Berlin: Icon-Driven Documentaries Spark a Frenzy at EFM

Amy Still 5 - H 2015
Courtesy of A24 Films

Amy Still 5 - H 2015

With a global haul of $27 million and an Oscar triumph perhaps in the cards, the emotional Asif Kapadia music bio has triggered a wave of high-end nonfiction fare.

Fresh off the success of Oscar documentary nominee Amy, British director Asif Kapadia is now looking to repeat the feat with another major profile-led documentary, Maradona, which bows at EFM.

He and his producing partner James Gay-Rees also are teaming to produce Mat Whitecross’ untitled Oasis doc, first announced at AFM last year and hoping to pick up a U.S. buyer in Berlin.

With Liz Garbus’ Netflix title What Happened, Miss Simone? also among the Academy nominees, it’s clearly a purple patch for icon-driven docs.

“They’re suddenly considered theatrical propositions,” says Oli Harbottle, head of distribution at U.K. doc specialists Dogwoof, who adds that it was only those documentaries led by personality filmmakers, such as Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, that used to punch through at the box office.

But although the underlying foundation of success is in the expert craft involved (Harbottle says Kapadia and Gay-Rees have “raised the bar for the whole genre,” starting ?with their first hit, 2010’s Senna), there’s another major factor in making features beyond the typical TV-style talking-heads-plus-footage music or sport doc — especially when dealing with personalities, like soccer legend Diego Maradona, who has been covered numerous times before.

“There’s always a cheap version of these films that one can make, but what separates them out is exclusive content, the archive that no one has seen,” says Leo Pearlman, co-founder of British banner Fulwell 73, which has produced several sports and music titles and will bow its Usain Bolt doc, a profile of the star Jamaican sprinter, at EFM.

"Everyone has seen [Bolt] win, banging his chest with his arms out before he crosses the line, but if I’ve got exclusive content of his roommate having filmed him throughout the 2008 Olympics in their room, that’s something people would then go and pay to watch. It’s something they haven’t seen before."

But with this footage comes a greater cost, especially as those who find a once-thought-lost stash of video clips or recordings start to appreciate their potential value before handing them over to filmmakers.

“There are some people who think they’re sitting on a retirement plan,” says Gay-Rees, who says his top price point for making his docs is about $3 million (he adds that he’s planning to make more). “But there are those who just want to genuinely be a part of the process, and if you can convince them you’re going to be positive to the legacy, then they’re more inclined to participate and it’s not so much about the money. It always comes down to the money to some extent, but there’s a big spectrum of numbers involved.”
Towards the higher end of the spectrum, Pearlman said he heard rumors of a “hidden treasure” of Maradona footage of his time while playing for Napoli, now being used by Kapadia, as far back as 2005/6. “But the numbers being floated around at the time were eye-watering,” he says.
Gay-Rees admits securing the archive “definitely wasn’t cheap,” without revealing figures. “But luckily [Maradona] is a massive fan of Senna, so he really wanted us to do it and that made the competition a little bit easier.”

With costs being pushed up, estates spying a larger slice of the pie and sales banners feeling a growing demand, no doubt there’s a greater upward pressure on prices in the markets. Harbottle says that their “value in marketplace in terms of sales will almost certainly be increasing, because the box office results are proving these docs can be relied upon.”
But buyers are still going to inspect closely the offering before pouncing on whatever icon-led feature is offered.
“We’re still going to look at more than just a name, we’re going to look at the filmmakers, their track record… so I don’t think it’s as simple as saying ‘oh, we’ve got a film about XXX, we can therefore charge this much because Amy made so much money,” says Harbottle, whose Dogwoof has the UK rights for Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue.
In this regard, Kapadia’s Maradona should be snapped up fairly quickly, probably far speedier than Amy which had been on the market since Cannes 2013 before domestic rights were bought in April last year by A24.
Gay-Rees admits it was down to “simple pragmatism” that they avoided using talking heads when making Senna (“Ayrton wasn’t around to interview”). But it unconsciously helped create their own, highly-regarded, doc-making standard (despite the subject being alive, sources claim Maradona won’t have talking heads either) that places almost total emphasis on the quality of the footage.
But with changing technologies, such opportunities might not be around forever.
“Justin Bieber, for example, who has come up through social media, who snapchats, tweets, periscopes, instagrams, fuck knows what he does, constantly… in 30-40 years time, if someone says they want to make the definitive Bieber legacy film, what’s he showing?” asks Pearlman.
“There’s this feeling with sports and entertainment… has this era of this incredible lost archive you haven’t seen before, has it disappeared? Amy was right on that cusp.”