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"Una delle principali tendenze del documentario è quella di cambiare il modo in cui le persone guardano le cose"

Rapporto industria: Documentario

Mathieu Béjot • Direttore strategia e sviluppo, Sunny Side of the Doc

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Il direttore della strategia e dello sviluppo dell'evento parla della sua 34ma edizione e decifra le tendenze del mercato del documentario e dei finanziamenti

Mathieu Béjot  • Direttore strategia e sviluppo, Sunny Side of the Doc

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An unmissable market for the documentary genre, the 34th Sunny Side of the Doc is set to unspool between 19 and 22 June in La Rochelle (read our news). The event’s strategy and development director Mathieu Béjot chatted to us about this year’s edition, decrypting trends in the market and in documentary funding.

Cineuropa: How is this 2023 edition of Sunny Side of the Doc shaping up?
Mathieu Béjot: We’re going to be reconnecting with countries we haven’t seen in La Rochelle since 2019, namely China, and others which were still a bit hesitant last year, like Australia, the USA and Brazil. What we’re noticing overall is a very positive response from all over the world, from Europeans and non-Europeans. There’s real international enthusiasm for Sunny Side, which is pretty unique in the documentary field, because we’re the only event which is totally 100% market. And it doesn’t only revolve around pitches - we have a real market with stands manned by producers, international sales agents, broadcasters and lots of national representatives (Canada, Italy, Spain, etc.). Professionals come here to talk business, whether upstream for co-productions with project bearers who are attending the event to find artistic partners or backers, or downstream to sell finished documentary programmes.

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In terms of the pitching sessions, they’re part of Sunny Side’s DNA and one of our flagship activities, set apart by the fact they’re divided into themes: History, Science, Art & Culture, Nature & Conservation, and Global Issues, alongside current affairs and the realities of modern societies. Added to this is a session dedicated to New Voices - in other words first and second films - and another brand-new one for impact campaigns which are increasingly common in the documentary field: how do we reach beyond viewers in front of their screens to widen audiences and, most importantly, influence them by way of a politician changing the legislation on a certain subject, for example, or growing awareness of certain societal problems, appeals for donations, etc.: there’s a whole range of factors relating to impact and it’s becoming increasingly crucial, primarily because there’s a plethora of offers and unfortunately certain documentaries are disappearing a bit in the colossal stream of TV and platform programmes.

Did you pick up on any trends among the 320 projects which applied for your pitching sessions (42 of which were selected)?
Sustainable development objectives, as defined by the United Nations, are a key feature and not just in the Nature & Conservation category, but in Science, History, Arts & Culture, etc, too. Unfortunately - this is a sign of our times - conflicts feature pretty heavily in the different sections. And last but not least, there’s a growing tendency to showcase somewhat forgotten characters, especially women. Themes aside, it’s hard to get away from trends because we propose and we strive to propose an incredibly varied selection. We take care not to select blockbusters because we know those projects will come good, given that they’re steered by large production companies. We try to give a leg-up to producers or to subjects which are more specialised or lesser exposed but which have international potential, so that Sunny Side is a springboard and not just a market to validate projects which we know will be made. We have to take risks and accept the fact that not all the projects pitched will necessarily be made because it’s our responsibility as a market to open up possibilities to people who really need them.

From your vantage point, what type of documentaries are broadcasters looking for?
It’s hard to say, because we represent a huge number of broadcasters and genres, but there’s always a need for big event documentaries which will be broadcast at prime-time on TV channels, or which will perform well on platforms and enjoy lots of press coverage.

In terms of subject-matter, one of the major trends in documentaries is changing people’s outlooks, and that’s linked to the whole diversity-inclusion movement: these days, stories must be told by people who are qualified to tell them and we need to blend different viewpoints together; in other words, it can’t only be half a dozen Western countries using the documentary form as their playing field. When you’re looking to make a nature documentary, you can’t just send a French or English team to Africa, you have to include local talent too. And in addition to hiring local talent, you also need to cover new subjects, approach things from new angles when revisiting familiar subjects, whether in the fields of History, Science or Arts & Culture, prioritising authentic viewpoints which we haven’t heard enough of, until now.

We’re also going to organise a panel discussion on the forms intellectual property and different worlds can take on different media and in different formats. The idea is to look at how certain groups, including those working in traditional documentary production, are now taking a "digital first" approach and creating programmes for broadcast on social networks, as well as making podcasts and maybe even working on fiction and live performances; how rather than producing a documentary with just one TV channel, we now need to vary our funding sources. And that’s also a way of diversifying audiences.

On that subject, what about documentary funding?
The documentary genre is pretty multifaceted with massive output, but funding is fundamentally complicated. It’s an increasingly popular genre among audiences, but it doesn’t benefit from the aid that other genres do, because people think that they’re less expensive to make and, paradoxically, they sometimes expect them to reach the same prime-time audiences, even though they don’t have the same kind of budget as fiction films do, for example. Documentaries can cost a lot of money because they require a lot of research beforehand, and these days, people expect to see exceptional CGI in scientific documentaries, for example. What’s more, traditional broadcasters are experiencing financing issues due to the growing atomisation of audiences, meaning that advertising revenue is now going to digital sources. Traditional TV slots for documentaries are disappearing, which is obviously having an impact on documentary funding. The various platforms boosted the genre for a short time, but it’s clear they’re in a restructuring phase now, especially the American ones who are realising they’ve invested a lot in content but that, at a certain point, they also need to think about cost-effectiveness. So they’re tightening their belts in terms of investing in content. So it’s a paradoxical time because there seems to be a boost when it comes to documentaries which audiences are really fond of, especially 18-40-year-olds, who don’t trust the traditional media as a source of information and who are turning to documentaries to try to understand the world. But audience appetites aren’t necessarily matched by funding.

Has the emergence of documentary series changed things?
There’s a paradox in this sense too. Platforms have really boosted this format and there are more projects about, but sales agents are noticing that the market’s incredibly limited. Lots of producers tell themselves they’re going to work for Netflix, for example, and immediately launch themselves into series projects, but not all documentaries are cut out to be series. The documentary series format has the advantage of reaching younger audiences because the writing is akin to fiction, with cliff hangers and character construction. We understand the potential it has for breathing new life into documentary writing, but the market is very thin at present, with lots of supply but far less demand.

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