Sheffield Fest Touts Itself as Major Funding Platform for Documentaries

Oscar-winner 'Searching for Sugarman' was first pitched at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2008

The festival's intense "Meet Market" pitching session, which has helped hit docs including 'Searching for Sugarman' and 'Five Broken Cameras,' celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The 2015 edition of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, the U.K’s leading documentary festival, wrapped up Wednesday after six days and the screening of 150 nonfiction films. But the reverberations from the festival’s noisy engine room — its bustling market, where doc makers from around the world attempt to lure international finance to their upcoming projects — are likely to be heard well into the next edition and beyond.

Over the past decade, this northern industrial town has developed a reputation as a motor for documentary finance, a place where filmmakers can meet — and hit up — the money people who can greenlight their next projects.

At the core of the operation is Sheffield's Meet Market (get it?), an intense two-day pitching session. It was here, in 2008, that the late Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul first pitched the idea that would go on to become the Academy Award-winning Searching for Sugar Man. Another recent success story was Emad Burnat's and Guy Davidi's Oscar nominee 5 Broken Cameras (2011).

Last year, £5.5 million ($8.5 million) worth of deals emerged from the two days, and the expectations are that this year's figures — on Meet Market’s 10th anniversary — could beat that.

The market's organizers pick 65 projects from 600 submissions. Potential investors preselect the filmmakers they are interested in talking to and the Sheffield fest sets them up in a series of 15-minute, carefully choreographed meetings, with investors changing tables at the ring of a bell. It's speed dating meets Shark Tank for doc cinema.

“The format is great, and I think a lot of people have tried to copy it,” says Mike Lerner, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy- and Sundance-winning producer behind The Square, Smash & Grab and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. “The reputation and the range and quality of the buyers that it attracts, I can’t think of anywhere better.”

“It’s pretty exhausting,” says Orlando von Einsiedel, the director of last year's Oscar-nominated Netflix Original doc Virunga, speaking after a day of meetings. Having attended Sheffield Doc/Fest numerous times as a finance-seeking filmmaker (his first short, Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul, debuted there in 2010), the Academy-nominated doc maker now finds himself on the other side of the table.

“We’ve got a new fund that is looking to award five to 10 feature length docs each year with up to £20,000 ($31,000),” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. The “Grain Labs” fund is being overseen by Andrea Cornwell, producer of recent titles Suite Francaise and The Last Days on Mars. Von Einsiedel says there were two standouts from the batch he met at the Meet Market.

“The trouble is, having been on the other side and knowing what it’s like, I want to give everyone the money,” he says.

The festival’s new head of programming and industry engagement Claire Aguilar claims Sheffield has become a “watering hole” for many filmmakers in the U.K. and beyond—this year the festival welcomed documentary filmmakers from Mexico, Latin America, Africa, China and even Japan.

Having previously attended the festival looking for content as an executive for ITVS, which sources docs for, among other things, its Emmy-awarding PBS show Independent Lens, Aguilar says that, with an international fund, Sheffield was the first place for her to meet many U.K. filmmakers in one spot.

But with the likes of PBS, SWSX and Tribeca in attendance, it’s also a major international player too, with guests saying that it now ranks alongside Canada’s Hot Docs and IDFA in Amsterdam when it comes to funding. Aguilar points to one of 2015’s hot titles, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which director Stanley Nelson pitched at last year’s festival — it found commissioning editors and the necessary financing.

“It’s very filmmaker-centered, most of the screenings are sold out, and to me it feels like 80 percent of that audience are filmmakers," adds Lerner. "So it really is a coming together of the industry. And for many it is an opportunity to network and meet international broadcasters and the like, there’s a palpable buzz. While I’m not saying this doesn’t happen with other festivals, it does seem very concentrated here.”

It’s as yet unknown which projects at 2015’s Meet Market, or the various other open pitching sessions across the festival, will be grabbing the awards-season headlines in the coming years. But with a grand total of £12.9 million — $20 million — handed out to projects in 2014, and more expected this time around, Sheffield Doc/Fest's illustrious alumni is only set to grow.