Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Sundance 2024: $887 Million Spent on Docs That Missed Out??

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

  • 1.9%!
    Are those really the odds that a documentary will earn a slot on the Sundance program?
  • $887 million!
    Did producers spend close to a billion dollars on all those submissions that missed out?

Here is my 2024 update on the Sundance Documentary Economy

Photo courtesy of Sundance

The Entries

The 2024 Sundance Film Festival opens on January 18.

Sundance will screen 82 feature-length films and 53 short films, both scripted and documentary, from 32 countries and including works from 40 first-time filmmakers.

They were selected from:

  • 17,435 submissions.
  • Including 4,410 feature-length films.
  • 12,098 shorts.
  • And 573 episodic projects (series).
  • (Data: Sundance Press Office)

Documentary Submissions

  • 1,809 features.
  • 740 from the U.S.
  • 1,069 were from outside the U.S.

Program Selections

  • 34 feature documentaries.
  • 5 episodic documentaries.
  • 11 additional nonfiction screenings. 

Success Rate for Doc Features

  • The success rate is 1.9% for feature documentaries.
  • Only one in fifty submitted films is accepted!
  • That’s down from 2.4% in 2023.

Success by Origin

  • The odds are even worse for producers from outside U.S.
  • Their success rate is 1.2% versus 2.8% for U.S. submissions.

The Cost of Missing Out

  • Let’s assume that the average production cost of all 1,809 Sundance feature documentary submissions for 2024 is $500,000.
  • Actual budgets range from less than $100,000 up to $10 million and more.
  • $500K is a conservative average, but my guesstimate is not based on actual Sundance data.

Production Cost

  • My back-of-envelope math reveals the total production expense of the 1,775 “Not Accepted” films would be $887 million!
  • Which rounds up to US$1 Billion!

The Documentary: Hot and Cold

  • The feature documentary format is a shining star in the cultural zeitgeist.
  • Year after year, countless producers and creatives invest hundreds of millions on films that have little chance of winning prestigious festival selections.
  • And as we will explore in my next Sundance post, the single documentary economy is offering fewer and fewer theatrical, network and major streaming platform deals, even for Sundance winners.

Favorites

  • Congrats to the 34+ selections for overcoming these huge odds through their talent, hard work and timeliness.
  • I have two favorites in the 2024 Documentary Feature race: Dawn Porter (Luther: Never Too Much) and Tina Dalton (Every Little Thing).
  • Dawn and Tina are great filmmakers who provided invaluable encouragement for my newsletter since its launch in 2010.

Competition at Sundance

  • Here is the 2024 Program.
  • Many thanks to the Sundance Press Office for sharing their data.

Editorial Associate: Caitlin Cooper