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Making the Case for Festivals: Hot Docs Comes of Age

By Michelle Mason

Toronto Documentary Forum in progress

A long line of impatient movie-goers stretches around the corner and down a residential street in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy on a warm spring evening. The fact people in this hockey town are lining up on a weeknight to see documentaries during the NHL playoffs is not only surprising to the neighborhood locals. Of the many things the Hot Docs festival achieved this year, perhaps the greatest has been its affirmation that documentaries are a film genre audiences will line up to see.

Hot Docs was created eight years ago by the Canadian Independent Film Caucus to address an increasing demand for access to broadcasters and theatrical screenings of documentary films. Despite small beginnings, the last two years have seen the festival grow tremendously in stature, a phenomenon largely attributed to the creation of the Toronto Documentary Forum. Modeled after the IDFA forum in Amsterdam, the Toronto Forum provides an opportunity for nearly 40 producers to pitch their projects to an audience of 70 commissioning editors from all over the world during a two-day period. Last year’s Forum saw 58 percent of pitchers secure additional financing for their projects to the tune of $1.5 million.

“Hot Docs really came of age last year,” says Vancouver filmmaker Nettie Wild (A Place Called Chiapas). “And I think it was because the Forum moved from being a kind of showcase/pitching session with an entertainment/humiliation value to a more straightforward, respectful event.”

In the highly competitive market of informational programming, attending events like Hot Docs and its documentary Forum has become vital to the success of independent filmmakers and their projects. With broadcast programming trends constantly changing and digital technology turning everyone’s neighbor into a filmmaker, documentarians are increasingly challenged to keep pace with market changes and compete with more people for, in some cases, fewer broadcast slots.

“The popularity of the genre has drawn so many people to this business that it’s unbelievable” says international distributor Jan Rofekamp of Montreal-based Films Transit. “If you look at the growth of the documentary market and the growth of the independent producer, there’s an imbalance there. It’s just the disproportionate growth of producers. Film schools are turning them out by the dozens. Even myself, with years of sales experience; I have to get up there earlier with my films.”

To stay alive in such a tough market, independent producers and industry executives agree that attending festivals and markets has become more important than ever. Festivals provide a window into the world of making documentary films; they are the place where filmmakers meet face-to-face with commissioning editors, find out what kind of programming broadcasters are looking for and cultivate the professional relationships that will carry them through their career in filmmaking. Moreover, most festivals now provide a broad range of professional development opportunities, from forum discussions on different areas of the industry to master classes by film veterans like Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker.

“Festivals are extremely important because otherwise, what is your source of information going to be for changes in the marketplace, changes in peoples slots or budgets?” asks distributor Louise Rosen of Blue Planet Entertainment in Boston. “If you’re approaching this as a career and as a business, you have to stay on top of trends, and you can’t simply take your information from what’s published because often what’s written in the trades only covers a very limited slice of the story.”

Sundance Festival Codirector Nicole Guillemet concurs: “If you want a career as a filmmaker, then you are in a market. The gatekeepers are the broadcasters, so it’s important that you understand what they need.”

As any veteran filmmaker can tell you, creating a career in film is ultimately about creating relationships. For emerging filmmakers, festivals are places to gain first access to the broadcasters, whose demanding workloads and proposal-stacked in-boxes mean projects don’t always get the attention they deserve. A festival provides an opportunity to make the personal connection with the broadcasters—and helps move films forward.

“You can’t just use funders as a mail slot,” says top Canadian producer Laszlo Barna of Barna-Alper Productions. “You have to get out there and work.”

Recognizing this, many Canadian filmmakers now begin the funding cycle at Hot Docs, using the festival as a kind of warm up for the Banff International Television Festival six weeks later, where they can follow up on the professional contacts begun in Toronto. From there the progression is to the Amsterdam IDFA in the fall, Sundance in January and the Reel Screen summit in February.

In addition to professional development, filmmakers are using festivals as tools for promoting their films. Wild says she treats every festival like a market, taking along teams of people to publicize her films to audiences and buyers. According to Wild, the packed houses for the screenings of Chiapas at the Berlin Film Festival in 1998 were no accident. As part of her strategy, she recruited a large team of local solidarity workers who worked for days before the screenings to paper the city. Nowadays, filmmakers are using all kinds of ingenious ways to put their films on the map, and most festival organizers say that if you are lucky enough to get your film into a festival, being there to promote it is essential.

“Filmmakers are getting publicity savvy on all kinds of levels, from guerilla marketing tactics to the more sophisticated,” says Hot Docs organizer Chris McDonald. “Some come with publicists, producers reps and/or agents now—something we used to see only at the larger international film festivals.”

While the costs for all of this can add up, most producers say the access gained at festivals is invaluable, so attendance is a worthwhile investment. Before going to Hot Docs this year, UK filmmaker Ben Lawrie had tried for months to set up a pitch session with the BBC’s Nick Fraser, whose office was blocks away in London. Lawrie finally met the broadcaster at Hot Docs and was able to give him a proposal.

Because of these kinds of opportunities and the growth and globalization of the documentary market in the last 10 years, festival attendance has also grown. Pat Ferns, head of the Banff International Television Festival, the industry extravaganza in the Canadian Rockies, says that too much growth is a concern for organizers. The key to a successful festival, he says, is keeping the festival democratic and the experience balanced.

And in the end, it’s balance that will continue to attract more and more people to documentary film festivals. While they provide a place where producers can develop business sensibilities and contacts, at the end of the day people turn up for the love of the medium.

“The other half of the festival is to feed your creative head and heart,” says Wild. “It’s a place where you run into people who’ve had the courage to say, ‘To hell with what the broadcasters want. This film needs to be 93 minutes long, and this is what I did and I used this kind of format and I’m going into DV for the first time or I stuck with Super 16.’ I get discouraged when the conversations are only about producing and where you start with the broadcaster and work backwards. What I come for is where you start with the story and you move forward from now.”

And as audiences continue to grow for documentaries, a balance will hopefully be struck between the proportion of producers and slots for documentaries. As Guillemet points out, part of the challenge will be to educate wider audiences about what documentaries are. To that end, festivals will continue to play a key role in expanding audiences.

“There are better audiences for documentary films than a few years ago,” says Guillemet. “But we still have to ‘educate’ the larger audience because people still have this stigma of the documentary film being this serious, educational thing, and they mostly just want to escape. But once they realize documentaries are about themselves, real people, it works.”

And today it’s really working. As Rofekamp points out, documentaries are seen in prime time more than ever before. Despite all of the market changes and pressures on today’s filmmakers, festivals like Hot Docs prove that what will continue to draw people to documentary films are the people in them. At the Documentary Forum, the word “character” was often heard, showing that good stories about interesting people continue to be the cornerstones of a rich documentary tradition. In his master class at the CBC headquarters, perhaps filmmaker Maysles summed it up best: “Documentaries are about the realm of possibility because they’re about the process of discovery.”

It would seem from the diverse line-up of films at festivals like Hot Docs, the possibilities are endless.


Michelle Mason is a filmmaker living in British Columbia, Canada.