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Premiering Documentaries in a Pandemic

By Anthony Kaufman

From Katrine Philp's 'An Elephant in the Room,' which the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at SXSW.

It may sound hyperbolic, but there has never been a worse time in the history of the world to be launching an independent documentary into the marketplace. With film festivals shuttering, postponing or moving online, and distribution pipelines in limbo, the standard pathways for films to build buzz, garner audiences, and make a distribution deal have been short-circuited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By their nature, nonfiction filmmakers are accustomed to adversity; they're nimble and patient, always ready for unexpected events and sticking through projects over time. But the current circumstances are putting a strain on even the most resilient documentary filmmakers, whether due to the loss of crucial grassroots support that bubbles up around public events or the challenge of having a timely story that needs to get out as soon as possible in a world that is too hobbled to listen.

"Uncertainty defines the times," says publicist Susan Norget, who is representing five documentaries by first-time filmmakers set to world-premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. "I want to do whatever I can that makes the most strategic sense, but the key word is uncertainty."

Filmmakers are faced with tough choices right now. Do they continue to submit to film festivals that may get postponed or canceled? If they'vee been selected at film festivals, do they make screening links available to press and/or the industry, and the public, even if there are no actual screenings? Or should they just pull their films altogether from the COVID-19 season, and hope for a safer environment in late 2020 or early 2021, potentially facing a glut of other delayed titles when the coast is clearer?

Right now, there is the immediate impact on dozens of films stuck in the middle of the crisis. "What you don´t get right now, and what we still look very much forward to having, is the thrill of a sold-out cinema," says Katrine Philp, the Danish director of An Elephant in a Room, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the canceled SXSW, "and the feeling that the film really matters."

For documentaries, it's painful to lose out on "that sort of ephemeral magic that happens at a film festival," as publicist Sylvia Desrochers calls it. Or that inspiring post-screening moment when a character that the audience has just been watching walks in front of a crowded theater to receive a standing ovation. But it also potentially impairs the film’s distribution prospects.

Cinetic Media sales agent Jason Ishikawa laments the loss, in particular, that a film such as Clerk, a new documentary on filmmaker Kevin Smith that was set to premiere at SXSW, didn’t have a public festival screening. "Without something fun, creative and exciting, with Kevin in person, it's just not the same," Ishikawa says. "That energy is part of the sale. You can’t recreate that on a Zoom call."

The disruption is particularly damaging for "under-represented and emerging filmmakers that rely on festivals to build networks and build relationships with audiences for the first time," says Jessica Devaney, producer of Jacqueline Olive's Always in Season and this year’s Tribeca selection Pray Away. She also notes that public audiences often have the power to sway the view of "industry gatekeepers—many of whom are white and male and straight," she points out. "An audience response can reorient a film in their eyes, so that’s a real loss that’s going to have a lot of ripples."

A film such as Pray Away, which focuses on the controversial Christian practice of gay conversion therapy, may have the backing of some established industry players, such as Devaney, Blumhouse and Cinetic, but Devaney says the lack of physical film festivals is still going to have a potentially deleterious impact on the launch of the film and debuting director Kristine Stolakis' career. "We're doing our best to bring her and her film into the world," Devaney says, "but there’s nothing that replaces that face-to-face experience of a filmmaker bringing their work to you."

Not only does a lack of in-person festivals and markets also hurt first-time filmmakers' ability to network and develop their next projects, Devanay notes that the pre-festival period is a crucial one for financing. But the ambiguities around film festivals, distribution channels and the economy in general is making it an "incredible challenge to resource these films," she says. "We consistently close our budget gaps by leveraging the excitement and anticipation around a premiere, but now we don't really know what that [premiere] is going to mean."

Indeed, several documentaries that were selected to show at canceled film festivals such as SXSW and Full Frame didn’t have "premieres," per se, because those festivals had no public screenings of any kind, and yet, because the festivals maintained competitive juried awards and shared the films with press, those films are moving forward in the marketplace anyway. In some cases, they have even been able to maintain momentum, particularly for SXSW’s award-winners, such as An Elephant in the Room and Jiayan Shi's Finding Yingying, which won a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Voice.

From Jaiyan Shi's 'Finding Yingying.' Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

"Winning an award does help," says Tim Horsburgh, director of film strategy at Kartemquin Films, which produced Finding Yingying. "Getting that award allowed us to go to The Hollywood Reporter, even though it wasn't playing anywhere. The trade review was really important. And now that allows the sales team to do their work." On the other hand, another Kartemquin production slated for SXSW, Maria Finitzo's The Dilemma of Desire, failed to secure the same level of reviews and attention without awards or public screenings. "That was set to be a festival favorite and word-of-mouth hit," says Horsburgh, with eight confirmed festival invites post-SXSW, "but now that’s gone."

This leaves lots of films pushing towards distribution, even though the press and public excitement around a film might be delayed. "The sales agents are still out there trying to sell their films," says publicist Susan Norget. "It's not exactly like putting the cart before the horse, because we're trying to do things in concert with each other, but the press and reviews may have to happen at a later date for some of the films."

According to Jenny Raskin, executive director of Impact Partners, which has four documentaries set to premiere at Tribeca, there are certain types of films—those that are time-sensitive or have challenging subject matter, or unknown filmmakers—that make more sense to participate in the current festival world, whatever form it may take, because "it's important to be proactive and build a narrative around those films," she says. Conversely, documentaries that are inherently more commercial—such as pop culture or music docs; such as Impact's Television Event, about the 1980s The Day After miniseries; or Frank Oz’s portrait of a conceptual magician In and Of Itself, being sold by Submarine—are engaging with buyers directly without taking part in the virtual festival experiences being offered.

As more and more film festivals transition to Internet-based events, from CPH:DOX to Cleveland, films could yet still find buzz online. But prominent US sales agents such as Cinetic and Submarine indicate that they don't want to unveil their films in this way. "We’re not going to use these online platforms as part of a strategy," says Cinetic’s Ishikawa. "You lose all control when you put the films out on online platforms. It's probably the least effective, least creative way to show titles for acquisition."

Still, many filmmakers remain resolute in moving forward with film festivals.

"We can’t wait," says Brittany Huckabee, producer and director of How To Fix a Primary, which follows the political campaign of a Michigan epidemiologist-turned-gubernatorial hopeful named Abdul El-Sayed, and was set to world-premiere at Full Frame. "It's really timely," says Huckabee. "And we really want to get it out on a streaming service as soon as possible." Because of the film's subject matter, keying both into the pandemic and an election year, Huckabee is hoping that the film's selection at Full Frame will "cut through the noise to help with our conversations with distributors." That validation, she says, "is better than nothing."

Similarly, the team behind Five Years North, another Full Frame selection, which follows an undocumented boy in New York, says the film's timely aspects about immigrants' rights make it ripe for the current moment. Plus, says producer Jenna Kelly, "COVID-19 might very well extend through summer or fall, so there are no guarantees that later festivals will take place. And if they do, more films might be competing for those fall spots."

There's also the question of whether a selection at a springtime film festival could harm a potential public "premiere" later in a possibly crowded autumn or winter. One answer, proposed by Seed & Spark's Film Festival Survival Pledge, is that festivals will agree to "uphold the intended film premiere status for a festival," even if it’s canceled or indefinitely postponed. Many film festivals—from Cleveland to Camden, St. Louis to Savannah—have signed on to the Pledge. But Thom Powers, who programs two of the biggest fall events for doc-makers, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and DOC NYC, says, "If a film has never shown before a live audience, then we’ll consider it, even if there’s been online play."

While that may give hope to filmmakers and sales agents hoping to connect with live audiences at Toronto in the fall, Powers is also realistic. "For TIFF, the competition is always tough for our limited documentary slots, and this year the festival may need to contract," he says. "So even though we won't disqualify films from spring, I don't expect us to take many." At DOC NYC, which has over 100 slots, "There will be more opportunity," he adds.

But no one really knows what will happen in the next month or two, or six or seven. There is one thing for certain, though. As Submarine's Josh Braun says, "There are a number of films that are waiting in the wings to go on stage. But we don’t know when the stage will be available to them."

Anthony Kaufman is a film journalist and festival programmer. He has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Variety, and is a regular contributor to Filmmaker Magazine. He is also currently a senior programmer at the Chicago International Film Festival and Doc10.