How Documentary Went Off the Rails
Streamers were once smitten with small stories. Then came celebs, sports stars and true crime. But at Sundance, glimmers that a tiny gold rush could be back
By almost any metric, the lineup of documentaries at last month’s Sundance Film Festival were bold, eclectic, and, as it turns out, commercial (by Hollywood indie standards that is): A buddy road-trip comedy starring Will Ferrell and his best friend who recently transitioned; a millennial love story set in the world of daredevils who scale the world’s tallest skyscrapers; a peak inside a democracy built entirely by young women; and an inspiring look at the life of paralyzed Superman star Christopher Reeve. In other words, whether you were in Park City as an acquisitions exec or just a curious, everyday moviegoer, there was plenty to get excited about.
And yet the mood among many of the genre’s producers and directors heading into the festival was pessimistic, bordering on funereal. After all, the previous year had been one of the bleakest bear markets for nonfiction films in recent history. “Last year’s Sundance was shocking,” says Motto Pictures’ Julie Goldman, an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated producer. “It was really unsettling for everyone.” How unsettling? Let’s put it this way: at 2023’s festival, there was only one notable sale from the entire category — the Chilean film The Eternal Memory, which Goldman produced and sold for around $3 million to MTV Documentary Films.
A single low-seven-figure sale at a festival like Sundance, where it had become customary in recent years to see multiple sales in the eight-figure range, was bad enough. But the distressing signs of an industry-wide chill were being felt far beyond the mountains of Utah. What happened? Where were all of the buyers? Weren’t there supposed to be an endless scrum of checkbook-wielding streamers itching to feed their bottomless maws of content? Apparently not. “Last year was the moment when things didn’t go as everyone had hoped,” says Josh Braun, co-founder of Submarine Entertainment, which has represented some of the biggest doc titles of the past two decades, including Morgan Spurlock’s runaway 2004 hit Super Size Me, 2008’s Man on Wire, 2009’s The Cove and 2018’s Wild Wild Country.“Inevitably a lot of the thoughts were that everything is dying and the market is over and the whole year ended up being pretty rough.”
Not surprisingly, at this year’s edition of Sundance, filmmakers arrived weary, worried, and waiting for the worst. They showed up in Park City praying for something — anything — to give them a sign of hope. They got it…and then some.