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Winds of Change Hit Hot Docs: Box Office Rises as Doc Industry Faces Growing Financial Crisis

By Marc Glassman

The Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, which wrapped on May 8 after 11 days of screenings, pitch sessions and workshops, had its iconic status with Toronto's discerning public confirmed again this year. Audience numbers rose to over 150,000, representing an increase of 11 percent over the previous year, while box office revenue showed a 24 percent jump over 2010. Yet despite increased national media attention and wide interest abroad, including massive delegations from Italy and the Netherlands, all was not sanguine at the festival.

 "There was a dip in delegates, in registration revenues. That's telling," notes Chris McDonald, executive director of Hot Docs. While pleased with the great success of the festival, he acknowledges, "These are difficult times for filmmakers in Canada. A lot of them are closing up shop. So we took a bit of a hit [in the industry side], but it was more than offset by the box office."

That's the current drama in documentaries--and the irony. Just as docs are hotter than ever, traditional sources no longer want to fund them. Canada's CBC and other publically minded broadcasters around the world have had their funding cut back significantly in the past half-decade. Commercial 'casters are designating reality TV shows as docs. In an economically challenged environment, with audiences diminished by the so-called 500-channel universe, docs with a point-of-view are rarely being commissioned.

In what was likely the most significant move at the festival, Hot Docs announced a new million-dollar initiative to finance films in Africa. The first international fund to be administered by the festival, it is financed by Blue Ice Films, a production company run by Neil Tabatznik and Steven Silver, whose feature docu-drama The Bang Bang Club has opened across North America in the past month.

A long shot of a round table discussion with three men speaking into microphones at one end
Hot Docs and Blue Ice Films announce $1 miilion production fund for African filmmakers. Photo: Joseph Michael

The South African-born Silver has lived in Canada for decades and is a former senior vice president of factual entertainment at one of this country's media giants eOne [Entertainment One)]. "He has been on our board for the past year and a half and during that time, he's gotten to know us," says McDonald.

"The fund is for African filmmakers," McDonald continues. "The non-equity grants will range from 10 to 40 thousand dollars. Each grantee will work with a Canadian company as a national partner. The Canadian companies won't necessarily be rights holders; it will be more of a mentorship process, depending upon how the project is structured.

"The point is to help the project in the international marketplace," he says. "There will be money set aside so that the filmmakers will be able to come to Hot Docs to take a place in the Forum and the festival and the marketplace."

The first application deadline for the fund will be in the fall of 2011, with guidelines to be announced in September. The five-member selection committee will be comprised of representatives from Hot Docs, Blue Ice Film and other international industry members.

McDonald points out that "this new initiative joins the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Funds in what we hope will be an ever-widening portfolio of production funds to support filmmakers, both in Canada and abroad.

"The marketplace is changing," he maintains. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to finance films in Canada. We've decided that there's a role for us to play beyond the conventional ways we've been supporting filmmakers. Creating funds to help filmmakers both here and abroad is an important part of that mandate.

 "Creating Crowdfunding sites and working with Crowdfunding partners internationally are important, as is fiscal sponsorship," McDonald explains. "So is encouraging Canadian foundations to support documentaries to the levels that we see their American counterparts do in media arts. We're being more pro-active than we have previously."

Another way that the festival encourages filmmakers is through the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Funds Forum Pitch Prize, which awards $40,000 to the best Canadian pitch at the Forum. On May 5, after over 120 industry stakeholders heard 28 pitches from 12 countries, Sarah Jane Flynn from Shaw Media gave the prize to Doc Pomus. The proposed film is a profile of the colorful blues belter, card shark and songwriter, who was one of the composers of "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me."


Long rectangle of tables with speakers sitting on one side, and an audience looking down at the forum from the sides
The Toronto Documentary Forum at Hot Docs. Photo: Joseph Michael

Injecting excitement into a lackluster Forum was The Jungle Prescription, a film proposed by the creative duo of Mark Ellam and Robin McKenna, with Nomad Films producer Mark Johnston, about the controversial ayahuasca vine, which is purported to have spiritual qualities. Perhaps something mystical rubbed off on the filmmakers, who went from winning the coveted last spot in the Forum by having their card chosen out of dozens in the oh-so-Canadian Mountie's Hat to being the co-recipients of the "real cash, no strings attached" prize for pitching a "powerful and unique project." That prize, garnered by passing around a Cuban Hat, included over $100 US, over $900 Canadian, two Euros, a shequel, two Brazilian Reals, one Australian pence and a Toronto transit coin, as well as much larger amounts from Montreal's Eye Steel Film and international sales agent Jan Rofekamp's Film Transit.

The winner of the Hat itself was commissioning editor Nick Fraser of BBC's legendary Storyville program. He was, as the Brits would say, "full value" for the prize, having called a project on writer John Irving "awesomely normal," while deeming a proposed film about an activist theater movement in Belarus "a fucking great project."

Given the confluence of filmmaking and financing at the festival, it's appropriate that Morgan Spurlock opened Hot Docs with POM Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (the filmmaker says that the title should just roll off your tongue). The deft repartee between Spurlock and Hot Docs senior programmer Sean Farnel after the screening won over the majority of the tastemakers who attend such occasions, but it's true that an ironic film about branding offended some hard-core documentarians. One in particular commented, off the record, that Spurlock's doc was "the most profoundly cynical film of all time." When the film started its commercial run on the second Friday of Hot Docs, it received quite favorable reviews.

With so many films attracting sell-out crowds, the choice of winners was highly contested. Nine awards and more than $72,000 were handed out as the festival neared its conclusion. The Best Canadian Feature, which comes with $15,000, was given to Family Portrait in Black and White, Julia Ivanova's compassionate treatment of a tough but loving woman who has raised a multicultural group of orphans in rural Ukraine. Dividing the second Special Jury prize worth $10,000 were At Night, They Dance, Isabelle Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault's film about a family of belly dancers in Cairo, and Thomas Selim Wallner's The Guantanamo Trap, about a German Islamist, who spent time illegally on the Cuban island as a prisoner of the US military. Interestingly, all the major Canadian prize-winning films weren't about indigenous events or characters.

Large group of adults and children posed on and around a couch for a family photo
From Julia Ivanova's award-winning Family Portrait in Black and White. Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Best International Feature, which is awarded $10.000, went to Dragonslayer, Tristan Patterson's devastating look at California during its present economic crisis. The Sundance Channel's People's Choice Award was given to Linda Goldstein Knowlton's Somewhere Between, a US film about four Chinese-born adoptees. Both US films fit as closely with the zeitgeist of today's perilous times as those of their Canadian hosts.


Based in Toronto, Marc Glassman is editor of Point of View magazine and Montage magazine.