Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Sundance Film Festival Success Stories: What Are the Odds for Documentaries?

This year, the Sundance Film Festival screened 119 feature-length films from 32 countries, including works from 51 first-time makers.

These works were selected from:

  • 12,146 submissions.
  • Including 4,044 feature-length films.
  • And 8,102 shorts.

Digging deeper, of  2,350 narrative features:

  • 1,227 were from the U.S.
  • And 1,123 were international works.




A total of 1,694 feature documentaries were submitted.

  • 843 were from the U.S.
  • 851 were international.

Forty documentaries were selected – a success rate of 2.4%!

Prior Sundance Funding

Of the 40 selections, 12 had received prior funding from Sundance:

99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film / U.S.A. (Directors: Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read, Nina Kristic)

  • 2012 Documentary Film Fund Grant

After Tiller / U.S.A. (Directors: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson)

  • 2012 Documentary Film Fund Grant

American Promise / U.S.A. (Directors: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson)

  • 2009 Documentary Film Fund Grant
  • 2010 Composers + Documentary Lab

ANITA / U.S.A. (Director: Freida Mock)

  • 2011 Documentary Film Fund Grant

Citizen Koch / U.S.A. (Directors: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin)

  • 2012 Documentary Film Fund Grant

Dirty Wars / U.S.A. (Director: Richard Rowley)

  • 2011 Sundance Documentary Film Fund Grant
  • 2012 Creative Producing Documentary Lab
  • 2012 Creative Producing Summit

Fallen City / China (Director: Qi Zhao)

  • 2009 Sundance Documentary Film Fund Grant

Gideon’s Army / U.S.A. (Director: Dawn Porter) (Congratulations, Dawn!!!)

  • 2011 Sundance Documentary Film Grant
  • 2012 July Documentary Edit and Story Lab

God Loves Uganda / U.S.A. (Director: Roger Ross Williams)

  • 2010 Cinereach Project at Sundance Institute Grant
  • 2011 Sundance Documentary Film Fund Grant
  • 2012 July Documentary Edit and Story Lab

The Square (Al Midan) / Egypt, U.S.A. (Director: Jehane Noujaim)

  • 2012 Sundance Documentary Film Fund Grant

When I Walk / U.S.A., Canada (Director: Jason DaSilva)

  • 2011 Sundance Documentary Film Fund Grant

Who is Dayani Cristal? / United Kingdom (Director: Marc Silver)

  • 2011 Sundance Documentary Film Fund Grant
  • 2011 Creative Producing Summit
  • 2011 Sundance Documentary Film Fund Grant
  • 2012 Creative Producing Documentary Lab
  • 2012 Creative Producing Summit

The accepted docs that lacked a prior Sundance imprimatur were:

A River Changed Course
Blood Brother
The Crash Reel
Cutie and the Boxer
Fire in the Blood
Google and the World Brain
History of the Eagles Part 1
Inequality for All
Life According to Sam
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
The Moo Man
Muscle Shoals
Narco Cultura
Pandora’s Promise
Pussy Riot–A Punk Prayer
Running from Crazy
Sound City
The Stuart Hall Project
The Summit
Twenty Feet From Stardom
Valentine Road
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
The World According to Dick Cheney

The Winnner!

And then…

After Sundance selection, the next needle to be threaded by documentarians is distribution:

  • How many of the 40 Sundance documentary selections in 2013 will win a respectable theatrical distribution deal?
  • Or a television deal at a time of shrinking slots for docs?
  • How many of these films will receive a proper theatrical launch and rollout?
  • And how many of those lucky winners will go on to recoup their investment in production and marketing?


  • Don’t miss our ‘theatrical feature doc’ Case Study of ‘2016 Obama’s America‘.
  • That rightwing ‘bio’ was the top theatrical doc in 2012, grossing $35+/- million.

My Sole Appearance at Sundance…

  • I attended one of the earliest Sundance Film Festivals. I was working on a case study analysis of independent film distribution. David Rosen led our project: it was an early commission by Sundance and the IFP that was later published by Grove Press. 
  • I was introduced to Mr Redford at a BBQ at his home, and all I can remember is that I was startled by his huge forearms. He had played pro baseball. (Years later, I was honored to meet my tennis hero Rod ‘Rocket’ Laver. His forearms were even bigger.)
  • The Sundance Festival was then in its infancy. It was almost a Redford family project. There was an attractive naivete about it all. ‘Independent film’ was an emerging social movement that captured some of the creative energy left over from the anti-Vietnam War and counter-cultural tides of the Sixties and Seventies. ‘Indie’ was a quality that was waiting to be defined and branded.
  • Who then could have imagined the frantic business that Sundance has become today?

(Thanks to David Rosen and George Mokhiber for research.)


Speaking Engagements

Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC)
Adelaide, February 25-27

Grand Formats: IMAX & 3D
Peter Hamilton (IMAX)
Torsten Hoffmann (3D)
3D Content Hub
Tuesday February 26, 10:30-11:30 AM

What’s Next? Trends & Drivers in Factual Entertainment
Bernhard Sonnleitner, English Format Research, ProSieben Sat1
Ruth Wrigley, Head of Factual, All3Media
Anita Brown, Commissioning Editor Factual Entertainment, ABC
Patty Geneste, CEO, Absolutely Independent
Lisa Fitzpatrick, Head of Development & Production, Network Ten
Moderator: Peter Hamilton
Wednesday February 27, 2:00-3:00 PM

Workshop: How to Manage the Commissioning & Co-production Processes (wt)
Steve Burns & Peter Hamilton
Monday February 25, 10:00-11:30 AM


  1. Jon Gann Which means 1.69% of non-Sundance-financed docs were accepted. 1.7 in 100. By the way, the same chances of having ‘natural’ fraternal twins.

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