THE CLEANERS An Anti-Case Study from Berlin: A $1.3 Mn Investigative Documentary Premieres at Sundance. Faces Deep Deficit

THE CLEANERS ticked all the boxes.

Despite Sundance selection and sales to prestigious broadcasters worldwide, the producers are digging out from a deep deficit.

The business model for investigative documentaries has always been risky.

It is now under siege… and needs new solutions.

That’s the message presented by Christian Beetz, co-CEO of Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion (Berlin) at Sunny Side of the Doc.

Christian Beetz with ARD/WDR’s Christiane Hinz.
Credit : Jean-François Augé / studio-ouest.com

Podcast

You can listen here as Christian describes the investigative scoop that excited IDFA and Sundance, and yet became the “Anti-Case Study.”



Concept

  • Two young theater producers cold-called Gebrueder Beetz (GB) in May 2016.
  • They described a vast secret Internet cleaning operation based in Manila.
  • They wanted help to make a film.

Tech Stories

  • GB had attempted to tell stories about the dark side of Silicon Valley and the ‘FANGS’ but had run into a wall of silence.
  • According to Christian Beetz “We had found a ‘front page’ story about abusive relationships on a social media site, and all of a sudden the content was deleted. Who did it? We always wondered. That’s why we agreed to meet these guys the very next day.”

The Elevator Pitch

When you post something on the web, can you be sure it stays there? Enter a hidden shadow industry of digital cleaning, where the Internet rids itself of what it doesn’t like. Who is controlling what we see… and what we think?

Deal

  • GB explained how the television business works and within two months had finalized a deal.
  • GB co-directs, has final cut approval and worldwide rights.
  • The young originators of the story co-direct and are paid for author’s rights.

Production; “Flood it!”

  • GB simultaneously started story development and production.
  • “It was an investigative story that could have been scooped by someone else. We needed to understand how this hidden industry operated and find the characters who would agree to go on camera to reveal its secrets.”
  • “We decided to flood it!”
  • GB sent their lead creative director, DOP and researchers to Manila.
  • Within weeks, the team had set up a 30-person research and production team on the ground there.
  • Five key characters were identified.
  • “Total Development costs were around E240,000.

Business Development

  • In June 2016 at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, GB met with WDR, the Cologne public television station.
  • “WDR agreed to participate, but they didn’t want holdbacks for the theatrical screenings that are a gateway for certain EC funds.”
  • “Because of this condition, we had no choice but to target the European TV Media Fund which operates on a points-system based on the slow and uncertain process of getting pre-buys from 10-15 European public broadcasters.”
  • Cinephil came on board as the distributor.

Teaser

  • “The broadcasters were surprisingly less interested in the under-belly of our Internet society than we expected.”
  • GB decided that they needed more than a paper pitch and began work on a 7-minute teaser.

IDFA 2016: The “Secret Pitch”

  • “IDFA heard about our under-cover project, and invited us to the Pitch Forum.”
  • “We explained that we couldn’t talk openly about the story in public. IDFA offered to set up a secret, invitation-only pitch session for commissioning editors who we knew.”
  • “The buyers’ response was very positive.”
  • “Starting with a pre-sale from SVT-Sweden, many European pubcasters came on board.”
  • BBC and NHK committed later.

Production / Post

  • Production continued through 2017.
  • Editing went in tandem with field production, beginning in February 2017.
  • A rough cut was delivered in November 2017.

Budget

  • The initial budget was E540,000 (US$640,000).
  • The EC TV fund would contribute 20%.
  • The final budget was E1,100,000 (US1,300,000)

The North American Strategy

  • “We decided that we needed a U.S. partner with the world premiere rights.”
  • Beetz signed up with Motto Pictures, led by Julie Goldman and Chris Clements.
  • “And our North American Sales agent is Josh Brown / Submarine Entertainment.”
  • “We expected Netflix or Amazon to snap up the project as they had bought up the big documentaries in 2016 and 2017.”
  • Sundance accepted THE CLEANERS into the 2018 competition.
  • The final cut was delivered three days before the scheduled World premiere at Sundance.
  • The screening was a success, provoking heated panel discussions.
  • Excellent reviews followed.

“A neon-lit documentary shot like a noir thriller.” Variety / “Smart, stylish doc exposes must-discuss issues regarding the companies who dominate the internet.” The Hollywood Reporter / “… a riveting documentary about how social media might be ruining the world. A movie of the moment.” The Verge

Blow

  • Netflix and Amazon didn’t buy a single documentary at Sundance this year.
  • The GB team weren’t the only finalists who were stunned to be left empty-handed
  • According to Christian Beetz: ”Our dream collapsed!”

Distribution Snapshot Since Sundance

  • Screened at 50 festivals in 10 countries
  • Cinema release throughout Germany
  • Television rights licenses in 20 countries
  • “In Canada we are working with Blue Ice, who invested in the film and is doing theatrical distribution right now.”

Budget Recap

  • The final budget was E1,100,000 (US$1,300,000)
  • Cashflow to date: EC Fund contribution: E200,000
  • License fees agreed to date: E500,000
  • Current deficit: E400,000
  • (Further reduced in June 2018 by license to PBS / Independent Lens)

Anti-Case Study: The Takeaways

  • THE CLEANERS is a successful documentary as measured by its worldwide distribution, acceptance into the most competitive festivals, critical reviews, theatrical screenings, and more.
  • Yet as a Case Study, it reveals that the investigative documentary is threatened.
  • Independent producers do not have the resources to fund the risky and uncertain process of developing and producing stories.
  • Broadcasters lack the financial resources to staff up the costly, open-ended investigative reporting teams that the great newspapers once did for print journalism.
  • The few slots that are dedicated to investigation green light very few programs each year, and these are in turn shaped by the editorial biases and risk-aversion of taxpayer-funded journalism.
  • Netflix, Amazon Prime and other SVOD services have shifted from acquisitions to original commissions, often with a focus on True Crime.
  • Meanwhile, public broadcasters increasingly want VOD rights, but without raising their license fees.
  • European public broadcasters need a new model for funding the simultaneous story development, production and business development that are the key characteristic of the Investigation genre.

About Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion (Beetz Brothers)

  • Principals: Reinhardt & Christian Beetz
  • Since 2002
  • Films completed:
  • Key buyers: public TV broadcasters worldwide
  • Read more here

Read more in DocumentaryBusiness.com


My Upcoming Markets & Conferences

SUNNY SIDE OF THE DOC La Rochelle, France. June 25-28
Panel: “The Future of Pubcasters: Adapt or Die”

NEWF: Nature, Environment & Wildlife Filmmakers Congress
Durban, South Africa. July 16-18.
Director Noel Kok has organized a great program that combines conservation and wildlife film-making.
Make it your reason to come to South Africa. More to come….


Studies

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