THE DISTRIBUTION BULLETIN #36

Thursday, February 21, 2019

SPECIAL REPORT:  SUNDANCE RULES




Every independent filmmaker should learn the lessons of Sundance. This year’s Festival revealed critically important developments in the indie ecosystem. Women broke through and extraordinary sales demonstrated a growing demand for independent content.

 

I’ve been regularly attending the Sundance Film Festival for decades. In 10 nonstop days this year, I saw 31 films. My teammate Keith Ochwat and I also organized 25 meetings with filmmakers and other colleagues. Sundance 2019 was immersive, challenging, and exhilarating.

 

Two and a half weeks after exiting the whirlwind, I have had time to take in post-festival developments and try to make sense of it all.

 

This year’s Festival was one of the best in years. Sundance strengthened its position as the top film festival in the US. It is also the most important film festival for American independent filmmakers in the world.

 

Sundance is where so many promising careers and exceptional films are launched every year. The key to Sundance’s continued success has been excellent curation. US distributors and the press rely on Sundance to present a selection of the best new independent films every January.

 

Almost every filmmaker in the US and many filmmakers abroad would like to premiere their films there. All the films at the Festival have an unparalleled opportunity to be seen by the industry and the media. This year the Festival’s programmers got to choose from 4,018 independent feature submissions, 2,293 narratives and 1,725 documentaries.

 

Women Crash Through the Celluloid Ceiling

 

The most important change at Sundance this year was the unprecedented success of women. US Dramatic Competition included nine films directed or co-directed by women and eight films directed or co-directed by men. This was a remarkable change from the consistent selection in each of the previous four years of eleven films directed by men and five directed by women. This year’s percentages: 53% women/ 41% people of color/ 18% who identify as LGBTQIA+

 

US Documentary Competition included ten films directed or co-directed by men and eight films directed or co-directed by women. 44% women/ 22% people of color/ 5% LGBTQIA+

 

Other categories at this year’s Sundance had lower percentages of women.  Midnight included eight male directors and two female directors, which probably reflects the lack of parity among indie directors making genre films.

 

Overall women directed 39% of the dramatic and documentary features in all sections of the Festival.  

 

These numbers contrast with those of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, which included three films directed by women in its twenty-one film main competition section, equaling 14%. The contrast with Hollywood was even starker, where in 2018 women directed 4% of the 100 highest grossing films, down from 8% in 2017.

 

The impact of films by women far outstripped their numbers. Audiences, critics, juries, and buyers all responded enthusiastically. All four Sundance Grand Jury prizes were won by films directed or co-directed by women. Of the five Audience Awards winners, three were directed or co-directed by women.

 

Thirteen of the twenty-three Sundance award-winning films were directed or co-directed by women. Eight were directed by one or more people of color.

 

Critics gave their highest praise to films directed by women. In IndieWire’s Critics Survey of 102 journalists:

  • four of the top five features were directed by women
  • two of the top five docs were directed by women
  • four of the five best feature directors were women

Distributors most avidly pursued films by and about women. Women directed five of the seven films that sold for the highest prices:

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT ($15m)
LATE NIGHT ($13m)
KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE ($10m)
THE FAREWELL ($6m)
HONEY BOY ($5m)


A sixth film focuses on a central female character:

BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON ($14m)

 

AOC at Sundance
AOC Skypes in to KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE premiere.



The hottest documentary at Sundance was KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE. Directed by Rachel Lears, it spotlights Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other women who also ran for Congress in 2018. I attended the rousing world premiere. AOC Skyped in from DC and received a standing ovation. Following the Festival, the film won Sundance’s top Audience Award — the Festival Favorite Award. The next day the story broke that KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE had been acquired by Netflix for $10 million. This appears to be the highest price ever paid for a documentary at  any  festival.

 

Just before Sundance, the Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary Feature were announced. All five films were produced or co-produced by women, two were directed or co-directed by women, and there were no white, male directors among the nominees.

 

Record-Breaking Acquisitions


Acquisitions at Sundance 2019 were at a fever pitch, breaking all past records. Following the Festival, Andreas Wiseman wrote in Deadline Hollywood that “buyers stumped up more than $120 million on almost 40 movies…”  Since this article appeared more sales have been announced. Many reports on Festival sales did not reveal the price of the acquisitions.

 

Sales were at a level never seen before. The top six feature sales were $15 million, $14 million, $14 million, $13 million, $6 million, and $5 million. Docs sold for $10 million, $3 million, under $3 million, $2 million, under $1 million, and for many undisclosed amounts. The percentage of docs acquired from US Documentary Competition may have been the highest ever.

 

One catalyst for the intense sales activity was Amazon. It made a statement early, buying LATE NIGHT for $13 million. Amazon continued on a buying spree, purchasing four features and one doc for more than $46 million, apparently the most one company has ever spent at a single festival.

 

A key catalyst for the doc sales at Sundance this year was the remarkable theatrical success last year of four documentaries. Three had premiered at Sundance 2018: WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR ($23 million), RBG ($14 million), and THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS? ($12 million). The other hit was  FREE SOLO (with a currently estimated box office of $16 million.) Including these four films, The Wrap reported that fifteen documentaries made over $1 million in 2018.These historic results clearly demonstrate that the audience for documentaries has grown significantly and is continuing to expand.

 

Netflix has played a central role in growing the audience for nonfiction worldwide. MAKING A MURDERER has attracted large numbers of viewers from the US to the Philippines. The importance Netflix places on documentaries was reflected by the two docs it had in the Festival – THE GREAT HACK and THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY and the two docs it bought – AMERICAN FACTORY for under $3 million and KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE for $10 million.

 

Hulu had ASK DR. RUTH in the Festival and acquired the UNTITLED AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY for $2 million, and JAWLINE. Amazon bought ONE CHILD NATION for high six figures.


ONE CHILD NATION


The most active theatrical distributor at Sundance was Magnolia, which had done so well in 2018 with RBG, and with I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO in 2017. Magnolia had THE BRINK and HAIL SATAN? in the Festival, and acquired COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD, MIKE WALLACE IS HERE, and TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM.

 

Sony Pictures Classics had MAIDEN in Sundance and acquired WHERE’S MY ROY COHN? and DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER MY NAME.  Neon, which had succeeded with THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS, had APOLLO 11 and THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM in Sundance, and acquired HONEYLAND.

 

National Geographic, which has done extremely well with FREE SOLO, acquired SEA OF SHADOWS for $3 million. HBO had MOONLIGHT SONATA and LEAVING NEVERLAND in Sundance. Focus Features, which had a major success with WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, announced no documentary acquisitions.

 

Outstanding Documentaries

 

The overall quality of documentaries was exceptional. While documentaries are consistently strong at Sundance, this was the highest quality selection in many years. Here are the most outstanding documentaries I saw this year:

 

AMERICAN FACTORY

BEDLAM

COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD

HONEYLAND

KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE

MOONLIGHT SONATA

ONE CHILD NATION

RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS

THE BRINK

THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY

THE GREAT HACK

THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY

UNTITLED AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY

WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?

 

These are far more excellent films than I have seen at any previous Sundance. Of these fifteen films, six were directed by women, six were directed by men, and three were co-directed by a man and a woman. There has never been a 50/50 split between male and female directors before among my favorite docs at Sundance.

 
The Famous and the Infamous



Molly Ivins in RAISE HELL: THE LIFE & TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS

This year a very large number of documentaries focused on famous or infamous figures:

ASK DR. RUTH - Dr. Ruth Westheimer
DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER MY NAME - David Crosby
HALSTON - Halston
KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
LEAVING NEVERLAND - Michael Jackson
MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE - Leonard Cohen
MIKE WALLACE IS HERE - Mike Wallace
MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL - Miles Davis
RAISE HELL: THE LIFE & TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS - Molly Ivins
STIEG LARSSON: THE MAN WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE –Stieg Larsson
THE BRINK - Steve Bannon
THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY – Elizabeth Holmes

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM - Toni Morrison

UNTOUCHABLE - Harvey Weinstein

WHERE’S MY ROY COHN? - Roy Cohn

WU-TANG CLAN: OF MICS AND MEN - Wu-Tang Clan

 

The percentage of documentaries focused on well-known figures was the highest in years. This reflects the fact that it is harder to finance and sell documentaries that do not highlight prominent people. Two of the three films from last year’s Sundance that were theatrical successes in 2018 centered on singular figures (RBG and Mister Rogers) with major fan bases.

 

A mediocre documentary about a well-known figure is much more likely to find distribution and attract an audience than a mediocre doc without one. A number of the excellent docs about the famous and infamous at this year’s Festival have the potential to break out theatrically and/or online.

 

These titles suggest that if your documentary is a mostly positive portrait of a famous person, you should include her or his name in the title (ASK DR. RUTH, MIKE WALLACE IS HERE, STIEG LARSSON: THE MAN WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE). If it is going to be a negative portrait of an infamous person, avoid using their name (LEAVING NEVERLAND, UNTOUCHABLE, THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY).

 

The Fight for Democracy

 

Amidst the great diversity of docs shown at the Festival this year, one urgent theme stood out — the fight for democracy. Nine documentaries made a persuasive, collective case that genuine democracy is fragile and requires ongoing efforts to protect and preserve.

 

RAISE HELL: THE LIFE & TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS, STIEG LARSSON: THE MAN WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, and MIKE WALLACE IS HERE each show the importance of courageous journalists, who can expose hypocrisy and corruption or unmask fascist organizations.

 

THE GREAT HACK uncovers the efforts of Cambridge Analytica to use data to subvert democracy. WHERE’S MY ROY COHN? shows how the legal system can be subverted to assist organized crime and right-wing demagogues. THE BRINK reveals how far-right politicians and their movements are attempting to join together in a “global populist movement.” THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY shows democracy in Brazil under attack. COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD makes a persuasive case that the UN Secretary General was assassinated because of his efforts to assure the independence of African countries that had been controlled by colonial powers and powerful corporations.


Poster for COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD


KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE is an inspiring antidote to these cautionary tales.

 

Two strong features complemented these docs. THE REPORT tells the true story of the dramatic fight to research and publish the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. OFFICIAL SECRETS dramatizes the true story of a British secret service officer’s attempt to prevent the Iraq War by leaking a top-secret memo.

 

Together these 11 films expose major threats to democracy and the essential roles played by journalists, dedicated politicians, courageous government staff, and determined filmmakers to battle them.

 

Sundance as Crystal Ball

 

Success at Sundance can be a predictor of things to come. Three of the four highest grossing docs of 2018 premiered at Sundance 2018. Four of the five 2019 Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary also premiered at Sundance 2018. If FREE SOLO had been completed in time for Sundance 2018 (the filmmakers’ previous documentary MERU won the Documentary Audience Award at Sundance 2015), Sundance would have been four for four of highest grossing 2018 docs and five of five for Academy Award nominees.

 

Sundance programmers are abetted by the staffs of the Sundance Documentary Film Program and the Sundance Feature Film Program, which provide support to   documentaries and features. Every Festival includes a significant number of films that have been supported by these programs.

 

Twelve of the docs at Sundance this year had been supported by the DFP. At Sundance 2018, there were thirteen DFP supported films, and at Sundance 2017, there were eighteen. Three of the five 2019 feature doc Academy Award nominees had received support from the DFP.

 

Ten of the features at Sundance this year had received support from the Feature Film Program. At Sundance 2018, there were twelve FFP supported films, and at Sundance 2017 there were ten.

 

Sundance films will surely be included among the 2020 Academy Award nominees.  The New York Times and IndieWire have already predicted the docs and features most likely to be nominated in 2020.

 

Three of the documentaries picked by IndieWire (THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, MAIDEN, and ELEPHANT QUEEN) had premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and were acquired for distribution prior to Sundance. However, Sundance also found a place for them in the Festival. If they are nominated and/or do well commercially, Sundance will receive some credit even though they weren’t premieres.

 

 

A Golden Age

 

After Sundance 2019, Mike Fleming wrote in Deadline Hollywood that “documentary films have entered an unprecedented Golden Age, one that is only going to get better, as studio-backed subscription services seek out films in the next year or two as they voraciously fill a need for product.” This was followed by a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered heralding “an undeniable golden age for documentary filmmaking.”

 

I hope we are at the beginning of a Golden Age but it will require progress on several fronts to achieve. A few theatrical hits and a buyer’s market at Sundance are not enough. Nor can we depend on demand from new streaming services which may focus on financing original content instead of relying on acquisitions. This is what Netflix has done, supplementing originals with a limited number of acquisitions. There’s also no guarantee that the content that the new studio streaming services plan to present will include quality documentaries like those selected by Sundance and nominated for Academy Awards.


HONEYLAND


It is important to remember all the documentaries that weren’t at Sundance.  For US docs, the acceptance rate for US Documentary Competition was 2%. If you take away the six slots taken by Sundance-supported films, the acceptance rate for the other films was 1.2% For international docs, the acceptance rate for World Cinema Documentary Competition was 1.25%. If you subtract the three slots taken by Sundance-supported films, the acceptance rate for the other docs was .94%.  


For US features, the acceptance rate for US Dramatic Competition was 1.6%. Taking away the seven slots taken by Sundance-supported films, the acceptance rate for other features was .9%. For international features, the acceptance rate for World Cinema Dramatic Competition was .92%. [These percentages only apply to competition films; if Next, Premieres, Midnight and other sections are included, the overall acceptance of dramatic and documentary features at Sundance was 3%.]

 

In our society there is a great disparity between the opportunities for the 1% and the 99%. For independent filmmakers, there is also a great disparity between the opportunities for the 3% chosen by Sundance and the remaining 97%.


This disparity is not Sundance’s fault. The Festival can only include a limited number of films (this year 121 features and documentaries). There are many strong festivals around the world that showcase other excellent films and talented filmmakers. But with the exception of Cannes and Toronto, these films and filmmakers do not get as much attention as they deserve. Distributors and the press rely on Sundance to present outstanding films to them. Few companies and publications go much further to proactively discover the wealth of emerging talent around the world.

 

A sustainable Golden Age will require the best films made by the 97% as well as the best films made by the 3%. Fortunately, there is an exciting New World of Distribution that has created unprecedented opportunities for all independent filmmakers.

 

The bottom line about Sundance:


  • Sundance is the most important festival for American independents
  • Opportunity -- increases your chances of finding distribution, getting press coverage, being invited to other festivals, winning awards, and finding support for future films and your career
  • Challenge -- odds of getting in are very small
  • Previous support from the Sundance Feature and Documentary programs will greatly improve your odds
  • Sundance prioritizes finding excellent films from women and diverse filmmakers
  • Do not apply before your film is in its best shape

 

There is very good news for the mass of filmmakers who don’t get into Sundance. By splitting rights, they can have much greater control of their distribution than Sundance filmmakers who give all their rights to one distributor.

 

There is increasing demand for independent content and a growing audience for it. There are new models for talented and determined independents that don’t require major festivals.

 

The bottom line beyond Sundance:


  • Design a flexible and customized distribution strategy that will work for your film whether it goes to Sundance or not
  • Build an experienced distribution team
  • Engage directly with your core audiences as early as possible
  • Find partners who can help you implement your strategy rather than fitting into someone else’s  
  • Be targeted, proactive, and nimble, refining your strategy stage by stage


                                                                              -Peter Broderick



NOTE: Here is a link to the podcast about Sundance 2019 that I did with Peter Hamilton: https://bit.ly/2BIEppw    Peter is one of the world’s leading consultants on the financing, production, and distribution of documentaries. I recommend that you visit his website at https://www.documentarytelevision.com/ and subscribe to his weekly newsletter about the documentary business: https://bit.ly/2Xf7rX9

 

© 2019 Peter Broderick


----------------------------------------------------------------

[To view this and other distribution bulletins looking their best, click here]

The Distribution Bulletin is published by Paradigm Consulting, 708 Euclid St., Santa Monica, CA 90402. 


To SUBSCRIBE,

 

more