The Sundance Documentary Economy: The Odds for Feature Docs. The $806M Cost of Missing Out

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?

And what is the total expense on all those submissions that missed out?

This year, the Sundance Film Festival screened 73 feature-length films from 44 countries, including works from 39 first-time makers.

These works were selected from:

  • 14,092 submissions.
  • Including 3,500 feature-length films.
  • And 9,933 shorts.


Documentaries

A total of 1,642 feature documentaries were submitted.

  • 677 were from the U.S.
  • 945 were international.

Success Rate

  • Thirty documentaries were selected – a success rate of 1.8%!
  • That’s down from 2020 (2.8%)

Origin

  • 19 were from U.S.: success rate: 2.8%
  • 11 were international: 1.2%

Cost of Missing Out

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

  • Let’s assume that the average production cost of all 1,642 Sundance submissions for 2021 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 submissions.

Production Cost:

  • 1,612 documentaries were “Not Accepted” in 2021.
  • The total production expense of the “Not Accepted” films would be $806.0 million!
  • Which rounds up to a $billion!

Takeaways

  • The documentary feature 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 more.
  • Few Sundance-aimed productions ever recover these contributions 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 not accepted at Sundance but go on to find recognition and acclaim at other festivals and markets.

And then there’s Distribution…

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

  • How many of the 30 Sundance documentary selections in 2021 will win a respectable theatrical distribution deal?
  • Or a $10 million offer from Netflix like KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE?
  • Or a television deal at a time of shrinking slots for feature docs?
  • How many of these films will receive a proper theatrical launch and rollout?
  • And how many of those lucky Sundance winners will go on to recoup their investment in production and marketing?

(Thanks to Sundance Film Festival’s Spencer Alcorn for the data.)

More reading

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

(Those posts are getting old. I hope to update these PBS strand #’s.)


Selling Your Documentary to Netflix