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Documentary Distribution - The Film Festival Effect

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The Importance of Film Festivals/h3>

Successful documentary distribution depends on developing audience demand, on convincing audiences that they want to purchase a ticket for a nonfiction film rather than for a narrative feature, even one whose title has been inked indelibly on their psyche by big budget, aggressive and effective marketing. Developing audiences for documentaries can be a daunting task.

The Role of Film Festivals

Film festivals are adept at developing their own loyal audiences, those who support and attend the festival year after year, and who help to build audience-building buzz for a film that's included in the festival schedule. That's true for independently made low budget narrative features and, especially, for documentaries.

Festivals that present both narrative and documentary programming expose audiences to blockbusters, small indie features and documentaries at the same time, as part of the same comprehensive festival program.

Frankly, most festivals that present both narrative and nonfiction focus primarily on their narrative slate, which tends to attract more ticket buyers. But even if the festival's sales thrust is for the narratives, documentaries in the program benefit from sharing the same marquee as the fiction features. There's an inherent equalizing effect that just might convince conventional narrative ticket buyers to give a nonfiction feature a shot. And, once viewers have enjoyed a great documentary, they're likely to be hooked and to return for more nonfiction fare.

Festivals also attract the international press whose festival overviews and specific film reviews of documentaries can help to build audience demand for documentary screenings in other places, other venues.

The Documentary Film Festival Effect

Festivals that focus on or present only documentary films develop their own local and international audiences, and they're often extremely loyal. They attend the festival year after year, and support the festival's ancillary events.

But, unfortunately, even films that garner interest and support at festivals can find ongoing audience exposure hard to come by when the film's festival circuit tour comes to a conclusion -- if they've not been picked up by a documentary distributor. And, sometimes even the makers of festival favorites don't find distribution deals for their films.

Festivals-only exposure simply isn't satisfactory to filmmakers who've committed their passions, artistry, time and resources to a project and want their work to reach broader audiences.

Festival Based Distribution Deals

Regarding the distribution of documentaries, festivals are key venues for securing deals covering theatrical release, DVD and Blu-ray distribution and broadcast of documentary films.

Many documentary festivals -- notably IDFA and Sheffield Doc/Fest, among others -- offer marketplace platforms for the sale of documentaries to international distributors, and provide forums where the community of documentary filmmakers, distributors, programmers and journalists assemble to brainstorm about developing new strategies for developing nonfiction film audiences. To that end, there are workshops and panel discussions about marketing documentary films via strategies including the use of social media campaigns and transmedia incursions into new platforms and territories where new audiences may be found, finding and developing unusual screening venues, getting greater exposure through special interest groups and other such nontraditional marketing means. New strategies for expanding awareness about documentaries and winning new audiences are being developed and tested all the time, and successful strategies are analysed and shared at festivals.

Effective Audience Recruitment

The ongoing challenge for documentary filmmakers, distributors and programmers is to create more demand for public exhibition of nonfiction films. Documentary film festivals effectively pursue this goal with extensive outreach programs, scheduling special activities and events during the festival and throughout the year to bring new followers and supporters into the documentary-watchers fold. As a particularly good example, Toronto's Hot Docs festival has developed its huge following by consistently emphasizing the interests of the audience and serving their needs. The Hot Docs festival program is well-balanced, well-organized, accessible to audiences. Most importantly, the festival's singular focus is on presenting films that satisfy its audience and on enhancing its audience's experience by providing opportunities to encounter filmmakers in post-screening Q&As. The festival doesn't court celebrities on red carpets and is discreet about its insider activities that facilitate the arrangement of financing and distribution deals. Hot Docs is clearly an audience-focused festival.

Hot Docs has a smart and successful outreach program, as well. After years of community programming, the festival opened its own documentaries-only cinema in 2011, and now presents new and classic documentaries -- plus festival alums -- throughout the year. Audiences developed over years of Hot Docs festival attendance and outreach love and support this venue, and bring others into the fold.

Reaching Out To Youngsters

Hot Docs also presents ongoing school screening programs that expose youngsters to the fascinating real life subjects covered by documentaries, and to the entertainment value of nonfiction films. The youngsters' early exposure to smartly engaging nonfiction films about subjects and issues that concern them alerts them to an appealing alternative to heavily marketed narrative features. Early exposure to documentaries can instill in youngsters a life-long doc-watching habit. That's great audience recruitment.

More Youthful Engagement

Even more effective in activating youth-based interest in and support of documentaries are festivals' Youth Jury programs. Youth Jury programs invite qualifying youngsters to participate fully in the festival -- seeing the films, meeting with industry professionals, learning to debate the values of specific films with experts and each other and, ultimately, having the pleasure and responsibility of honoring the film and filmmaker they select to win the festival's annual Youth Jury Award.

Sheffield Doc/Fest, a forward-thinking festival that's always looking for new ways to connect filmmakers with audiences, has a particularly well-realized Youth Jury program which includes preparatory workshops and conferences held months before the festival takes place. Sheffield Doc/Fest's Youth Jury program, established in 2006, has made documentary advocates of all its participants, some of whom have actually become documentary filmmakers or programmers.

Other film festivals with youth juries that consider documentary films -- ranging from IDFA in Amsterdam to Flickers Film Festival in Rhode Island -- are also extremely successful in recruiting young audiences to appreciate nonfiction film and become dedicated documentary watchers.

The Bottom Line

Festivals are essential audience builders for documentary films, not only because they screen great nonfiction films that transform narrative movie-going audiences into dedicated documentary-watchers, but also because their extensive outreach programs expose non-festival goers to the brilliance of documentary films and they provide meeting places where documentary filmmakers, distributors, programmers and journalists congregate to share information about audience development and recruitment.

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