DFA docCHAT: Deep Dive into Tactical Distribution and Industry Trends
On 29 June during the 2022 Encounters Documentary Festival Khanyi Magubane from the DFA board hosted a docCHAT session with Rachel Gordon, documentary filmmaker and author of THE DOCUMENTARY DISTRIBUTION TOOLKIT and Nicola van Niekerk, Commissioning Editor for the true-crime documentary series Devilsdorp, Showmax’s first True Crime documentary series.
Khanyi asked Rachel to tell us more about her book – launched in 2022; The Documentary Distribution Toolkit is a comprehensive and practical film book, filled with resources and advice on self distribution and how to get your film out there!
While doing her MBA in the Arts and investigating how to be financially sustainable, she did a lot of research and interviews with distribution companies and filmmakers around Crowdfunding campaigns and wanted to write about the experiences of people and how that translated in the long term. During her research, she was encouraged to publish her writing and include a lot of case studies and practical info with chapters on Crowdfunding, Documentary Organisations & Festivals, Streaming, Non-profits, Education and Public Broadcasters Giving tools in each chapter, what the key takeaways are, what filmmakers should focus on and how to ask the right questions and make good partnerships.
Khanyi asked Nicola about the value chain of filmmaking, how to make a commercial entity and what filmmakers should be thinking of, once their projects are completed. Nicola spoke about the importance of approaching the right broadcasters that aligns with your film, negotiating rights, and co-production treaties. Thinking about your film as a business deal is key. They discussed the importance of film festivals and markets to establish connections and grow your professional profile.
Nicola explained the process to submit unsolicited proposals to ShowMax via their portal, What they are looking for and what to avoid and the importance of having your research done and a solid proposal with permissions on the table. Showmax is looking for strong commercial ideas to keep audiences glued to their screens and crosses all demographics and appeals to a broad audience.
Rachel emphasised the importance of connecting to the correct audience and looking at your film from the perspective of the audience you want to reach, where it will fit in and approaching the right channel/distributor. She also talked about deliverables and technical specifications required by the various international streaming platforms and the value of considering this during pre-production.
Khanyi asked Nicola about Commissions and Distribution Agents in the South African landscape specifically. Nicola spoke of the importance of filmmakers understanding the deals they are signing, as this inevitably impacts prospective deals. The panel discussed budgets, in particular the difference between grants and commissions and the filmmakers understanding the distribution plans, again knowing your market and audience. They talked about the appetite for African content. Deep, personal stories with the audience connecting to the story, packaging it in an authentic way for a global market, like the stories on Kweli TV.
Q & A
Question: If we can look at practical examples of working with Showmax, was Devilsdorp a straight commission and if so at what stage did Showmax get on board ie: how far in the process where the producers when they came to you? Did Showmax fund this in full or was there other funding involved and was Showmax the Distributor for that?
Nicola: Devilsdorp was an anomaly as it was generated internally, I was following the story very heavily, and works for MNet content hub, she read the story and was motivated for the funding. A tender process had been followed with a few production companies, to come with a creative approach. A full commission that was distributed fully by Showmax. Showmax owns the rights and receives all the profit from the story. Due to the success of Devilsdorp, it’s now being commissioned.
Question: What percentage should one allocate to a good sales promo?
Nicola: It’s a difficult question as it depends on the size of your budget, people do not allow physical time for their sales promos. Ie: Devilsdorp promo took 36 off-lines in order to get it ready. Allow more time in the Edit suit for Marketing deliverables. Even taking the project to a different Editor to look at the project with fresh eyes. Someone who does not know the story. Keep in mind that International Distributors have a very limited context to South African stories. The sales promo has to be visually appealing, has to keep them hanging, with curiosity. Ensuring you’ve allocated sufficient time and budget with your Editor for Sales elements,
Question: Are there any people or organisations that you have worked with to date to create documentaries that can be accessed via VR augmented reality headsets or tools and do you think making technologically creative or advanced films, how important is it for funders and distributors to see that your film is on trend?
Rachel: if it’s not related to your subject it becomes expensive and extra stuff, if the technology supports or facilitates the message of the film it makes sense. Most Organisations care more about production quality than innovative tools. Also consider the conversion of different formats, so focus on production quality rather than innovation.
Question: Are there any trends in Documentary filmmaking that you see emerging? i.e. Once off feature as opposed to series, it seems that festivals are primarily focused on once off films. Do you recommend doing a once off feature length film?
Rachel: There is a struggle in the documentary world, making the film and making sure it gets seen. Many filmmakers I’ve spoken to for the book, making a series is easier to sell to Television than one offs. You need to understand what the television station considers 1 hour as this may vary from channel to channel. Festivals focus on one off, if you go to markets, also depends on the audience you are trying to reach. Many times, Filmmakers need to do one offs, as proof of being able to complete a project,. Before you do a series.
Nicola: if you get stuck between a series and a full feature, ask yourself what the story is telling you. How sustainable would the story be in the time frame. Does it sustain for 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours?
Question: You mentioned having technical aspects in order before engaging with distributors, this may vary across distributors but is there a general checklist one could apply to documentary
Rachel: In the US, you need a type of insurance called errors and omissions, also do the research as this is country specific. Distributors like films to have this, as you are claiming that you have cleared everything in order to send it out to the world. It’s normally very costly but covers everyone involved in the eventuality of being sued. Cue sheets are very important, if you don’t have it, distributors will include this in the charge in the distribution agreement. Release forms from everyone, this is very important, talk to a lawyer or your local organisations for information.
Watch the replay of the docCHAT on YouTube
You can buy Rachel’s book: The Documentary Distribution Toolkit – How To Get Out, Get Seen, And Get An Audience, now on discount at Loot!