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With Sundance Boost, Even Original Documentaries Could Make a Comeback in 2024

By Anthony Kaufman

Photograph of an elephant suspended from a sling, being loaded onto a ship.

A still from Soundtrack to a Coup d’État by Johan Grimonprez. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by British Pathé

A dizzying, fast-paced, 150-minute montage about American jazz, Western imperialism, European colonization, and the assassination of Congolese president Patrice Lumumba, Belgian director Johan Grimonprez’s epic essay-film Soundtrack to a Coup d’État is not your typical Sundance documentary. Like the cinematic love child of Adam Curtis and Raoul Peck, the documentary landed in Park City like a secret weapon, exploding the minds of unsuspecting viewers. As one “Conner B.” wrote on LetterboxdCoup d’État  was “by far the most exciting and electric thing from Sundance 2024.” 

Although Conner’s view may not be a mainstream one, and perhaps doesn’t reflect the broader economic landscape for documentaries, there was a sense on the ground in Park City that nonfiction could energize audiences and buyers as much as fiction—which has not been the case for over a year. 

Among Sundance’s buzziest films, in fact, were three other documentaries: European directing duo Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, which Warner Bros. Discovery bought for a reported $14–15 million; Jeff Zimbalist’s Skywalkers: A Love Story, which Netflix acquired for “high-seven figures,” according to the film’s producers, XYZ; and the Will Ferrell road-trip trans-coming-out story Will and Harper, also acquired by Netflix. The films received standing ovations, played to Peter Ettedgui audience’s heartstrings and thrills, and like Hollywood properties, fit into already proven prepackaged boxes familiar to such media companies (respectively, “Superman meets STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” “Free Solo meets Man on Wire,” and “Will Ferrell road-trip comedy”).

But perhaps the more surprising news is that there is also an offer on the table to distribute Soundtrack to a Coup État in the U.S., according to Josh Braun, the head of prominent sales company Submarine Entertainment, which is representing the film.

“There was nothing at Sundance quite like it,” admits Braun. “It does have its own space and its own lane, but there definitely is a specialized market for a film like that.”

Although the streaming strata of the entertainment industry and pay-one-SVOD deals still dictate the terms of the overall business and hold dominion over theatrical-driven “specialized” and independent distributors, the interest from corporations in a film like Super/Man may have a trickle-down effect, showing a revitalized potential for a wider range of film festival discoveries and independent documentaries.

In addition to Coup d’État, Submarine had eight films going into Sundance, half of which have distribution offers. “I’m feeling pretty positive that we’ll make some deals in the next week,” says Braun, whose company was representing several standout documentaries, including Union, Brett Story and Stephen Maing’s direct cinema chronicle of the efforts to unionize a New York Amazon facility. (For Union, those connected to the film acknowledge that a more creative distribution approach may be necessary given the film’s critical take on Amazon, the parent company of the prominent streamer and TVOD platform.) 

As this story was going to print, Submarine had also reportedly negotiated a deal with Netflix to acquire the Audience Award–winning verité tearjerker about a “Daddy Daughter Dance” for incarcerated fathers. A year ago, a social issue film such as Daughters, even with the backing of Kerry Washington and Jerry Seinfeld (as it has), would still have struggled to find a home. 

“What’s heartening is how buyers are interested in the films that aren’t the big celebrity thing,” says Braun. “A lot of the industry looks at what worked the year before, but since little worked the year before, you can get excited about a lot of different things.”

Submarine also has distribution offers for Eno, Gary Hustwit’s inventive “generative documentary” about the celebrated British composer and music producer that never plays the same way twice, thanks to a software program that mixes up the structure at each presentation. For Braun, the film offers skeptical buyers an opportunity for a built-in “eventized” release—where fans could come back for repeat viewings to see different versions of the film.

“Theatrical buyers were much more engaged in the documentaries,” agrees Jason Ishikawa, co-head of sales at Cinetic Media, which represented Super/Man as well as Devo, Chris Smith’s entertaining and irreverent portrait of the new wave band, which is also heading for distribution. “Rather than talking about a platforming wait-and-see mentality,” referring to slow rollouts in theaters, Ishikawa said companies were “looking to release these films in a pretty aggressive away, committing to making them work theatrically.”

While robust theatrical releases for Super/Man and Skywalkers have not been confirmed yet, wide releases could make for the kind of much-needed hits that the broader documentary market needs, say insiders. 

“Although they [theatrical distributors] feel it’s risky because they can’t point to audiences showing up in theaters recently,” says Jason Resnick, a documentary sales and acquisitions consultant, “it’s only going to take one breakout hit in theaters, and then they all will be racing to release them again.”

Dan O’Meara, EVP of nonfiction at indie studio Neon, agrees. “The only way the theatrical market for documentaries recovers is that those films that everyone saw and were excited about at Sundance end up getting meaningful theatrical releases,” he says. “We need titles like that to rejuvenate the documentary market. Watching Super/Man is a cathartic experience in a theater, and it’s just not the same watching it alone.”

O’Meara was also heartened by Sundance’s theatrical screenings of a more idiosyncratic doc that Neon produced, Seeking Mavis Beacon. A surprise under-the-radar favorite in Sundance’s NEXT section, following director Jazmin Jones’s investigation into the origins of a 1980s computer program featuring a Black woman on its cover, Seeking Mavis Beacon is a wild mix of personal narrative, historical mystery, and probing meditation on representation, race, and privacy that was always intended as a theatrical documentary, according to O’Meara. 

While their successful Sundance screenings affirmed Neon’s confidence in an audience’s in-person experience of the film, O’Meara admits the theatrical market for specialty films and documentaries “has not recovered to what it was pre-COVID, and it might not,” but he says that’s why it’s so “important” that Seeking Mavis Beacon “feels original and different from what you can watch at home.”

Originality, inventiveness, emotional storytelling, and just as importantly for the industry, the persistent hunt for awards all may yet work together to bolster the documentary business in the coming year.

According to some industry insiders, the announcement during Sundance of this year’s particularly eclectic batch of five Oscar-nominated documentaries (all foreign, two of which, 20 Days in Mariupol and The Eternal Memory premiered in Park City a year earlier) didn’t tangibly affect business on the ground in Park City. But it was inevitably part of the sales conversation around certain titles.

According to Cinetic Media’s Ishikawa, Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Grand Prize Winner A New Kind of Wilderness, about an unconventional, ecologically minded family living off the grid in Norway, was being identified as a “as a kind of surprise Oscar film,” he says. But Ishikawa maintains that an unexpected Academy nod was not at the top of mind in negotiations. “I lead with its accessibility, its relatability, and the inspirational nature of the story, which all speaks to a larger audience,” he says. “The idea is to run a theatrical campaign around the film, build audiences and word of mouth, and then let the momentum build to potential awards conversation.”

Similarly, on the first day of the festival, Netflix announced its purchase of a very different kind of documentary than sensationalistic fluff like Skywalkers called Ibelin, a heartrending Norwegian portrait of a boy with a severe form of muscular dystrophy and his secret and exuberant life in the videogame World of Warcraft. On the surface the documentary doesn’t sound like typical Netflix nonfiction fare, but the acquisition of the film—and a commitment to an awards-qualifying theatrical run—offers further evidence that larger companies are still very much in the documentary awards race.

Still, despite a more positive outlook for documentaries than a year ago, a lot of executives in the industry are staying cautious with their optimism. 

“It does feel like there is more engagement,” says Impact Partners’ Jenny Raskin, an executive producer on some of this year’s more artistic award-winning documentaries such as Gaucho Gaucho and Sugarcane. “I don’t feel like the floodgates are opening,” she continues, “but it does feel different from last year, when the doors were shut immediately.”

“I don’t see this as an immediate fix for the issues in the documentary space,” echoes Josh Braun. “We have to see what happens with SXSW and Berlin and Tribeca, but I think it’s fair to say that that the buying and selling at Sundance marks the start of the season, and it was a good start to the season.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article reported that Netflix’s acquisition of Skywalkers was $4-5 million.

Anthony Kaufman is an assistant professor at the New School and a film journalist. He has written for the New York TimesLos Angeles TimesChicago TribuneVillage VoiceSlateVarietyWall Street Journal, and other publications.