit its catalogue and provide a home for pick-ups that may not have received the fanfare of bigger festival hitters such as “Mole Agent”, “Collective” and “I Am Greta”.
Moving forward, Vicente said that Dogwoof is hoping to expand its on demand platform into other territories, using film festivals as launch pads and targeting countries such as France and Germany where the broadcast rights may have been sold but the digital windows remain open.
Alongside its own platform Vicente added that Dogwoof continues to be a regular distribution and sales partner for U.S. companies including Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney Plus.
U.K. and Netherlands producer distributor Off The Fence (“My Octopus Teacher”) meanwhile has announced a rethink of its business models around serving these streamers as well as the newly-merged media monoliths.
In a press briefing on July 8, OTF CEO Bo Stehmeier said that strategy overhaul also sought to exploit opportunities provided by Europe’s new streaming rules, which he said would open up the market further for agile and nimble factual producers.
This expected boom, however, may not translate to smaller European sales agents who say that big streamers are more focused on their own in-house projects and co-pros, rather than completed titles.
Clanet said that even perennially popular English-language titles in her catalogue, such as “Black Power Mix Tape” “which would have been perfect for the streamers last year,” had failed to sell in.
“I think this may change – because the audience for platforms such as Netflix are getting older – 40-plus – which is the right target for arts and culture documentaries,” added Clanet.
Film festivals, which invested heavily in virtual platforms over the pandemic, also now have skin in the game and are likely to invest further, potentially demanding exclusive rights, according to Salma Abdalla, CEO at Austria-based “For Sama” sales agent Autlook.
“SVoD rights are new gold so we are being very careful and very strategic with how we are working,” she added.
Abdalla, whose Cannes line-up includes the currently-in-post title “Dean Martin: King of Cool” said that her company has also become more involved in early stage finance, on projects such as “Senseless” – an Israeli film about military conscription by “5 Broken Cameras” director Guy Davidi.
According to Deckert ‘s Verbrugge, not all feature length docs thrive on platforms: There are some titles – such as Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter’s Russian film “Space Dogs” – that were kept off digital in Japan, Taiwan and Australia, waiting for theatres to reopen in these territories, simply because “cinema was the best place for them.”
A digital environment certainly doesn’t appear to be the best place to conduct business, according to the sales agents Variety spoke with, with most relying on their own existing networks to keep in touch with buyers during the pandemic.
“Virtual festivals and events have tended to focus on producers pitching and creating a platform for them and not so much on the business part: Sales agents meetings tend to be limited to acquisitions and do not necessarily facilitate meeting with buyers,” Verbrugge noted.
Abdalla – who has been mixing virtual meetings with face-to-face ones at the Cannes Film Market this week – added that digital platforms have been good “for meeting people you wouldn’t normally have access to during Cannes.”
However, most would admit that spitting into a vial is a small price to pay to reconnect with the physical world of festivals again, as Verbrugge noted:
“Cannes is an important symbolic step, even though not everyone will be there, it’s the incentive we need to get everything flowing again. We have missed each other’s energy.”