Doc Specialist Josh Braun on Virtual Dealmaking: "We Are Trying to Normalize It"

Courtesy of Subject
Josh Braun at his home office in Neptune City, N.J.

The Submarine co-president on the challenges of generating buzz without a festival, piracy concerns and why he's just starting to get "wistful" for traveling.

When it comes to festival documentary sales, Submarine’s success is unrivaled. Led by co-presidents (and twin brothers) Josh and Dan Braun, the company represented the last six doc Grand Jury winners at Sundance, including this year’s Boys State, a film that sold to Apple for a record-breaking $12 million. The Brauns also have spearheaded acquisition deals for six best feature doc Oscar winners, spanning from The Cove to reigning champ American Factory. Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, New York native Josh Braun, who oversees a staff of eight, is learning to navigate the “challenging” prospect of virtual markets like Cannes.

The 59-year-old doc specialist spoke to THR from his home office in Neptune City, N.J., about the upside of online selling, assuaging hacking concerns and why former HBO Doc Films president Sheila Nevins warrants big-screen treatment.

Has there been any sales activity since the lockdown?

Yeah, we’ve sold two or three films including Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President, which CNN bought. We have offers on two others. It’s been a slow process. It’s like an Earth-2 approximation of what normal might look like. 

What’s the game plan heading into this unprecedented virtual Cannes market?

Our process has been with selling the South by Southwest and Tribeca titles, we are trying to normalize it as much as possible. We are already in touch with all the buyers, so I think it’s just maybe a little bit more of an international extension of our regular ongoing conversations with the domestic buyers.

What are the biggest challenges to virtual selling?

It’s the expectation. Because you can’t count on [the buzz]. Let’s face it, a lot of films are seen and sold by Vimeo links, but it’s after they’ve premiered at a festival and people have seen them in theaters. So it’s challenging because you don’t have the context of a film having played through the roof in the theater with 400 people and there’s incredible word of mouth. That’s no longer possible. But for us, if we choose great films, people recognize great films on a Vimeo link.

What are the biggest advantages to virtual selling?

Not having to travel. Right before the pandemic, I was just so tired of traveling. But I’m finally getting a little wistful about it. 

Are there any concerns at this point about hacking when selling titles virtually?

There has been some concern about films that play at an online virtual film festival, and I think that that is more just being careful, coordinating with festivals to make sure there’s Geo-filtering, [a technology that can block web traffic from entire countries] and there’s very clearly defined limits as to how many people can see a film. There is still the possibility that someone could watch a movie, shoot it on their iPhone and put it up on YouTube, but I think it’s a small concern. But we always want to be extra cautious. 

Considering the Boys State mega-sale, how much is Apple going to change the doc landscape?

In our discussions with them, they are being curatorial in a different way than some of the other platforms. They don’t seem to be going for volume as much. I feel like they are really in that — it may seem ludicrous to call Apple a boutique — but it seems like their sensibility was almost like they pick what they really want and they really get behind it. If that continues, that’s a great option but maybe not for a giant number of films.

You’ve been involved in two doc sales with the Obamas — American Factory and Crip Camp. What was that experience like?

I’ll have to check with my security advisor if I can answer that question and get back to you [Laughs].

You co-sold the Billie Eilish doc to Apple for $26 million. Are you seeing a greater hunger for music docs?

Amid the realities of the pandemic and people adjusting to a new way of doing things, there’s a never-ending interest in finding the right music doc. It’s often something big and obvious and of the moment, like Billie Eilish. But it really comes down to what is the take, who is the director, what is the access and how exclusive it is. If there’s never been a film about a certain artist and suddenly they’re giving access to their archive, that’s a big thing. But if you look at Searching for Sugar Man, that was the classic example of a music film that was more about the story and couldn’t be sold on the musical artist because no one had heard of him. 

What’s the one great doc subject that needs to be tackled that hasn’t been yet?

One on [current head of MTV Documentary Films] Sheila Nevins. Everyone in the doc community has talked about that and why can’t we figure out a way to get Sheila to agree to be the subject of a documentary. That’s the one I would most like to see.