European Documentary Distributors Speculate on Post-Pandemic Market at Docudays UA
One of the most jarring aspects of the global pandemic is the rapidity with which every part of life as we know it has been upended, forcing us to nimbly pivot at the drop of a hat. And the film world, of course, has not been spared the disease’s speedy domino effect, nor its subsequent demands. This seemed to be the consensus among the array of international panelists streamed in live from lockdown in their various home countries to participate in a DOCU/CLASS titled "International market after the quarantine: how to distribute documentary films tomorrow?" at this year’' 17th Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival's all-digital edition.
Moderated from Kiev by Ukrainian Illya Gladstein, a producer at Phalanstery Films and a co-owner and managing partner of the city's KINO42 cinema (as well as the owner of a rental company called 86PROKAT) from the empty Docudays office—strangely made sadder by all the festive white balloons in the background—the panelists included Parisian editor and director Qutaiba Barhamji; ZagrebDox Director Nenad Puhovski; Doc Alliance's executive director and head of acquisitions, Diana Tabakov; CAT&Docs sales agent Maëlle Guenegues; and German public broadcaster MDR's commissioning editor and head of documentaries Ulrich Brochhagen.
Perhaps most surprising to me as an American tuning in to YouTube was the lack of sugarcoating coming from these European industry experts. No one attempted to put a positive spin on the harsh reality the filmmaking ecosystem is facing. For example, Barhamji—who later mentioned he wasn't looking forward to editing any coronavirus films in the future—spoke of the recent online premiere of one of his docs. It was a decision he now personally would not recommend, since it didn’t allow for any audience feedback. Indeed, Barhamji wasn’t privy to how many people, or even who, had viewed his film. Digital debuts require "a different kind of audience, a different kind of tools, a different kind of promotion," he stressed.
Puhovski was similarly unenthusiastic about hosting an online fest. ZagrebDox, he noted, had to cancel six days before its planned opening—due not only to the pandemic but also, shockingly, an earthquake. The Croatian festival went the route of only continuing with the industry program online, since those events usually occur in an intimate setting anyhow. To that end, Puhovski heralded the virtual version of ZagrebDox Pro—which was live-streamed save for the pitching, which was prerecorded for the sake of nervous filmmakers—as an unequivocal success. A digital edition of the festival itself, however, was never truly considered. The director is a firm believer in the notion that "festivals are an interaction of people" first and foremost, "not watching films…Audiences make the festival," he emphasized, standing by his tough, though admittedly expensive, decision. That said, Puhovski is still planning for a smaller edition of the fest to run later this year. (This despite the fact that six months from now a lot of things will have changed, including, perhaps a newly gutted fall festival schedule.)
Sounding a more hopeful note from Paris, Guenegues, in her promotion and distribution role, mentioned that markets are easier to put online, and that work continues to be efficiently accomplished. Nothing can replace the physical experience, of course, but this aspect of the industry is at least quite doable in the digital world, though she tended to agree that online festivals themselves are another matter. Going virtual has a ripple effect, and comes with its own set of problems. For example, in the US it's easy to geo-block regionally, but in other countries this just doesn’t work at all. Also, while streaming big films gives them visibility, it’s the smaller ones that contribute to revenue—and as a result, her films are taking a hit. In addition, broadcast decision-making is even more important now since so many people are forced to watch at home. Really, everything is uncertain, she concluded. (To which the moderator half-joked that Ukraine's general state is one of perpetual uncertainty, so nothing’s really new in Kiev.)
As for the broadcasters' perspective, Brochhagen pointed out that MDR only had to postpone the airdates of a couple of films, while everything else had stayed pretty much the same. And he hopes that public TV will only become stronger as a result of the pandemic. In order to help struggling filmmakers, MDR actually sent out a call for ideas—a "corona creative"—and ended up commissioning 20 new projects during the crisis. That upside aside, he too misses the in-person festival experience, as one-on-one meetings are important to his decision-making process.
Tabakov, the last of the panelists to chime in, admitted feeling like the "bad guy," as her VOD platform seemed to be the only one benefiting from the new virtual reality. VOD had long been at the tail end of distribution, but now that the world had turned upside down she'd found herself at the very beginning. (Though she also called the experience quite stressful, as it was such a radical switch.) She noted that the Prague-based One World Film Festival made its digital pivot in a single afternoon—and ended up getting the same audience numbers as if the screenings had taken place in the cinemas. Since Doc Alliance works with movies that are mainly made for the arthouses, she wanted to be there for the film festivals, to try to find a way to support them. Though 60 percent of revenues at her platform go to the filmmakers, different models work for different fests, and thus she's had to find a "new way," festival by festival. That said, Tabakov was happy to be able to potentially reach new, non-fest audiences—and to keep promoting films and directors through online screenings. She added that all VOD platforms are currently trying to figure out how to include Q&As in order to keep that filmmaker-to-audience connection—something viewers seem to greatly miss.
As for being the "bad guy" profiting from our current pandemonium, Tabakov estimated that her platform’s visibility and revenues have actually grown five times since the start of the crisis. Acquisitions, too, have shot up. She pointed out that the smaller the production the more experimental you often are in your strategies, so lots of docs pivoted to online showings straight away, as did a large number of cinemas. (Though she warned that only the very popular films seem to really succeed in the move, while smaller ones have trouble building buzz solely online.) Festivals have their own brand, their own identity, which lends a boost to more under-the-radar projects.
The moderator—who, as a cinema owner, admitted to being less than thrilled by the prospect of so many movies going online (and as a distributor, predicted he’ll pick up fewer films from this year’s Docudays UA now that so many have already screened digitally)—wondered about the tech consequences of such a positive response to VOD. Didn’t the Doc Alliance servers get overwhelmed? Tabakov responded that other than a few glitches with the chat function, it all ran quite smoothly. Figuring out how to promote to each particular region proved the trickier issue.
Gladstein wound down the swift-moving hour by taking questions from the online audience. A female filmmaker asked for the panelists' predictions on what will happen come autumn and winter, when so many filmmakers are going to want to premiere their work. The ZagrebDox director delivered the unsatisfying honest response: Nobody knows. He actually hoped it would be crowded, but pointed out that if a second coronavirus wave sweeps through, that would not in fact be the case. Even IDFA, with its late November dates, was unsure whether the 2020 edition would happen live. And Puhovski was equally worried about 2021, when festivals will face a film shortage due to all the current productions that have stalled. On top of that, he expected—and feared—a coronavirus doc deluge, enough to have a series of "coronavirus festivals." In addition, there would be the issue of travel. Are people even going to want to get on a plane and attend events in the latter half of the year? In summary, festivals are going to change, no matter what.
The moderator, relaying a question via a smooth-running chat, asked Brochhagen whether the pandemic had changed MDR's programming. It hadn't, though he too warned of a shortage of docs in the near future, and likewise wasn’t looking forward to the "80 percent coronavirus proposals" he'd soon be receiving (the majority of which inevitably will be out of date by the time production is completed).
The final question, though, was from editor and director Barhamji, who asked his fellow panelist Tabakov about streaming for free at festivals. Shouldn’t filmmakers be receiving even a token amount for their work? The Doc Alliance executive director replied that the festivals themselves usually prefer this policy—in order to give as many films as possible publicity—but that she personally tends to favor the subscription model. Dealing with rights online, however, is a complicated process. Perhaps the only thing the pandemic hasn’t upended is one simple truism: Audiences who have long been conditioned to expect content gratis might see a price and decide to not watch at all.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.