New distribution model floated at Hot Docs

Rights to be sold piecemeal, rather than all-rights deals

TORONTO -- As the theatrical market for documentaries slowly dries up, filmmakers attending Hot Docs in Toronto on Tuesday were told it might be time to sell rights piecemeal rather than pursuing the holy grail of all-rights distribution deals.

Annie Roney, president of Roco Films International, told a Hot Docs distribution panel that a new paradigm in distribution has emerged, one that sees producers and sales agents divide up all rights -- theatrical, broadcast, DVD and online media -- and find the best partner to exploit each venture.

"An all-rights deal may not turn out to be what a filmmaker hoped for, and may not serve them as well as an organic deal that parses rights," Roney said.

Louise Rosen, managing director of Louise Rosen Ltd., also urged that a back-end deal that launches a film in partnership with a sales agent "seems to be the most satisfying for the filmmaker."

Rosen added that, while theatrical deals for docs are few and far between these days, factual films continue to find homes with broadcasters and a growing educational market, and those markets need to be exploited.

Anais Clanet, head of sales and acquisitions at Paris-based Wide Management, agreed that doc makers are beginning to draw back from all-rights deals to forge their own destiny in the marketplace with a slower roll-out across multiple platforms.

But while the theatrical bubble has burst, distributors in Toronto are still pitching documentarians on all-rights deals that, with discipline and patience, can work.

Laure Parsons, director of home media sales and marketing at Zeitgest Films, said the problem is not distributors that grabbed all film rights, but building an effective roll-out strategy that exploits all market opportunities.

"If (distributors) love the project, they can integrate the work in the market. If you piecemeal a film, you may not get as large a bang for your buck," Parsons said.

Zeitgeist Films last week picked up U.S. rights to Jennifer Baichwal's "Act of God," which opened Hot Docs last Thursday.

But otherwise, a quiet Hot Docs market has spawned few deals of note.

Udy Epstein, a principal with 7th Art Releasing, cautioned that a modest theatrical doc release should be seen as a means to an end: an Oscar nomination or publicity that fuels a DVD or broadcast release.

"The sexiness of the documentary changes. We try to keep the trend going for films that may not be theatrical," Epstein said.

While filmmakers were told to pursue TV deals, they also were warned that broadcasters remain wary of dealing with docs when a theatrical distributor is already on board. And launching a movie online, whether with Netflix or Hulu can be complicated if a broadcaster wants the VOD rights.

Canadian filmmakers at Hot Docs also pointed to conflicts of interest among domestic cable operators that could curtail funding for homegrown factual films from the newly established Canadian Media Fund.

"This source of funding is critical for independent producers, and is now under threat due to the federal government's proposed changes, which place ultimate control over the allocation of funds in the hands of the cable companies," filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal said at a Toronto press conference staged by the Documentary Organization of Canada.