It may sounds obvious, but if you are looking to get your film into a specific territory, don’t just take the word of a global sales agent or distributor about what works; make sure you connect with the brilliant regional film organisations and local filmmakers to find out what is possible. In Australia, the main venues for exhibiting documentary films are festivals held in each major city, such as the Sydney Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Brisbane International Film Festival, Adelaide Film Festival, Byron Bay International Film Festival, Antennaand smaller but popular regional festivals (eg. Breath of Fresh Air, Cinefest, Something Somewhere). There are also several thematically-aligned festivals with a strong following (HRAFF, Environment Film Festival, Transitions, Queer Screen). Check the Film Festival Australia site for the full list.
Australia also has a strong network of inner-city independent cinemas that provide a venue for docs (eg. Cinema Nova, Dendy Cinemas, and Palace Cinemas and some slots during summer at the OpenAir and Moonlight, outdoor cinema programs. For the full list of independent cinemas in Australia and NZ visit: www.independentcinemas.com.au/member-cinemas. Feature documentaries do have a home here, albeit limited, with national broadcasters and their streaming platforms, SBS, ABC and NITV. SVOD channels include Stan, Netflix, Foxtel and DocPlay.
Malinda Wink of the Shark Island Institute tells us that many of the Good Pitch projects have also teamed with cinema on-demand platforms including Demand and Fanforce, especially for regional and impact screenings. Good Pitch teams have also co-hosted screenings with community (eg. surf clubs, libraries, local councils), school, corporate and government organisations, sometimes charging a license fee or sharing four-walling costs. The team at Media Stockade are connecting documentary filmmakers with corporate screening opportunities. Kanopy offers a streaming service to universities.
Luis González Zaffaroni of DocSP in Brazil tells us that cable TV channels like Curta!, Canal Brasil, Globo News, CineBrasilTV, BOX Brazil and Arte 1, amongst others, tend to be strong partners for local documentary productions because of a mix of financing tools and the fact that they provide one of the best ways to reach a large local audience. OTT/digital services are still a niche option, but many filmmakers are starting to give these platforms a try. Most commonly, they simply use the broadcaster’s streaming service. But a good local content aggregator can also help filmmakers access the big international players of the market.
For in-person screenings, film festivals like It’s All True International Documentary Film Festival , São Paulo International Film Festival , Rio International Film Festival or Festival de Brasília are also major players. “In Brazil,” says Luis, “there are more festivals than days in a year.” And how well a film does at festivals often determines how widely it will circulate around the country. However, there are a few alternative circuits for documentaries, and these tend to be connected with cultural centres. They are usually used as a theatrical 'second round', and tend to get better numbers than the commercial 'first round.'
Impact production and distribution is still very new in Brazil. But new people and players like VideoCamp and Taturana in distribution , and DOCSP-DocImpacto as training and networking platforms, are helping to lead the charge.
According to Flor Rubina of the CCDoc team in Chile, one of the best ways to promote documentaries there is through festivals. Two of the most important are Sanfic in August and FIC Valdivia in October. Chile has a pretty stable governmental funding system for documentaries, with two main institutions that give financial support to projects in every state of development, and have specific lines for co-productions. Local broadcasters don’t usually co-produce documentaries with independent companies, and don’t usually buy non-fiction content produced by independent filmmakers, so these funds represent the most important source of funding for independent filmmakers.
There are venues in several cities across Chile where feature-length films can be screened, including an existing network of art-house cinemas that plan their year together (Red de Salas de Cine ). Many of them program documentaries, but one of the best ways to get into the local market is through a local partner. In that sense, Chileconecta is an industry event for documentaries and non-fiction projects that offers excellent opportunities to find local and Latin-American partners. It has docs in progress, one-to-one meetings, panels and workshops. For international producers with projects in Chile, there are several regional film commissions that have specific information for certain zones (Atacama Desert and Patagonia, for example), and practical information regarding rental can be found at https://shootinchile.net/" %}
China and India are also emerging markets for documentary. All theatrically released films in China must go through a government censorship vetting process, and before a film can have a festival premiere it‘s required to have received its theatrical release permit. So, the barriers can be high for many filmmakers and their content. Even so, theatres are starting to show more documentaries, mostly limited to Chinese content. New models, such as crowdfunding theatrical distribution platforms, are emerging to help open up new pathways for alternative content.
In the meantime, AVOD is still seen as the main distribution pathway for independent documentaries in China because broadcasters, by contrast, tend to be more cautious about taking on social issue-driven documentaries. The Sony-owned AXN, which serves 17 territories across Asia, is a major player here. Other major digital players include: Tencent, Youku (Alibaba, like YouTube) and iQiyi (Baidu, like Hulu). In 2018 the Chinese government passed a new rule to limit the import of foreign fiction and non-fiction content on all broadcast and digital platforms to 30%.
Sophy Sivaraman, from the Indian Documentary Foundation, tells us that in India the documentary industry is fledgling and mainly supported by the film festival circuit, which is dominated by the international festivals. Within India, though, festivals like Mumbai International Film Festival by Films Divisions, International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala by Kerala Chalachitra Academy, and MAMI's Mumbai Film Festival are at the forefront.
Indian youth have been developing a taste for nonfiction, and this is a trend many are watching. While online platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are currently the biggest buyers, theatrical distribution is still a coveted dream for many in the community, and new enterprises are emerging in response. PVR Cinema’s Vkaao is a Theatre-on-Demand platform that independent filmmakers have started using. Lost The Plot creates open-air screening experiences for urban audiences, and it seems there may be a quiet but growing movement for alternative screening spaces in rising metropolitan areas.
Among the core film-focused organisations that have helped to keep the documentary industry growing, PSBT New Delhi stands out as the body that has been fuelling the independent documentary movement in the country for decades in multiple ways - from grants to festivals and distribution. DocEdge Kolkata is also a key player, bridging the gap between Indian makers and international buyers, broadcasters and distributors. And Indian Documentary Foundation's Good Pitch India is connecting documentary filmmakers with other sectors, opening new distribution channels and bringing a cultural shift to the ways the media ecosystem in India functions.
Amelia Hapsari, Program Director at In-Docs, tells us that in Indonesia (and the broader SE Asia region), up until recently documentary films relied on community screenings organised by student groups, NGOs, film communities and doc-focused organisations such as In-Docs. Among strong supporters of documentary films are Engage Media, a popular online distribution platform for social-justice documentaries; film festivals like Festival Film Dokumenter, Europe On Screen" %}, 100% Manusia" %}, Arkipel ; screening programs like Yayasan Kampung Halaman, Watchdoc" %}, Kineforum" %}, Minikino and many others. Except in the Philippines, where university screenings provide compensation to filmmakers, most of these screenings, despite at times bringing in huge audiences, hardly ever bring in monetary compensation. Thus, the sustainability of the field has been a challenge.
As for broadcasters, there are very few who work with documentary films from independent producers. The small gang includes NHK, Al Jazeera, and Channel News Asia… for now. New alternatives are emerging in the coming years, where OTT platforms are funding originals from Indonesia, including documentary films. Film teams hope that it will help address some of the revenue challenges that filmmakers face.
Wanja Emily and the good folks at DocuBox in Kenya tell us that, for a long time now, public broadcast TV has remained the first sale option for most documentaries. An emerging trend, though, shows that filmmakers are completely ignoring the local broadcasters and buyers and opting for other markets instead. In addition, many filmmakers are now choosing to keep their OTT/digital and mobile rights to themselves when negotiating with distributors. (Apps like Viber and WhatsApp are becoming content distributors in some African countries). This way, they can self-release or resell to VOD platforms. Some filmmakers are even going the extra mile to create their own channels for distribution. For example FCIA - Film Crew in Africa - is a production house in Nairobi that recently did a theatrical release of their feature film ' Disconnect'; the only other way to watch it was through their online platform, KOKO Prime.
DocuBox has found, however, that even though many filmmakers are opting for online distribution, audiences continue to turn out in huge numbers through travelling cinema programs countrywide. “Nothing beats the intimacy of travelling cinema,” says Judy Kibinge, “where intimate but vibrant and engaged group discussions happen and direct connections are made. The online experience simply doesn’t deliver in the same way.” For this reason, in-person community screenings are also valuable when impact is a goal. Filmmakers will partner with organisations that deal with issues highlighted in the film who then help in mobilising communities and stakeholders on the ground and in schools.
Anna Har from Freedom Fest in Malaysia explains that creative feature-length documentaries with social themes are hardly ever featured on Malaysian free TV or in theatres. ASTRO, she says, is a pay TV channel that offers a couple of news service channels that screen documentaries, such as: NHK World, BBC World, Al Jazeera and Channel News Asia. However, the best way to get a documentary with a social justice or human rights themes screened is through FreedomFilmFest, which organises an annual human rights film festival in Malaysia. For environment-slanted issues, there's also the Borneo Eco Film Festival(BEFF) and KL Eco Film Festival (KLEFF). In addition, independent films are regularly screened at Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia. For impact production, she advises impact producers to seek out local partner organisations (NGOs) that are advocating the issue, to work with them to organise screenings and discussions and mount a campaign around the film.
Inti Cordera of DocsMX tells us that Mexico has an old and strong documentary tradition. While there are a few break-out films every year, it is nonetheless challenging to get them in front of audiences beyond the film festival circuit. Even when national and international festivals have screened these films - many about important social, political & environmental issues - there is still a need for practical frameworks to help design impact campaigns that complement and augment traditional film distribution and exhibition efforts. To this end, DocsMX has been working to connect filmmakers, NGOs and activists to strengthen collaborations between them so that these films can have a greater impact.
'As never before, the cartography of documentary cinematography is strengthened by social impact. Filmmakers, navigators of reality, crush the seas to open up new horizons when they forge alliances with others to strengthen their work.'
Jad Abi-Khalil, a filmmaker and director of Beirut Cinema Platform, tells us that in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) region, documentary films are mainly and almost exclusively screened at film festivals. While ro*co tells us they have been able to get a couple of independent theatres to screen docs, it is rare that multiplex movie theaters will program documentaries. For this reason, Jad stresses the importance of establishing more art-house cinemas here in countries like Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia in order to help grow the documentary scene.
As for the individualised viewing experience, television broadcasters here rarely air documentaries. However, some specialised channels like Al Jazeera Documentary Channel, Al Arabiya, and 2M Morocco do get documentary films out to audiences. And, while streaming platforms for documentary films have not taken root in this region yet, the icflix SVOD and Cinemoz services are emergent.
Alex Lee, Director of Doc Edge in New Zealand, says that the most popular way documentaries get seen here is at festivals. Doc Edge, for example, is a leading festival for short and feature documentaries as well as specialised documentary genres. Another popular one is the New Zealand International Film Festival. While there is always the theatrical option, major multiplexes rarely show documentaries, he says. And, when they do, they don’t often run for very long unless they are mainstream. Of course, smaller art-house cinemas tend to be more willing to experiment with independent documentaries, but they curate based on what is offered to them by local distributors.
There are limited broadcast opportunities with Maori TV and Prime. The state-owned TVNZ and the privately owned TV3 rarely screen prime time one-off documentaries, preferring factual series, although all four have on-demand services that provide a range of documentaries. These are often acquired straight to on-demand exclusively so they can’t be shown elsewhere. Other cable and VOD options that provide documentary content include: Rialto Channel, Lightbox and Neon. Netflix is another source of documentaries for local audiences.
Anita Khanna, Producer/Impact Producer in South Africa, also stresses the centrality of film festivals for getting documentaries to audiences. The leading festival here is the Encounters International Documentary Film Festival. Occasionally, a big documentary will get a limited theatrical release in a commercial cinema with a mixed response from audiences, but many independent filmmakers don’t even try it. There’s a growing suspicion that traditional distribution is out of touch with a film’s potential. However, there has been an exciting turn recently, as the public broadcaster South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) opened up regular Monday night airings of major local documentaries, and this has been getting a huge response on social media.
'All signs are that South Africans love a good old documentary,” says Anita. “We just have to find ways to get our films to the people. So, passionate filmmakers have become passionate distributors. In recent years there have been a few successful film campaigns that have leaned toward alternative and more creative ways of distributing our work. But with next to no funding for impact producing here, it means you have to get your boots dirty.'
Lynn Nwokorie, Film Officer at Doc Society takes up the story In the UK, where while there is still the prestige for filmmakers for their films to be seen on BBC Storyville or BBC4; broadcast options are now very limited, so filmmakers are looking to festivals and unconventional independent distribution routes to reach British audiences. The UK has a growing number of festivals that specialise exclusively in documentary or at least have a strong interest in the genre. The most famous and largest is the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival held in June but there are many more out there for filmmakers to follow: Open City, Aesthetica Short Film Festival, Encounters, BFI London Film Festival, Flatpack, Abandon Normal Devices and London International Documentary Festival are just some of the festivals filmmakers should consider. Many of them are BAFTA-qualifying which can often lead to greater recognition.
There are a number of distributors and sales agents in the UK that are documentary specific. Dogwoof and Altitude may be the most well known but there are many more bespoke and varied options out there. Some distributors cater specifically in sub-genres such as experimental documentary (LUX Distribution), gay cinema/documentary (Peccadillo) and there are fledgling impact focussed distributors that support campaign films (Together Films). Independent cinema chains such as Curzon, BFI, Picturehouse and ICA have also taken the dip in the documentary distribution pool.
If a film doesn't have a distributor on board, there are still ways to have a decent theatrical run - by working directly with independent cinema programmers and creating a bespoke screening tour. This will involve research and a lot of perseverance but is often the best way to make sure the right audiences are seeing the film. The Independent Cinema Office is an excellent resource listing all of the independent cinemas, film clubs and societies in the UK. Further investigation into the cinemas/venues of interest, its best to contact a programmer for that space or an education/community staff member who often manage one off screenings or short theatrical runs (i.e. once-a-day screening for a three day run). If they are interested they will negotiate terms and conditions for hosting a screening. Be prepared to travel with the film! Q&As and event cinema are big draws to independent cinemas!
Please note, this advice was given in late 2018. The media landscape may have changed by the time you read this.