Sundance: Buyers Bid $20 Million as the Feature Documentary Category Booms

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)

TAKEAWAYS

Netflix Strategy

  • 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.

Competition Surges

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 PrimeYouTube and others are expected to ramp up their spend on premium content.
  • Legacy channels, including HBOCNN 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

Notes

  • 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

Original analysis and coverage from DocumentaryBusiness.com
95+ pages, with charts and links
Read More Here… Download Now: $39.95