Doc Blog

When it comes to international documentary sales, Films Transit is one of the most respected names in the business. This year at TIFF they're representing the titles The Dictator Hunter; A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman; and Operation Filmmaker (pictured). The company's main reps Jan Rofekamp and Diana Holtzberg supplied thoughtful answers to our questions below.

Q: What changes do you see in the documentary marketplace?

ROFEKAMP & HOLTZBERG:  The documentary market will see two major changes over the next few years and these changes are NOT in the field of theatrical and DVD because their mechanisms  are simple: can a film make money or not? Only a small percentage of all docs made can and could in the past. The theatrical and video area will continue to exist. But in spite of the hype it will remain a marginal market for docs. We foresee an increase in "low or very low advance" distribution offers, meaning little pay up front and little or no payoff at the end. However, since filmmakers are so eager many will do it, and therefore subsidize commercial companies with their films.

The changes are:

1) What we today know as broadcast will slowly disappear and will be replaced by online and on demand. Worldwide broadcast is seeing an enormous drop-off in viewers and this will not be stopped. That means that the "nice' flat fee broadcast sales (that actually will pay for some of the production, even if broadcasters do not come in during production) will slowly be replaced by on demand revenues. Flat fee broadcast revenue is the ONLY sure money in this business. All other media sales are to a certain extend speculation. And if we let the people choose what they want to view themselves, we know what we get. On demand revenues means wait and see who watches, with a small amount of revenue per tick. We believe that there will continue to be a future for some form of public broadcast, but it will increasingly be national content driven and will have limited space for international acquisitions.

2) The good thing is that with content sales thru the Internet (DVD or download), the active and entrepreneurial filmmakers can cut out distributors who usually take very high percentages. We believe that content self distribution will become an increasingly great force thru the Net to the benefit of the independent filmmakers. This will also mean artistic and political freedom, as most traditional distribution channels are full of restrictions: censorship, financial, format, not what they are looking for, you name it.

Q: What advice can you give doc makers on navigating distribution?

ROFEKAMP & HOLTZBERG:  The biggest problems today are: 1. the fierce competition from their own ranks: there are simply too many films around. 2. The lifespan of a doc has become insanely short. If a film is not sold within 6-12 months of its premiere, many buyers now think it has become an "old" film which is, in the documentary field, absurd. Buyers who have not even replied to you on your last slate are asking all the time for what's "new, new, new" when you meet with and speak with them again. It is ridiculous. Most documentaries are made to last. Since already many years fiction / narrative films have already fallen victim to the "2006 is an OLD film sydrome". That seems to be irreversible, but we MUST not allow docs to go the same way.

Our advice:

1) Look for a major "launch festival"
2) Get the film into as many A-list fests as you can after the launch fest.
3) If you so desperately wish for a theatrical distribution and are not offered a reasonable deal, set up theatrical through "work for hire" deals. Do not give all rights to one company unless the advance and terms are good.
4) Control your own content sales via the Net (and cut out high distribution commissions)
5) Get help with TV sales (a sales agent) as this is quagmire of increasingly ever-changing rules. Believe us, it is worth the commission.

Q: What do you hope to get out of Real to Reel this year?

ROFEKAMP & HOLTZBERG: TIFF is one of the few world scale launch fests and being there gives a film the 15 minutes of fame that it needs to get seen, spoken about and maybe get acquired in the area of Theatrical and DVD. The competition is fierce (too many films) but we need these spots. It is here that if you can get 20 or more theatrical distributors to see your film. If they all say NO, further attempts for theatrical is likely a waste of time, same with traditional DVD distribution. It is the best of test grounds. But you have to get the clients mixed with the audience: the clients watching on DVD or with 10 people in a 200 seater at an Industry screening does not usually work: they have to FEEL the audience reaction. It is the BEST way to find out about a film's theatrical and DVD potential.

Our films at TIFF, like all others, will submit to this test. One can say, no sales means a bad sales agent. But that is not true: Good sales agents know how to bring a film to their clients, but then the film has to perform, stand on its own feet. If the baby does not walk during those 15 minutes of fame, it will either crawl for a while as other festivals invite the film and more buzz is generated, and eventually begin to walk - or it will never walk in the theatrical and traditional video world.

Just being invited to a festival like TIFF means a lot. These launch fests are the filters used by clients. We sales agents make use of these filters. Wishing all much success at TIFF!

Check back to Doc Blog for more industry survey responses in the next week.

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