Anaïs Clanet • Sales agent, Reservoir Docs
"The marketing has to be brought to the buyers on a platter"
- The French sales agent discusses the strain of documentary markets, frustrated acquisition strategies, the standardisation of Crime Stories and the gap between festivals and broadcasters
After heading Wide House, Anaïs Clanet funded (with Frédéric Corvez as an associate) and has been heading since 2020 the French international sales company Reservoir Docs, specialised in documentary.
Cineuropa: You recently stated that the documentary film market had become much tighter. However, many documentaries are released in cinemas. How do you explain this paradox?
Anaïs Clanet: These documentaries are released in cinemas, but they sell extremely few tickets: they make no profit, cost money and put distribution companies in difficulty. Because not all documentaries are calibrated for the cinema. There is also a problem linked to TV channels and platforms, because they produce so much that they don’t need external content: we’ve therefore gone from around fifteen documentaries acquired per month from international sales agencies, to just one, so we’re all fighting for just one slot. And because French production hasn’t decreased, since it is still supported by public authorities in the same way, which is a very good thing, we find ourselves with an enormous amount of films for a very limited number of spaces internationally. I spend my days telling producers “no.” Institutions should shed a light on this reality for the attention of producers and directors: they run the risk of not finding anyone to export their film and no international exposure, because today the market is very tight. In my line-up, I take between seven and nine documentaries per year, while I was taking 15 in 2020. All my colleagues are doing the same thing, even if many of them say that everything is fine, but that’s not true. Things are indeed better, we can sense a resumption of activity, but you have to work with big auteurs, about obvious topics, and you need to reinvent yourself. There are many films that I was taking onboard three years ago that I will never again be able to take. That’s the truth.
What is an obvious documentary, for a sales agent?
We can take the example of A Sudden Glimpse To Deeper Things by Mark Cousins which is ready and whose arrival in my line-up I’ve just announced. He is a documentarian who is a film director, who gets invited by the directors of all major festivals and who brings with him a very particular audience, but an audience nonetheless. It’s a film in English, it’s art (the film centres on Scottish painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham) and Tilda Swinton will be its narrator. For the cinema, documentaries need to be special, while for television, they need to be about History, WWII, this kind of thing, or in the category Arts & Culture there are documentaries like Michel Gondry – Do It Yourself which I began selling in Venice with deals that are coming to fruition only now. These are almost the only things that sell. The rest no longer exist.
What about documentaries that are completely outside of the standards?
Since 2014, documentary cinema had really found its place in terms of global commercialisation. There were more and more buyers, platforms were becoming interested... The pandemic changed all that and made us take a few steps back. But that isn’t final and we can already feel that 2024 will go in the right direction. However, now, it’s impossible to take risks and to go towards unclassifiable documentaries. I suffered for three years with this, so I am currently going towards what to me seem like obvious choices, like Ghosts of the Sea by Virginia Tangvald, a thriller and an incredible family history.
We have to go towards works that do not limit documentary cinema to the documentary category, and that have their place in A-list festivals. Today, buyers are only looking at the A list, meaning Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice. There are thankfully a few counter-examples such as the documentary about James Bond, The Other Fellow, which hasn’t been in any festivals because it’s purely a marketing film and on which sales agents quickly took a position. But the marketing has to be brought to the buyers on a platter: if there isn’t any marketing and the film is very personal, there’s nothing we can do. However, where the topic is strong, we can be as original as we like, which even increases chances of exportation. That being said, I think and I hope that current market tendencies are only temporary and that buyers will once again take an increasing interest in films that are a bit off the beaten track. That is my dearest wish.
The biggest platforms favour the "Crime Stories" documentaries. Does this risk influencing the future tastes of the public?
Unfortunately, yes. We are fighting against that. All documentary sales agents offer programmes that we find "intelligent" and that try to show the world, reality, life, they’re not only about scammers or female serial killers. We’re fighting against "Crime Series" of an appalling banality, against a very standardised form. It’s good to offer some, but there also needs to be something else, and today, these other things are no longer there.
Are festival markets a true alternative for sales agents?
Not really, because festivals are increasingly ultra-auteurs, ultra-independent, ultra-experimental, which I can totally understand and respect because they want to offer an alternative way to commercial documentaries. But that is an extreme way and us sales agents, we find ourselves caught in the crossfire with festivals that do not want our films which are a little too marketing-like, while TV channels and platforms find those films not commercial enough. I am exaggerating, of course, because I have some films that tour festivals a lot, but these are very thematic films. However, I think that festivals should very seriously think about young audiences and what documentaries to offer them. Globally, the industry struggles to understand exactly where to position itself today. We should join forces, but we’re not doing it.
Beyond A Sudden Glimpse To Deeper Things and Ghosts of the Sea, what are some other titles in the Reservoir Docs line-up?
Also arriving in 2024 are Eyes of the Soul [+see also:
film profile] by Spain’s Carlota Nelson and The Renaissance Prince by Norway’s Emily Louisa Millan Eide, two films about art with very original angles and two films that are very marketable. We are also finalising A Hip Hop Minute by Belgium’s Pascal Garnier which will see LL Cool J among others taking part in the promotion. And we shouldn’t forget After The Evil by Tamara Erde which explores the ideas of sociologist Gitta Sereny about evil and the moral compass.
(Translated from French)
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