The feature documentary is booming.
That’s the message from Sundance 2019.
- Reported bids for rights approach $20 million.
- Topping the list is Knock Down the House, the Sundance Audience Award winner that captures the run for Congress in 2018 of the “AOC” superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
- The SVOD giant reportedly bid $10 million for worldwide rights.
- That’s double the previous known Sundance record: $5 million for Icarus.
Here is the list, followed by my Takeaways:
Sundance Documentaries: Reported Acquisitions
(Partial List / Work in Progress, February 2019)
|Title||Participating||Buyer / Distributor||Fee Estimate||Award|
|Sea of Shadows||Leo DiCaprio, Terra Mater Factual Studios||Nat Geo Films||$3 million worldwide||Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary|
|A thriller doc follows wildlife activists, the Mexican navy and undercover investigators as they take on the Mexican and Chinese criminals whose illegal fishing threatens a whale species.|
|“Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary”||Hulu||$2 million|
|An as-yet-untitled documentary on magician The Amazing Johnathan.|
|Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen||Ava DuVernay||DuVernay’s distrib company ARRAY||NA|
|Chronicles the life of late New Zealand filmmaker and former Sundance Institute adviser Merata Mita.|
|David Crosby: Remember My Name||Cameron Crowe||Sony Pictures Classics||$1 million /|
“Low 7 figures”
|The 50-year career of the Crosby, Stills & Nash singer|
|Hala||Jada Pinkett Smith||Apple||NA|
|Chronicles a 17-year-old’s plight to balance her traditional Muslim household with her modern schooling|
|Halston||CNN Films, Halston, Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Joel Schumacher||The Orchard / for theatrical and home, CNN||NA|
|About American fashion designer Halston|
|The Brink||CNN Films, Steve Bannon||Magnolia Pictures, CNN||NA|
|A fly-on-the-wall chronicle of rightwing flamethrower, media executive and ex-White House strategist Steve Bannon|
|“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men”||Wu-Tang Clan||Showtime||NA|
|A docuseries on seminal hip-hop collective|
|Ask Dr. Ruth||Dr Ruth||Hulu/ Magnolia/ AGC||NA|
|Biodoc on pioneering TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer|
|Knock Down the House||AOC||Netflix||$10 million worldwide||Audience prize for best U.S. Documentary|
|Four extraordinary ordinary women run for Congress in 2018, battling political machines in different U.S. landscapes. One of them becomes a superstar. (Pic below)|
|American Factory||Participant Media||Netflix||$3 million worldwide||Best Director award, U.S. documentary|
|In post-industrial Ohio, a Chinese billionaire opens a factory in an abandoned GM plant, hiring 2,000 blue-collar Americans. Optimism gives way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.|
(See Notes below)
- Netflix is driving the boom.
- The documentary category is affordable:
- Budgets are a fraction of those for Scripted features and series.
- And yet docs win generous press coverage and prestigious awards.
- Indie scripted movies produced at greater cost but with unknown actors just vanish into the night of never-seen projects.
- Documentaries are a proven positive factor in subscriber satisfaction and retention.
How They Buy
- The SVOD giant had swung from acquisitions to commissions in recent years.
- Its Documentary unit develops projects with A-List directors and producers.
- The word “auteur” is spoken with a straight face inside Netflix’s HQ.
- The films are often about A-List celebrity subjects.
- The word on Netflix films:
- “If it is made by a B-Lister or unknown, then it better be about Steven Spielberg”
- “And if its about a B-Lister or unknown, then it better be produced by Steven Spielberg.”
- But Netflix is finding that the must-have hit titles and award-winners can’t be predicted by an internal development team.
- Most hits like Knock Down The House are developed by independent creatives.
- These filmmakers harvest some special magic that makes their film a standout, like picking AOC as a subject ahead of her shocking victory.
Netflix is racing to fortify its dominant OTT brand and subscriber base against intensifying competition for breakthrough projects, including from:
- OTT services like Hulu.
- Emerging platforms like Disney.
- Apple is expected to launch its service in 3Q’19, with billions earmarked for spending on content.
- Amazon Prime, YouTube and others are expected to ramp up their spend on premium content.
- Legacy channels, including HBO, CNN and Nat Geo are curating and delivering hits in the premium unscripted category.
- International players are taking on Netflix in their own territories.
Winning the Lottery
- Theatrical distributors are motivated by the box office success in 2018 of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22 million) and RBG ($14 million).
- And with $20 million on the table at Sundance, the documentary category suddenly looks like a goldfield for producers rather than the charity it has so often resembled in the past.
More Reading + Listening
- Sundance & the Single Documentary Economy: The $1.3 Billion Cost of Missing Out
- Sundance Selections 2019: What are the Odds for Docus?
- The Sundance Anti-Case Study + podcast: “The Cleaners” came from Berlin in 2018 and Netflix wasn’t buying.
- Don’t miss my podcast with veteran distribution strategist Peter Broderick who shares his Sundance Film Festival Takeaways.
- Peter describes the 5-minute standing ovation for AOC when she Skyped into the Sundance theater.
- The table above is a work in progress.
- “Participating” is a partial list of players and personalities associated with the film.
- Sources include interviews with industry insiders and Mike Fleming’s excellent coverage in Deadline.
- Fleming writes: “The most I can recall a festival documentary selling for was the $5 million paid for the Russian doping docu Icarus, which was bought by Netflix at Sundance in 2017 and went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar.”
Updated November 2018