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Sunny Side Turns 25; US Professionals Assess Doc Market

By madelyn most

From June 23-26, Sunny Side of the Doc, France's international documentary marketplace nestled in the charming historic seaport on the Bay of Biscay called La Rochelle, festively celebrated 25 years since its 1989 Marseille launch.


La Rochelle, France, the site of the 2014 Sunny Side of the Doc. Courtesy of Sunny Side of the Doc


Over 2,000 professionals from 58 countries in Europe, Asia, South, Latin and North America, Australia and Africa attended, including 244 commissioning editors and buyers, and 468 companies exhibiting. A substantial Chinese delegation with daunting financial resources livened things up considerably and generously hosted evening en plein air receptions and a sunset cruise, which thrilled everyone as we passed by l'Ile de Ré.    

After the success of the Asian Side of the Doc last March, there are currently 15 co-productions between France and China about to be signed, whereas five years ago there were none. Brazil, South Africa and Australia also came en masse. This hive of activity spread out over four concentrated days that included panels, pitch sessions, forums, workshops, screenings, working breakfasts and one-on-one meetings. At sunset, the socializing, networking and friendship-building began.   

Sessions tackling more thorny issues—government subsidies, contracts, charters, authors' rights, residuals, salaries and fees, pre-sales and co-production treaties—were managed by industry infrastructures like the CNC (France's National Center for Cinema), SCAM (Society of Multimedia Authors), SPI (Independent Producers Union), EDN (European Documentary Network), SATEV (Union of Audiovisual Press Agencies) and the USPA (Audiovisual Producers Union).


The main space for Sunny Side of the Doc. Courtesy of Sunny Side of the Doc


The prolific Sunny Lab explored how new media, transmedia, interactive behaviors and mass digital platforms (games, social media, Web docs, online services, shopping, intelligent objects) are impacting audiovisual programming. Six pitch sessions-devoted to  history, current affairs, interactive docs, science and nature, politics and society, and arts and culture—gave 35 directors and producers the chance to convince the commissioning editors and buyers of their project's importance, and was a learning curve for all. For those organized and resilient enough to endure 14 minutes on stage under the spotlight, rewards could have an immediate impact on their film's future—if one of these power brokers takes the microphone to declare an interest in the story and a commitment to becoming a partner.  

Hard to fathom why there were so few Americans present. I asked several of them about their experiences.

Ann Derry, editorial director for video partnerships at The New York Times says, "I was invited by the festival to speak in the Sunny Lab about transmedia, video and the news business, and what The New York Times is doing in that space. It's my first trip here and I met interesting filmmakers and transmedia producers from different countries. The melding of the documentary film world and the new media community is especially interesting—younger producers are segueing back and forth between different platforms and templates, and more established producers are venturing into new media and transmedia, with fascinating results. My job with the Times is to develop partnerships with producers, filmmakers and digital and conventional broadcasters, so attending Sunny Side opened up the door to more potential collaborations. It was a great experience."

Catherine Allan, senior executive producer at Minnesota-based tpt National Productions, explains, "I am here for the first time trying to line up co-production money from broadcasters for a history documentary. Sunny Side is a great venue and there is a great hunger for documentaries like never before. But co-productions are so complicated, particularly for American producers who don't have a long history of working with international broadcasters, so this is not something you can put in place quickly. It takes a while to develop relationships. I really liked the pitching sessions; the pitches were mostly well organized and their reels were strong. The moderators were very supportive. They did a good job of pushing the decision-makers to say whether or not they would support a given project. I do recommend it." 


Courtesy of Sunny Side of the Doc


Donna Roberts, producer/director with her production company, Project Zula, lives in Pittsburgh and Brazil. "Sunny Side was a huge education," she observes. "It's a smaller, more manageable market, where people are more accessible, and distributors, commissioners, sales agents and producers are all speaking the same language. I am in the rough-cut stage of my film from Bahia, Brazil, and I had a consultation with a business affairs expert who identified an important selling point for my project to incorporate into my pitch. As a North American producer/director, I find that we often have a more narrow, limited, homogenous view of the world, while other countries are regularly observing other cultures and different ways of thinking, behaving and communicating."

Filmmaker Vivian Norris, who splits her time between New York and Paris, notes, "Being French-American, co-producing is ideal. Sunny Side is more low key than other markets. There is less distraction, so it's easier to meet decision makers, sales agents and distributers and have time to talk things through, make new contacts, learn about how to sell your film, and find co-production money for upcoming projects. The French have led the way in protecting culture from becoming just another product in a trade deal, and that alone makes the various French players important, but they are also looking to enter into more co-productions and sell more of their films internationally. Sunny Side has become more global than other markets with Asian, Latin Americans and MENA [Middle East North African] regions alongside Europe and North America. My film Obama Mama was in the market and available in the video library for screening, which gave it worldwide exposure. Attending Sunny Side of the Doc helps me understand how to co-produce a film in development by hearing what interests international audiences. It helps me keep up with what is going on with policies in the EU, where many countries offer incentives for co-productions, government subsidies and funds [derived from taxpayer money and TV taxes] towards film production."


A pitch session for a Chinese-French co-production. Courtesy of Sunny Side of the Doc


Tom Koch, vice president for distribution at PBS International, maintains, "It's the best  of times and the worst of times for documentaries—best, because there is a voracious demand; worst, because  prices are difficult. Technology getting so cheap  means it costs virtually nothing to enter into a project: a small camera, Final Cut Pro, a Mac computer and you're in business. Distribution costs are also low-you can put content up on YouTube for free—and while distribution methods have proliferated (cable, satellite, Internet, etc.), advertising budgets have shrunk. 

"There's a huge appetite for docs, but making a living at it is treacherous," Koch continues. "There are only so many slots out there. Finding multiple partners in multiple territories is complicated because broadcasters' tastes, and the audiences they serve, are dramatically different, so you attend those markets where your programs will be most relevant. At Sunny Side I pitched an entirely different set of projects from another market  I had attended two weeks before. In my world as distributor, funder and financer, the deal-making process is ongoing, ever-present and constant. It needs time and negotiation before it is completed. I had good meetings with the Chinese, we are doing a big project with the Japanese, and we concluded a very nice deal with French television, so it was extremely valuable for me. I was able to close quite a few deals, actually.

"At Sunny Side you can have substantive conversations with commissioning editors who, in general, can't travel as much to other venues anymore," Koch notes. "Producing has gotten so complicated these days, and they are busy with administrative tasks, but the constraints are not only financial and logistical, they are editorial as well. Today the broadcaster wants something that almost directly connects their immediate audience to the subject. Of course, science and nature programs travel easily, but history programs automatically have to have a local component. In the US there are lots of factual programs but fewer slots for rigorous programs that are journalistically rich or that have a point of view-that is too complicated for most broadcasters."

According to John Lindsay, the former vice president of content at the Seattle-based PBS station, KCTS, "American media organizations—public service, cable, commercial—are drifting away from international marketplaces because of the increasing emphasis on  local/domestic stories and reality programs. This disturbing trend reflects the growing disconnect between the US and the rest of the world. Today, you have to think globally, not just locally. How ironic that such tremendous co-production business opportunities are being ignored or overlooked at a time when money for public media in the US is very tight. Asia, and especially China, have huge expanding markets and audiences, and at Sunny Side we met several of their media leaders, who showcased some extraordinary programs from that region. I think American producers and media executives need to attend markets abroad to fully grasp how vibrant global programming partnerships have become. This is a relationship-driven business, and developing those ongoing relationships has never been more important. America's media decision-makers share a responsibility to shape a more informed, alert and engaged public that can face the serious and threatening challenges in the world today."


Madelyn Grace Most is a member of French Film Critics, Union of Cinema Journalists, Foreign Press Association, Anglo-American Press Association, Reporters Sans Frontieres Paris and Frontline Club, London. She writes about film and develops documentaries and fiction films.