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"The platforms are shaking up the formats and narrative modes of the documentary"

Industry Report: Documentary

Mathieu Béjot • Director of strategy and development, Sunny Side of the Doc


The director of strategy and development of the event discusses the 32nd edition (from 21 to 24 June) and current trends in the market and financing of documentaries

Mathieu Béjot  • Director of strategy and development, Sunny Side of the Doc
(© Jean-François Augué/Studio Ouest)

An unmissable event for this type of film, the 32nd edition of Sunny Side of the Doc, the international market for documentary and narrative experiences, will unfold online from 21 to 24 June (with, in particular, 42 selected pitches - read the news), but La Rochelle will host a hybrid 5th edition of PiXii (the International Festival of Digital Cultures).

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Cineuropa: The 2021 edition of Sunny Side of the Doc will take place online  for the second year in a row. What adjustments have you made?
Mathieu Béjot: We first experienced a bit of frustration, because we’d really hoped that we’d be able to organise a hybrid edition with a physical presence at La Rochelle. But the evolution of the situation, and the requisitioning of the Encan space as a vaccination centre — which we are very happy about, since it will help us all find a way out of this crisis — has complicated our organising process. When we were forced to opt for an online format, we thought back on what had happened the year before and adjusted our offer. First of all, we are taking into consideration something that is the case with all online events: they are followed from home, from the office, where people’s attention is called to many other things and where guests’ availability isn’t the same as it would be at a physical event, where they would spend four days in an isolated bubble. That’s why we decided to open the market platform on 7 June, two weeks before the event, so that everyone can start working, see who will be attending, have a look at the programmes, watch things in the video library, look at the projects that are being pitched, organise their meetings in advance, in order to better manage their time, because we know that all of this cannot be done in four days. Then, we analysed the results from last year since a lot of things have happened since, both in a good way for us, since everyone has grown more comfortable with virtual interactions, but also in our realisation that we need to be extremely concrete and fast, with shorter sessions, a quicker rhythm. Therefore there will be few panels about broad, general topics: we really want an exchange of experiences and a greater interactivity. That is the basis of success for online events. We are structuring every day around the pitching sessions, which remain the heart of Sunny Side of the Doc. We have simplified them a little, to account for the differences in time zones. Where we used to repeat those sessions in the morning and in the evening, French time, in order to reach Asia and Europe on one side, then Europe and the American continent on the other, we have preferred this year to gather everything in the middle of the day.

The health crisis has put an emphasis on development. Did you receive a higher number of pitches?
The quantity of pitches was quite high, but that is also because we changed the rules for submissions. We used to have rather strict criteria, where we asked that the projects already have one third of their financing guaranteed to ensure that we could present viable projects on the international market. But to take into consideration the present situation, where many projects were developed this past year without having had the time to find all their partners, we removed this limit and now take on projects earlier in their development. But this increase in the time dedicated to the development of projects also has a positive effect on their quality. There is also a very strong need to re-establish dialogue with the decision makers, hence the importance of pitching sessions for the entirety of the docs industry. We also have high expectations for the Talent Hub, with among others films from female directors, because it is very important to ensure a greater diversity of voices.

Geopolitical documentaries are apparently all the rage. Is that a trend you’ve noticed?
It’s hard to say, because we represent a very diverse industry. We have the large traditional broadcasters, among them the European public channels in particular, private channels which focus on a slightly different type of documentaries, platforms, foundations, etc. But it’s true that we have received many rather powerful projects about geopolitical questions, and we can see that this trend corresponds to a need to decrypt a rather complex world, a world that moves, in particular with the new president in the US and the consolidation of regional powers. We had already noticed this trend in February when we organised the Global Pitch event, which was concerned with everything to do with investigation and Current Affairs documentaries, which are in high demand.

What is the influence of the rise of streaming platforms on documentary content?
The platforms are shaking up the formats and narrative modes of the documentary, by trying to get out of structures which can appear perhaps more formatted in the films of traditional broadcasters. What’s interesting is that this affects and helps everybody. When the public gets into the habit of watching documentaries on platforms like Netflix and Amazon, it gives them a taste for and a greater understanding of this kind of film, which will naturally have an impact on the entire industry. We will actually have a roundtable to see how documentary filmmakers can work with Netflix, what their expectations are. What often stands out, is the somewhat more cinematic look that the platforms sometimes expect, the way they are perhaps more interested in story and narration than in specific topics. There is a renewal of the genre that is really interesting.

Is the multiplication of distribution channels favourable to the financing of documentaries?
There is an addition of capital, new markets, new sources of financing in the genre, in particular on the behalf of the platforms, but documentary remains a rather fragile genre and one that can be costly, especially when we take the time to construct stories well and to go look for the images needed. There are worries currently, in France and internationally, about financing. But we must remember that in a certain number of countries, such as those from Central and Oriental Europe (which is our focus this year), distributors do not have the same involvement in the financing of documentaries as France, for example. That is why co-productions and the existing systems of support in Europe are absolutely fundamental to maintaining the diversity of the documentary genre.

A word about the 5th edition of PiXii (the International Festival of Digital Cultures). Is there a real market for these immersive experiences?
The market is still under construction, without a truly established business model. There is also a conjunctural difficulty, since this past year has been rather difficult: cultural institutions, museums, LBEs (location-based entertainment) closed their doors, lost their public and their resources. But what we are interested in precisely is to work on how this market is structured, on how the producers and the people giving orders who commissioned immersive experiences are trying to find places to exploit these works in order to ensure perennial modes of financing and reduce the risks for investors. Beyond those circumstantial difficulties, we can feel that things are falling into place, with more sharing and circulation of experiences.

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(Translated from French)

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