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Baltic Sea Docs 2021

Industry Report: Documentary

Baltic Sea Docs and Creative Europe MEDIA organise a seminar on distributing documentaries in Covid times

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The seminar put a spotlight on loss of income from distribution during Covid and how this is might become a long-term problem for independent documentaries

Baltic Sea Docs and Creative Europe MEDIA organise a seminar on distributing documentaries in Covid times
Gitte Hansen, left, and Jenny Örnborn, right, at the seminar

On 7 September, Baltic Sea Docs (1-12 September 2021), the leading documentary training and pitching forum in the Baltic countries, hosted a seminar on distributing documentaries, organised in collaboration with Creative Europe MEDIA. The event, titled “Film Distribution while the Traditional Methods are Blocked (and how and why this especially hurts documentaries),” saw the participation of Gitte Hansen, who has been working as a sales agent and producer for almost twenty years and is now an independent film consultant, alongside Jenny Örnborn, who works as a production controller of documentaries for the Swedish Film Institute.

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Speaking about the seminar’s main purpose, Hansen said that the idea was to put a spotlight on the loss of income from distribution during COVID and how this is a problem for independent documentary in the long run. “Before the pandemic, festival launch was crucial for creative feature documentaries. It was hard to sell them without festival buzz. Later, private streaming platforms brought new opportunities and introduced new strategies,” she said. The lack of data transparency was (and still is) a major issue, though. Moreover, many platforms offered shared revenue deals, hardly paying upfront. Meanwhile, sales agents had to travel a lot as many unpredictable deals could be sealed during festivals. The first difficulties that emerged with the pandemic were to sell finished films online and to gain financing through pitching. As a consequence, buyers began to acquire less titles.

Next, Örnborn spoke about the uncertainty that followed the first wave of the pandemic in Sweden. Notably, theatres never closed in Sweden, but the major cinema chain did (accounting for 70% of the local admissions) and only 8 people per screening were admitted. As a response, the institute implemented a compensation scheme to make up for the loss of profits, wherein the body had to take into consideration any type of loss (theatrical releases in Sweden and overseas, confirmed festival or market participations, TV sales, etc.) and whether the project had a sales agent and a distributor attached. Thus, the body opened a call and had to define an eligible launching span, with the help of internal and external experts. “We had to come up with something realistic, so we determined that the first year from the launch pretty much defines the film’s income,” she explained. In the process, the institute asked production outfits to provide solid insights and estimates, which were carefully evaluated by the agency during the evaluation stage. Producers could also attach a letter from their sales agents and distributors, which helped to assess the project’s potential further. “We didn’t leave anyone out if requests were properly documented,” she clarified, “in total, we had 17 applications and four were deemed ineligible.”

In the last part of the seminar, Hansen and Örnborn agreed that speeding up the financing process can help filmmakers in completing their films quicker but also have a positive influence on the “distribution life” of the film. Later, Hansen praised festivals that are “doing great work in these difficult times” and said that the new opportunities brought by hybrid events are part of a new, growing trend: “We just need to learn how to work together and make sure that filmmakers can earn some money out of it,” she added, “It’s really difficult to release a documentary theatrically, it has always been so, but with this new approach to online distribution, maybe some titles will gain extra space, especially within festivals which have a brand and an audience in their country that filmmakers can benefit from.”

The seminar was brought to a close by a Q&A session covering, among other topics, the challenges of distributing documentaries in TV channels, the obstacles of online markets and the difficulty of building loyal spectatorship through VoD releases.

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