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Cannes Film Market sidebar Cannes Docs has kicked off as new stats show documentary film in Europe is thriving with the number of productions nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.

This rebound is echoed across film production in general which, according to European Audiovisual Observatory figures, returned to pre-crisis levels in 2021, albeit with significant variations between countries.

There is consensus among industry actors that platforms have played a key role in creating a new appetite for documentary films among audiences, particularly younger viewers.

“I would say the boom comes very much from a change in storytelling, because Netflix came with a new audience for documentary,” says Elodie Polo Ackermann, managing director of Imagissime, one of French media giant Mediawan’s doc film labels.

“Documentary, especially in France, used to be produced in a very traditional style with ‘the voice of God’ – a very journalistic commentary – and the idea of putting the story in the middle of the room was something that pretty much came with Netflix,” adds Ackermann, who produced Netflix’ first documentary original in France, the true crime series “Who Killed Little Gregory?”.

Documentary series, in particular, are the new trend. “The genre was very niche and now streamers prove they can be binged like fiction series, so there is a new appetite for documentary from a world-wide audience.”

A standout example of the boom in doc production is Italy, which saw numbers more than double between 2017 and 2021.

There are multiple factors for this, says Francesco Virga, head of the Italian Documentary Association Doc/it. Besides the impact of streamers, there has also been what he calls “a change of gear on the part of public sector regulators, which have increased budgets for doc through indirect funding such as tax credit schemes.”

Another factor is the growth in the number of distributors specialized in documentary, such as Andrea Romeo’s I Wonder Pictures which brought “Searching for Sugarman” to Italian theaters and audiences just under a decade ago.

While the boom is undeniable, the success of these productions tailor-made for platforms, notably true crime and biographical docs, comes at a cost according to Pierre-Alexis Chevit, the head of Cannes Docs.

“The type of docs that the SVOD platforms include in their catalogue are formatted in many ways and don’t have the same diversity in terms of storytelling,” he says, adding that much of the conversation in the world of documentary filmmaking today centers around the role of the “gatekeepers”.

“It is up to us – funders, commissioning editors, those handing out grants and choosing who should take part in this lab or that workshop – to be aware and as inclusive as possible. Markets also play an important role: What we try to do here in Cannes is give filmmakers a chance to connect with the right people and make their projects move forward, that is vital for the health of doc filmmaking.”

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Who Killed Little Gregory?

That is what Justine Planchon – president of Mediawan Prod which dedicates one third of its content to documentary – is intent on doing. She says the diversity of broadcasters means there is an outlet for every voice, but it is up to producers and commissioners to do their job and scout for talent.

“There is a whole generation of documentary filmmakers who did not wait to be spotted by platforms or producers, especially on social media: TikTok, Snapchat are real talent relays, I am looking a lot in that direction to diversify documentary film production and bring forward a new generation with fresh voices, new ways of writing and telling stories,” she tells Variety.

To answer the growing demand for documentaries, media companies across Europe have been reorganizing or creating dedicated entities. One case in point: Constantin Film, Germany’s most successful production and distribution group, which created Constantin Dokumentation in 2021 following the success of titles like “The Hidden Life of Trees.”

According to Constantin CEO Martin Moszkowicz, “It’s a huge market. We have our own documentary division, mainly for streaming and television, but we also do theatrical documentaries. Documentaries are a huge market, way underserved in many ways. Yes, [there is huge growth potential], definitely in the streaming world, but also in television and, for some titles, theatrical movies.”

In some cases, the best strategy is a combination of all or some of the above, according to Estelle de Araujo, head of TV Sales at Paris-based international sales company The Party Film Sales (“Jane by Charlotte”, Cannes 2021), which works closely with its sister company, French distributor Jour2Fête.

“We’re increasingly working on deals that combine a theatrical release with a TV and/or a platform: This allows us to work on different levels and find a distributor that can bring its expertise to go theatrically on very specific markets, and give as much visibility as possible to the film in movie theaters, sometimes with a special event like a Q&A after the screening. There is a definite appetite from distributors for films that create debate,” she explains.

In a world emerging from a pandemic, where certainties have been deeply shaken, what audiences are looking for are truths and inspiration from real-life stories, says Planchon, who delivered the French Amazon Original documentary series “Orelsan: Don’t Ever Show This to Anyone” about French rapper Orelsan. Co-produced by Mediawan’s Troisième Oeil Productions and Nolita TV, it became a hit in multiple territories. To tell these stories, the European market has all the talent it needs to compete with the North American offer, she says.

The strength, according to Planchon’s Mediawan colleague Ackermann, lies in the numbers: “There is still lots of space that has not been explored yet in documentary film production in Europe. We should join forces: I love doing European co-productions because you can achieve a higher level of production. We also have an increasingly international audience: Culture is less local and more global, and we are telling international stories.”

Cannes Docs runs May 17-May 25 as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Marché du Film. The climax of Cannes Docs, its Doc Day, takes place on Tuesday, May 24. It includes the Docs-in-Progress awards ceremony, the Doc Lovers Mixer cocktail, and a special closing screening, in partnership with the ACID sidebar section.

(Pictured top: “Orelsan: Don’t Ever Show This to Anyone”)