As The Sundance Film Festival kicked off last Thursday in Park City, Utah, one surprising trend has emerged; docs are selling! Thus, today we’re exploring this appetite for documentaries. So, bundle up kids, because docs are as cool as the air in Park City.
DOCS, DOCS and MORE DOC SALES!
After being on the sales version of death row for a few years, documentaries are finding homes again. During the first cluster of days of the festival, Sundance Selects picked up Nick Ryan’s “The Summit,” a documentary about and K2 mountain climbers, and Richard Rowley’s “Dirty Wars,” a political doc about digging up America’s most secret “dirt.”
Furthermore, The Weinstein Company bought “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” a cool doc about backup singers, and Showtime nabbed, “History of the Eagles,” a documentary on the Eagles. The best news is these first four doc sales are just that – the first four, meaning we should expect a blizzard – or at least a flurry of doc sales before the end of the festival. In fact, Sundance, 2013 is buzzing so much, that this may become a landmark year when the distributors checkbooks treated documentaries as good (or better) than feature films.
DOC SALES SIGNAL HEALTHIER VOD and CABLE OPTIONS
Distributors wouldn’t be snatching up documentaries this early in the year, unless they felt confident they could earn a healthy return on their acquisition. Thus, expect video on demand and cable outlets to provide greater income for documentaries this year than it did in years past. While I doubt documentarians will be able to retire on this upswing of values for their work, money is money, and more of it is always better than less of it.
INTERNATIONAL BUYERS TAKING NOTICE
Since Sundance started, I’ve received a handful of emails from international buyers, asking my advice on where to stay in Park City for Sundance, 2014. That’s right; curious buyers are starting to identify Sundance as a platform for high-quality documentaries, and so they are planning on attending next year. Yes, my sample size of buyers interested in Sundance docs is rather small, but the buzz is already out on the street, in many streets, in many countries, so the interest will only grow.
STAR POWER IS OFTEN TIMES NEEDED, EVEN IN DOCS
Just because documentaries may be the flavor of the month (and maybe year), many of them still need “star”, or “star-adjacent” power in order to get picked up by a major studio. While this isn’t the case 100% of the time, it certainly was the rules of engagement for “History of the Eagles” and “Twenty Feet From Stardom.” Simply put, buying a documentary about a known entity (like the Eagles, for example) severely limits the distributor’s risk, because there are millions of Eagles fans who will either watch their doc on cable, DVD or download it. Thus, for those of you currently making a documentary, try to get a 3,000-pound gorilla involved early on. In other words, if you land yourself an A-list executive producer, narrator or better yet, an A-list subject for your doc, then in the eyes of distributors, your doc will surge ahead of more than 99% of all documentaries in the current marketplace.
DOC SALES PRICES AREN’T REPORTED BECAUSE….
Most doc sale prices are so insignificant, that studios don’t want to disclose how little they paid. Filmmakers usually don’t want these deals reported either, because many of these deals will only pay back the doc’s production costs. Thus, filmmakers don’t always see a profit from getting their docs distributed. Of course, some documentaries make substantial profits, but as a rule of thumb, if the price of the sale isn’t reported, it’s usually because the sales price will take the media shine off of the sale.
Indie docs are back in favor with distributors, which is the first sign that the 2013 landscape of indie film values may not suck!
Okay, that’s what I have for you today. I thank you once again for lending me your eyes, and I look forward to borrowing them next Tuesday, when we explore the climate for indie feature film sales at Sundance, 2013. Until then, stay warm!
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