The Sundance Documentary Economy: $848 Million Spent by Producers Who Miss Out

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

But what are the odds that a U.S. or international documentary will earn a slot on the Sundance program?

Is $848 million really the total spent on all those submissions that missed out?

Read on for my 2022 update on the Sundance Documentary Economy…

The Entries

This year, Sundance screened 83 feature-length films, both scripted and documentary, from 41 countries and including works from 39 first-timers.

They were selected from:

  • 14,849 submissions.
  • Including 3,762 feature-length films.
  • And 10,374 shorts.

Documentaries

A total of 1,730 feature documentaries were submitted:

  • 811 were from the U.S.
  • 919 were international.

Success Rate

  • 35 documentaries were selected
  • That’s a success rate of 2.0%!
  • An improvement on 2021 (1.8%)

Origin

  • 19 (54%) were from U.S.: success rate: 2.3%
  • 16(46%) were international: 1.7%

Sundance Fast Track

Of the 35 selected documentaries, 8 (30%) had received prior Sundance funding for development and production.

A friend comments:

The “fast track” is really far more incestuous. For example, the Disney doc was done by a long time Sundance supporter and film funder. Another producer has won the grand prize twice. It goes on and on. I think if one looks closely, perhaps half of the selected docs have some connection to Sundance at least from the US side of the competition. Considering these connections, there are really far less “open” slots than it appears. Distributors, funders and friends are wired and outsiders don’t have much of a chance.

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 1,730 Sundance submissions for 2022 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

  • 1,695 documentaries were “Not Accepted” in 2022.
  • The total production expense of the “Not Accepted” films would be $847.5 million!
  • Which rounds up to US$1 Billion!

Takeaways: Sizzling in the Zeitgeist

  • The documentary feature keeps lighting up the zeitgeist.
  • The format gains ever more popularity, celebrity and prestige as a medium of creative expression and investigation.
  • It attracts funding from broadcasters and platforms, governments, foundations, the hyper- hyper-rich, A-listers, crowdfunders, BF’s, the mortgage on grandma’s beach cottage, personal overdrafts, and much more.

And then there’s Distribution…

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

How many of the 35 Sundance documentary selections in 2022 will win…

  • A respectable theatrical launch and rollout? That’s a tough wish in our Covid-hammered world!
  • Or a $10 million offer from a platform like the Netflix deal for KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE?
  • Or a channels deal at a time of shrinking slots for feature docs?

Recouping Investments

  • Few Sundance-aimed productions reach profitability from their commercial distribution efforts.
  • However many projects do succeed by non-commercial measures, for example by inspiring social change or advancing the careers of their filmmakers.
  • And lots of terrific films are neither submitted to or accepted by Sundance, but they go on to find recognition and even acclaim at other festivals and markets, particularly in genres like Wildlife that aren’t Sundance favorites.

Deals at Sundance 2022

  • National Geographic Documentary Films won a fierce bidding war for FIRE OF LOVE, a documentary and love story about two French scientists who died tracking the volcanoes that were their passion. Netflix, Amazon, Sony Classics, Paramount and several others were reported to be in the hunt for the rights.
  • Nat Geo also acquired THE TERRITORY, a timely look at indigenous-led land defense in the Amazon rainforest.

My Standouts

Two doc finalists that caught my full attention are:

 

  • Tantura uncovers the massacre (and later cover up) of around 200 Palestinian villagers by Israeli troops during the 1948 War. It’s a measure of changing world opinion that a film so critical of Israel’s foundation story was featured by Sundance. Read more here (MEI) and here (THR).
  • Riotsville USA is a painstaking, archive-based exposure of  violent military solutions that await to be deployed against domestic civilian unrest.

More reading

PBS Documentary Slots

The odds were similar when I last looked at the acceptance rate for the PBS strands POV and Independent Lens.

POV

  • POV accepted 16 films out of around 1,000 entriess.
  • The acceptance rate was 1.6%
  • Read more about POV here.

Independent Lens

Those PBS posts are getting old, but are still relevant to the discussion about the odds for indie producers.


Editorial Associate: Kiana Claire Khoshnoud
Thanks to Sundance Film Festival’s Sylvy Fernandez for the data.