Marketing Overview

It is difficult to assess trends when you are living through them, but looking back, it is clear that the 1990s marked a clear revolution in the marketing of documentaries. became hot. Film festivals started paying attention to them. New specialized documentary channels were created. And new terms like factual programming and factual entertainment started hitting the headlines.

In practice, the market is now split into what writer Jan Rofekamp calls "the first market" and "the second market." The first market includes the principal public and private networks in each country. In the United States, this includes PBS and all the major cable stations mentioned earlier, plus Court TV. In the United Kingdom, the first market includes the BBC and Channels 4 and 5. In Germany, we are referring to ZDF, Spiegel, and ARD. In France, the major players are Canal Plus, Arte, FR2, and FR3. The second market includes players like Globo Sat in Brazil, Rai-Sat and CNI in Italy, Bravo and HBO in Latin America, and Canal Plus in northern Europe.

On the surface, all this looks great. In practice, competition among filmmakers for cable slots has created a buyer's market. This has meant that fees in the first market have been considerably reduced. Whereas a few years ago a filmmaker could get a deal for fifty thousand dollars of financing, allowing the station four runs in five years for that amount, the current deal is more likely to be twenty thousand dollars for two runs in two years. While this means that the rights are available more quickly for the second market, the fees paid for exhibition in this market are considerably lower than in the first. A two-thousand-dollar contract for unlimited runs is not likely to make you throw your hat in the air.

Markets and Festivals

One recent trend that can be helpful to you in selling your program is the expansion of documentary markets and festivals. Markets such as MIPCOM (in Cannes), NATPE, and MIP-TV have now become essential venues for sales, and the exchange of ideas regarding single films and series, financing and coproduction.

Another development has been the rise of festivals that besides showing films also devote a considerable amount of time to seminars on idea pitching, financing, and the establishment of coproductions. For a novice, these festivals can be highly instructive and well worth the registration fee. Though these festivals are spread out over Europe and the United States, I would say the most useful ones are the Co-financing Forum in Amsterdam (IDFA), the biannual seminar/festival of the International Documentary Association (IDA) in Los Angeles, and the Toronto Documentary Forum, affectionately known as HOTDOCS. You might want to note that the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) puts out a very useful guide to international film and video festivals. (The organization's Web address is www.aivf.org.)

Documentary Magazines and the Web

The two documentary magazines most concerned with marketing are RealScreen (www.realscreen.com), which comes out of Toronto, and International Documentary (www.documentary.org), which is published in Los Angeles. Both contain the occasionally interesting article but are essentially geared to selling. With RealScreen, the emphasis is on information about all the cable shows being made for Discovery and the like. RealScreen also publishes The International Factual Broadcast Guide, which contains information on broadcasters around the world. The down-to-earth information is about factual strands, themes, and the length of favored programs. The guide also gives you station biographies, the names of commissioning editors, and their contact addresses and e-mails.

Standard features of International Documentary include a listing of upcoming film festivals and a monthly guide to cable programming. Its most useful section, however, may be its listing of current funding opportunities; it tells you what's on offer, where to apply, and the deadlines for grant submissions. It's also worth noting that the magazine's publisher, The International Documentary Association ([email protected])

also puts out a useful Membership Directory and Documentary Survival Guide.

Another magazine I like very much is DOX (dox.dk), which is published in Denmark. DOX has been coming out bimonthly since 1993 and has become essential reading for documentary filmmakers in Europe. However, its European bias shouldn't put off Americans; the magazine provides essential information for anyone interested in the European scene. While paying attention to distribution and production possibilities, it also publishes some excellent general documentary articles, probably slightly more academic than those appearing in RealScreen or International Documentary. It also publishes the useful European Producers Guide, which is somewhat similar to that put out by RealScreen.

A few Web sites dealing with documentary have also put in a recent appearance, but the best of them, head and shoulders above the rest, is Docos.com (www.docos.com). Although it's based in England, the reach is truly global. Put simply, Docos.com is the broadest provider of documentary information I have come across. Its range is truly staggering, and in its free daily news bulletin, it covers everything from industry directories, production companies, and new books to markets, festivals, and a free showcase for new titles. It is extremely good on coproduction information and advice and also runs a unique and remarkable "commissioning engine" (www.commissioningengine.com), which tells producers and distributors who, worldwide, might be interested in producing or financing a given film. Finally, Docos publishes a fortnightly subscription-based print newsletter called DOCtv; it provides a very good analysis of industry trends and is very useful for fast decision making. If I've gone on at length about Docos, it is because I find it less cluttered with advertisements than the magazines and very down-to-earth, and it gives me the information I need with speed and efficiency.

Genres and Fads

In chapter 2 of this book, I asked you why you wanted to make a particular film. I suggested that often an idea obsessed you, that you were pushed toward a certain subject and had no choice. Yet many people work the other way around. They find out what sells and then make a film to fit into that category. We may smile at such an approach, at all the history-mysteries and Bible secrets series, yet realistically, we have to be aware of what's selling.

As I write, Survival and Big Brother are all the rage, and reality programming are the magic words that bring a ray of light to a TV programmer's eye. So do you rush out to film a group of fifteen-year-old boys surviving without McDonald's or Starbucks? Or do you turn your lens toward yet another group of crazies eating, sleeping, fornicating, and pontificating in sealed rooms? I doubt it. By the time this book comes out, those fads will probably have bitten the dust.

But what about docusoaps? Here, I am not so sure. This essentially English creation, light-years away from Griersonian tradition, has become almost the mainstay of U.K. broadcasting. In the five years between 1999 and 2001, over sixty-five docusoaps appeared on the major British TV channels—no small achievement.

The basic ingredients for the successful docusoap, or documentary soap opera, are stunningly simple. First, you take an industry, preferably a service one, or a minor business and find a group of people who are slightly charismatic or quirky, and who enjoy being in the limelight. You then follow them for a few months with a crew straight from film school and center in on their disputes, their love affairs, their foibles, and their pranks. With luck, and high shooting ratios, some interesting stories inevitably emerge.

Starting with driving school teachers and life at London airport, British viewers were subsequently given the lives of marriage counsellors, trainee journalists, nurses, emergency wards, and investment brokers. A Channel 4 series called Love in Leeds followed single women in pursuit of the perfect man.

Not one to miss a trick, the Americans have also embraced the formula, with American High, which follows the lives of various kids at a high school in Los Angeles. There has also been a series following women in Las Vegas. I sense, however, the formula won't go down quite as well in the United States as in England. It seems to me that American reality drama tends toward action and cops stories rather than daily stories of ordinary human beings. But I may be wrong.

In the end, I think the TV enthusiasm for docusoaps is based on financial considerations rather than any philosophic interest in the human condition. Docusoaps offer more returns for fewer bucks. Even allowing for diverse crews and high shooting ratios, docusoaps still come out far cheaper to produce than an hour's drama or a movie of the week. And as long as the viewing figures stay about the same, docusoaps will continue to get support. They are easy to make, being just an extension of observational documentary, so you might want to consider them. But don't make them with your own money, because by the time you finish your series, they may just be out of fashion.

Film Making

Film Making

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