At Sundance 2023, Corporate Docs Nab the Spotlight, But Bold Independent Nonfiction Shines

By Anthony Kaufman | republished from IDA

Liyah Mitchell appears in KOKOMO CITY by D. Smith, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by D. Smith
Liyah Mitchell appears in KOKOMO CITY by D. Smith, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by D. Smith

Nowhere is the commercialization of the nonfiction field seemingly more apparent than at the Sundance Film Festival. With entertaining documentaries this year on Michael J. Fox, Little Richard, the Indigo Girls, Brooke Shields, Stephen Curry, and Judy Blume, this year’s festival could easily be framed as the further mainstreaming of the documentary form, packaged into recognizable names and formulas by the likes of Apple, Amazon, Netflix, CNN, Showtime, and Hulu. And yet, there were also some countervailing trends. 

Despite a perceived “rocky” market for independent docs looking for buyers (as Variety proclaimed), a report by Distribution Advocates (which declared more than 80% of docs don’t sell out of major festivals), and an overall slowdown in doc sales, Sundance 2023 revealed a number of surprises, including acquisition deals for some arguably “uncommercial” documentaries, and buzz around a number of projects that embraced out-of-the-box creative nonfiction storytelling that defied streaming norms. If Sundance is the bellwether of the business of U.S. documentary film, it offered a glimmer of hope to filmmakers working largely outside of the corporate and for-profit systems that have increasingly dominated the nonfiction world.

Consider Sundance’s first documentary sale: After a middle-of-the-night deal-making session over the first weekend, Magnolia Pictures acquired worldwide rights to Kokomo City, a radical black-and-white confessional portrait of four transgender Black sex workers directed by Grammy-nominated musician D. Smith. A one-woman crew, Smith shot the film herself over two years. “There wasn’t a budget and there wasn’t a company. It was just her following her impulses,” says producer Harris Doran, who joined the project in April 2022. “It was an act of love.” 

With its candid conversations about sex and provocative reenactments, Kokomo City may not cater to the traditional older arthouse audience, but Doran says that’s not why they made the film. “She’s trying to have a conversation with other Black people, and while other people can listen in on that conversation, this is about greater Black culture and trying to heal a community,” he says. But the Kokomo City team, along with their partners at Magnolia, believe the film’s uniqueness is the very thing that gives it wide appeal. As Doran says, “Right now, there’s so much content—whether fiction or doc—and the thing that cuts through about this film is D.’s unique voice: This is earnest and honest and not trying to sell anything.”

Magnolia Pictures’ EVP Dori Begley concurs. “We’ve learned that inflexible adherence to collective wisdom rarely works out in the end,” she says. “We also understand that a glut of content can stir hunger for unique, well-crafted cinema that breaks through the noise and connects with a broad spectrum of audiences.”

Several discerning distributors that continue to survive, such as Magnolia, are an encouraging sign for Charlotte Cook, co-founder and executive director of Field of Vision, which has a reputation for supporting docs that “aren’t perceived as commercial,” she admits. The company backed four feature projects at Sundance this year: Milisuthando Bongela’s South African personal essay film Milisuthando; Iranian American Sierra Urich’s family story Joonam; Alison O’Daniel’s experimental meditation on sound and silence The Tuba Thieves; and Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Appalachian elegy King Coal. “I feel like the field is going to be okay, because there are still distributors out there interested in bold work,” says Cook. Regarding the era of premium celebrity biopics and true crime stories, “I think audiences are getting tired of it,” she adds.

Cook also believes that documentary filmmakers may be starting to back away from the kind of corporate/streaming support that flooded the nonfiction field in recent years. “It’s one of the amazing things about documentary filmmakers, where protecting their process and the right kind of collaboration can be more important than money,” she says. “It’s become increasingly noticeable how many are frustrated at having to do things like editing to an algorithm.”

As Cinetic Media sales agent Jason Ishiwaka notes, Sundance’s bigger corporate produced/pre-sold docs may represent “safe” filmmaking, but those aren’t the films getting awards recognition, he noted to Variety recently. To wit, many of this year’s Oscar nominated docs (All That Breathes, Fire of Love, A House Made of Splinters) were, in fact, independently produced and premiered in Park City last year.  “I do think Sundance is still a place where a lot of ‘buyer mandates’ we hear about all year long gets thrown out the window when a buyer falls in love with a film,” he says, noting buyer interest specifically around passion projects such as King Coal and Milisuthando.

But making and selling documentary films without a corporate partner or streamer already  in place is full of risks and requires prudence, say other filmmakers. Shane Boris, a producer on King Coal, as well as last year’s breakouts Navalny and Fire of Love, asserts that there wouldn’t be buyer interest without its premiere at Sundance. While they were able to get equity investors involved to finish the film based on its immersive cinematography and timely ecological and cultural subject matter, “you couldn’t tell what it was,” he admits, “so it was hard to get attention before it came together. And that was the case for Fire of Love, too.”

Veteran filmmakers Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, co-directors of this year’s Grand Jury Prize winning doc Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, spent five years trying to raise money for the project through Sundance’s Catalyst financing forum. They got “blank stares” at the mention of Giovanni’s name when speaking with potential investors, until they finally met Black filmmaker and entrepreneur Tommy Oliver, founder and CEO of Confluential Films. With the help of Oliver’s company, they were able to get private equity to complete the film—the first time in their careers they received such funding. “It’s a huge shift,” says Brewster, though they still remain cautious about private investment.

“Diversifying content creators is not enough,” says Stephenson. “We also must question the structures and how they go about supporting the films. We’re in a very sort of fragile moment where a lot of the commercial interests are having second thoughts or closing down,” she adds, “so it’s hard to say what Sundance will look like next year.”

Brewster wonders if equity investors are willing “to take a risk on something that they don’t know anything about,” he says. “They don’t know what it feels like to be in a room with 1,200 Nikki [Giovanni] fans. They have to understand the market, and right now, it’s lazy. They know they’ll go to a Michael Jordan movie, or Stephen Curry movie, but it would behoove the investment community to know this market.”

On paper, entertainment executives might also be hard pressed to see the commercial value of other documentaries on display, such as The Eternal Memory, a heartbreaking portrait of a loving Chilean couple contending with Alzheimer’s–not exactly the kind of sexy portrait that sells to streamers, even though it is directed by Maite Alberdi, who was nominated for an Oscar for The Mole Agent (2020). The Eternal Memory, which went on to win the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize, was one of the only other documentaries acquired during the festival (by MTV Documentary Films).

Prominent documentary sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine, which was representing The Eternal Memory, says the film resonated with audiences, critics, and buyers, despite its seemingly dour subject matter. He says, “The unexpected response to the film has been hopeful and positive in a way—there’s this feeling that someone loves you until the end.”

Still, Braun acknowledges much of the hype this year (and larger sales) have been around fiction films, with doc deals taking much longer to close than in previous years. “But I remain optimistic,” he continues, touting the fact that there are ongoing conversations around a handful of other docs on their slate, such as the North Korean escape docu-thriller Beyond Utopia and Crip Camp co-director Nicole Newnham’s The Disappearance of Shere Hite. “The enthusiasm is there,” he says, “but the distributors are being cautious and methodical.”

Similarly, Luke Lorentzen’s exquisite and extraordinarily intimate A Still Small Voice, which won this year’s Best Directing Prize and probes the psychological challenges of caregiving and self-care in its portrait of a chaplain-in-training at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, is a complex, sensitive, and challenging film that might not seem an easy fit for the competitive nonfiction marketplace. Lorentzen and his team made the film fully aware of what kind of documentary it was, and made it accordingly.

According to A Still Small Voice producer Kellen Quinn, who also produced Lorentzen’s previous Sundance winner Midnight Family (2019)  and Garrett Bradley’s Oscar nominee Time (2020), they didn’t take any equity investments on A Still Small Voice and kept costs down, with Lorentzen functioning as a one-man-crew for the duration of the production. “We don’t need a big sale to make sure our investment relationships are maintained,” says Quinn. “We’ve put together the whole film in a way that protects the process. I see financial questions as completely entwined with creative ones.” 

Ultimately, Lorentzen also wants to break down the boundaries of what’s “commercial” vs. “artistic.” “I want to prove the industry wrong and make films like this that reach a wide audience,” he says. “I think Midnight Family and A Still Small Voice are both attempts at walking that line. If a film moves me, I’d like to believe that it can have that same effect on other people, too.”

Anthony Kaufman is a freelance journalist, film instructor at the New School, DePaul and Loyola Universities, Senior Programmer at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Doc10 film festival, and co-author of Hope for Film: A Producer’s Journey Across the Revolutions of Indie Film and Global Streaming.