'Tough marketplace' at this year's Hot Docs

But audiences are still climbing at the documentary festival

TORONTO -- Toronto's Hot Docs festival has seen sold-out screenings this week for its documentary program, but a poor film financing climate has produced a quiet market.

Lorber Films did a pre-emptive acquisition of Gary Beitel's "The Socalled Movie" ahead of the film's North American premiere at Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary film festival.

But with fewer independent distributors and broadcasters purchasing one-off documentaries, hard times means buyers scrums and high-profile deals look to be a thing of the past at Hot Docs.

"It's a very tough marketplace," New York City-based indie producer Stuart Goodman ("Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force") observed.

Hot Docs executive director Chris McDonald said local audiences for screenings at Hot Docs, now in its 17th year, are expected to be up yet again this year.

"As we've grown, our audiences have grown, allowing us to attract stronger filmmakers, and so more festival programmers to our event," he said.

But filmmakers without distribution deals are looking at a new business model at this year's Hot Docs market: you pay for your film as it gets made, and possibly recoup by a broadcast sale and VOD down the road.

New York City-based filmmaker Christa Boarini is at Hot Docs trolling for finishing funds to complete post production on "The View From Bellas Luces," a documentary about the impact on her family after Boarini's mother was kidnapped in Guatemala by worshipers of a Mayan God idolized by local criminals for a $2.2 million ransom.

Boarini is finding it as difficult to piece together film financing at Hot Docs as piece together the events leading up to her mother's abduction.

"I'm here to get people behind my film, to get pre-sales, to ensure the film gets finished and gets out into the marketplace," she explained. Boarini isn't alone. Hot Docs' co-production market, the Toronto

Documentary Forum, got under way Wednesday, with indie filmmakers pitching to international broadcasters and financiers for co-production coin to complete their own projects.

It's a hard slog. In Canada alone, a deep TV ad slump has shrunk the number of broadcast slots for documentaries.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has its Doc Zone strand on Thursday nights, while CTV and Global Television have replaced one-off auteur, political or shock docs with multi-episode reality series better positioned to pull in ratings.

And that leaves securing theatrical release deals for indie docs a faint possibility at Hot Docs this year.

Peter Yager, managing director of Vienna-based sales agent Autlook Filmsales, said his recent theatrical release of the Swedish doc "Bananas!" by Fredrik Gertten was a fluke.

Yager said he envisioned a strong festival run and broadcast sales for the film about Nicaraguan banana laborers, and then a go on VOD. That is, until food giant Dole filed a lawsuit against the makers of "Bananas!"

"They (Dole) were stupid enough to take the case up, which gave our film much-needed publicity," Yager recalls, and in turn opened up the potential for a theatrical release after it bowed at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2009 over Dole's objections.

Theatrical distributors became immediately interested in "Bananas!," but deals weren't signed until Berlin until a legal cloud over the film had lifted.

Hot Docs' Chris McDonald insists the festival has become creative to create an after-life for its program. That includes enlisting Canadian distributor Kinosmith to release a Hot Docs-branded collection of DVD titles at Blockbuster Canada, HMV and other domestic retailers. Hot Docs is also marketing its selection on iTunes.

"We've had to be nimble, to form content partnerships, and to reinvent ourselves," McDonald said.

The Hot Docs festival runs through Sunday.
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