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Where documentaries get sold — or not

The stakes are high for filmmakers at the Inter-national Documentary Film Festival.Linda Matchan/Globe staff

AMSTERDAM — A couple of days into the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) — the world’s largest documentary event — it struck me that the festival itself would have made an entertaining documentary.

It wouldn’t focus on the IDFA the public got to see, though — the actual festival, with 300 international films, and cameos by such heavily-decorated documentary makers as Laura Poitras, whose film “Citizenfour” won this year’s Oscar for documentary feature.

The doc I’d like to see would go behind the scenes, at Docs for Sale. This elbow-jostling, deal-making marketplace is where filmmakers — including, this past year, myself — bring their new documentaries in the hope that they’ll land a sales agent who’ll shop them to distributors and broadcasters. The stakes are high for filmmakers who may have spent years laboring over a documentary.

I attended IDFA for the first time in November as both a journalist, reporting on the challenges filmmakers face when they’re trying to get their documentaries noticed, and a filmmaker, confronting those challenges myself.


Since 2008 I’ve been working on a documentary called “Circus Without Borders,” with Susan Gray, of Northern Light Productions, in Allston. (Full disclosure: The Boston Globe Foundation is one of my film’s funders.) It’s about two circus troupes in remote places — an Inuit circus, in Arctic Canada; and a West African circus, in Guinea. Both communities face disturbing challenges — youth suicide in the Arctic, desperate poverty in Africa — but the acrobats dream big, and use their talents to change their fates.

Officially, Susan is the film’s director and I’m the producer, but we’ve both been fund-raisers, grant writers, social-media marketers, public speakers, travel agents, and event planners. (This is what it can take, these days, to get an indie documentary off the ground with no underwriter or broadcaster lined up.) One of the disappointing lessons of IDFA for me was that once the hard work of making the film is done, the job of getting anyone to see it seems even harder.

“It’s the Wild West of distribution right now,” said Beth Hoppe, the chief of programming for PBS, in a telephone interview.


One reason is that there are more filmmakers, thus more documentaries, than ever before. “Interest in making documentaries is growing, and . . . the apparatus for making them has become so available and accessible,” said filmmaker Marc Fields, who teaches at Emerson College. Competition is fierce in the marketplace.

“If you have a doc on the Middle East,” wrote veteran documentary sales agent Jan Rofekamp in a hard-nosed memo to first-time IDFA delegates, “you must realize that there are 30 of these subjects every year and that yours needs to stick out.” Rofekamp is owner and CEO of Films Transit International.

“ASTONISH ME!” he wrote. “Some filmmakers seem to forget what this is all about!”

I would have loved the chance to astonish him but he wore his ID turned around so his name wasn’t visible. I couldn’t help but think it was intentional. Eventually someone pointed him out, immersed in meetings in the IDFA cafe. Susan nabbed his associate.

“Can we talk a moment?”

“One,” the woman said cooly. “Or two.”

We speed-talked our pitch.“There have been a lot of films about circuses,” she said dismissively, adding: “I hope I haven’t depressed you.”

Depressed? Me? We’d just spent three weeks e-mailing 300 sales agents and distributors to see if they’d meet with us, and almost no one answered. The names of some of the companies seemed to reflect the dog-eat-dog nature of the business: Cat&Doc, Dogwoof, Mongrel Media.

A few of those who did reply were not encouraging. The film was “not suitable” for them. It was too long. It was too short. It wouldn’t fit into broadcasters’ “slots.”


“We are not doing entertaining docs,” wrote one distributor, seeming to scold us. “The film is not only entertaining but the circus is a big part of the film.”

One distributor in Hollywood was very interested, but insisted on locking it in before we went to IDFA. He proposed to be our “strategic advisor” for a fee of $10,000, “made in one payment now.” According to his proposal, “We do not guarantee any results at all.”

Somehow we cobbled together a dozen meetings, which was not, I thought, a great return. At first, it was discouraging. Hardly any of the agents had watched our film so we had to talk them through the story, which is hard to do quickly — i.e. before their eyes glazed over — with a film that’s very visual.

A British sales agent advised us that hundreds of new docs have flooded the market in the last three years. “It’s getting more and more competitive all the time,” said a Canadian film distributor, noting that just having a film to sell isn’t enough these days to impress buyers.

You need a ready-made “community” of followers.

You need to have the means to launch “some sort of event” when the film comes out.

You need “merch” (merchandise) to sell at the event.

You need a charity that will benefit from sales of the film.


He knows a documentary maker, he said, who was thrilled his film had been pirated — it meant the pirates actually recognized it.

As for the new landscape of online marketplaces, such as Apple iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, they may be great for viewers but less so for filmmakers, he said. “You can spend thousands of dollars putting these things out on a platform, but no one will know how to find it.”

How about getting a doc on US TV? Not much traction there, we were informed. Sales agents told us PBS is the major broadcast player in the documentary scene, but there just aren’t enough slots for a diverse array of films.

(PBS maintains it’s accepting more documentaries now than ever, but concedes that there is more financial support for documentaries outside the United States.)

But we didn’t come to IDFA to get discouraged. I decided to follow another piece of Jan Rofekamp’s advice: “Get informed about the various social events. . . . Drinks and parties are plentiful!”

I went to a cocktail party, but no deals were struck. It was a great place to eavesdrop, though. I overheard a film editor passionately describing the Swedish film he’d worked on — “Those Who Said No” — which was premiering at IDFA. It revealed how thousands of political prisoners were secretly tortured and killed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The perpetrators were never prosecuted and today hold high-ranking government positions.


“Do you think anyone will buy it?” someone asked him.

“Who knows?,” he said shrugging. “It isn’t sexy.”

This would have made a great scene in that IDFA documentary, I thought. I’d almost be tempted to make it myself.

But I’d have to find a distributor.

Postscript: After IDFA, we got seven offers to represent our film, counting the company guaranteeing no results. We’re going with Journeyman Pictures.

Linda Matchan can be reached at