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Documentary Business

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Sundance 2023: $852 Million Spent on Docs That Were Not Selected

Sundance Film Festival award lags only behind an Oscar nomination as a measure of success for documentarians.

  • 2.4%!
    Are those the odds that a documentary will earn a slot on the Sundance program?
  • $852 million!
    Is that really the total production spend on all those submissions that missed out?

Read on for my 2023 update on the Sundance Documentary Economy

The Entries

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival opens on January 19.

Sundance will screen 110 feature-length films, both scripted and documentary, from 37 countries and including works from 45 first time filmmakers.

They were selected from:

  • 15,855 submissions.
  • Including 4,061 feature-length films.
  • 10,978 shorts.
  • And 545 episodic projects.

Documentary Submissions

  • 1,747 features.
  • 779 from U.S.
  • 975 were international films.

Selection Rate

  • Sundance selected 42 feature documentaries and one episodic documentary, Willie Nelson and Family (Dir. Thom Zimny, Oren Moverman).
  • The success rate is 2.4%
  • That’s up from our earlier survey, 2.0% in 2022.
  • Recent Sundance hits Navalny (2022) and Summer of Soul (2021) returned this year as encore screenings.

Origin

  • U.S.: 28 selections / 3.6% acceptance rate.
  • International: 14 selections / 1.4% acceptance rate.

Prior Funding by Sundance 

  • According to data available online, 8 of the 42 selections (19%) had received prior Sundance support through labs or grants.
  • That’s comparable to 24% in 2020.

They are:

  • Joonam / U.S. (Director: Sierra Urich)
  • Bad Press / U.S. (Directors: Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, Joe Peeler)
  • Milisuthando / International (Director: Milisuthando Bongela)
  • Smoke Sauna Sisterhood / International (Director: Anna Hints)
  • Against the Tide / International (Director: Sarvnik Kaur)
  • King Coal / U.S. (Director: Elaine McMillion Sheldon)
  • The Tuba Thieves / U.S. (Director: Alison O’Daniel)
  • Plan C / U.S. (Director: Tracy Droz Tragos)

The Cost of Missing Out

The documentary niche has remarkable financial scale, as measured by the wave of films seeking selection at Sundance.

  • Let’s assume that the average production cost of all 1,747 Sundance documentary submissions for 2023 is $500,000.
  • Actual budgets range from around $100,000 up to $10+ million.
  • $500K is a conservative average, but still a guesstimate that’s not based on actual Sundance data.

Production Cost

My back-of-envelope math reveals that producers spent around $873 million on their documentary submissions.

  • 1,705 documentaries were “Not Accepted” in 2023.
  • The total production expense of the “Not Accepted” films would be $852 million!
  • Which rounds up to US$1 Billion!

Summing Up

  • Congrats to the 42+ acceptances for overcoming these huge odds and winning a slot through their talents and timeliness.
  • Sundance’s mentoring track multiplies your odds of acceptance, but not of winning a prize, as I posted in 2018.
  • The selection bar is higher for international projects.
  • However, few Sundance winners go on to enjoy successful theatrical runs.
  • There’s also IDFA, TIFF, Berlin, Hot Docs, SXSW and other prestigious international and regional festivals…
  • And licensing and distribution deals across the multiple platforms that are available today.

My Big Takeaway

  • The feature documentary format is a shining star in the cultural zeitgeist.
  • Year after year, countless producers invest hundreds of millions on films that have little chance of winning prestigious festival selections.
  • The odds are against earning sizeable audiences in cinemas or on broadcast, cable or streaming platforms.
  • But there will always be winners, and a hard-working mix of artisans and dreamers who are chasing the prize!

Competitors at Sundance

More reading: The Sundance Anti-Case Study

  • Don’t miss The Cleaners, our Anti-Case Study featured at Sunny Side of the Doc.
  • We covered the dashed hopes of Berlin-based Gebrueder Beetz to win a Netflix deal after they defied the odds to win a slot at Sundance 2018.

PBS Documentary Slots: Similar Odds

POV

  • When I last checked, POV accepted 16 films out of around 1,000 submissions.
  • The acceptance rate was 1.6%
  • Read more about POV in our detailed 2015 coverage.

Independent Lens

Personal Note

  • I’ve always been grateful to the Sundance Institute and Independent Film Project for engaging David Rosen and myself to undertake a ground-breaking study of the emerging indie film economy.
  • The study was published by Grove Press as OFF HOLLYWOOD: THE MAKING AND MARKETING OF INDEPENDENT FILMS.
  • Though completed in the mid-Eighties, our detailed case study-based Findings are still remarkably useful.
  • The methodology became a model for the Case Studies published in my newsletter.

Research: Editorial Associate Caitlin Cooper