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The Struggle and Hustle of Trying to Sell a Documentary at Toronto's Hoc Docs Festival

Hot Docs is one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world, which means that it's also a marketplace with millions of dollars at stake.

A scene from Fractured Land. Photo Via Hot Docs.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

To the public, the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival is a friendly, audience-focused event. Afternoon screenings are free for students, interested attendees can chat with filmmakers after the show, and friendly volunteers in green shirts greet everyone with a smile. But behind closed doors it's different story. Hot Docs is one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world, which means that it's also a marketplace with millions of dollars at stake. Directors and producers frantically pitch their films to the hundreds of representatives for broadcasters, distributors, and funding agencies from across the world.


The scene at the Rogers Industry Centre this week was chaotic and sweaty. The Centre is located at the University of Toronto's stately (but poorly ventilated) Victoria College. In an adjacent room that was off-limits to media, the Distribution Rendezvous was taking place, a festival-organized event that facilitates meetings between filmmakers with completed films and distributors looking to purchase them.

It's often said that these meetings are like speed-dating in that they consist of short chances to make an impression and get a phone number, but I found it to be a bit more like Tinder: Representatives organize meetings with promising "matches" and feel each other out to decide if they want to pursue a relationship with the filmmaker across the table. And like a bar full of singles on the lookout for their dates, the place was packed.

"What a lot of people don't necessarily recognize about festivals is that there's this whole back end, which is about putting films and filmmakers in touch with buyers and broadcasters," says Damien Gillis, who co-directed (along with Fiona Rayher) Fractured Land, a Hot Docs premiere about First Nations activist Caleb Behn and his battle against the fracking industry in northern British Columbia. Gillis and Rayher already licensed the film in Canada, but they came to the festival to gauge interest in international distribution.

I was at the Distribution Rendezvous to sit in on a short one-on-one meeting between a German TV buyer and the directors of Fractured Land. While the festival organizes various events within the marketplace (like the Deal Maker session, which helps filmmakers find funding for the documentaries, or the Hot Docs Forum, which allows filmmakers to pitch their film to a long table full of people with money), filmmakers and buyers often reach out to each other for informal meetings outside of the festival structure.


Everyone at these meetings knows something—if only a little—about the people they're sitting across from, but they're also eager to turn these short one-on-one meetings into long-lasting meaningful relationships. "If someone's interested in you, you book a longer meeting later," says Gillis.

On this day, Gillis and Rayher were pitching Fractured Land to a representative from a boutique German documentary channel backed by RTL Television. I was asked not to print the details, but for about 15 minutes they discussed existing business details and gauged each other's interest. At the end of the meeting, the German delegate promised to show the film to his partners. "This was a very productive meeting," Gillis told me afterward, "but it's not like contracts are coming out and fountain pens are being dipped in this very room."

Gillis and Rayher were also here two years ago, where they pitched their concept to broadcasters and granting agencies at the Deal Maker sessions. They can't boil down their success to any single meeting, but between Hot Docs and meetings at some other festivals (including the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam and the Banff World Media Festival), they patched together a budget just shy of $500,000 from a variety of sources, included the Documentary Channel, British Columbia's Knowledge Network, and government granting agencies like the Canadian Media Fund and the BC Arts Council.

Mostly, the meetings help filmmakers put the word out there and in the hopes that one of your matches calls you later, maybe after you've won an award or two and increased your desirability, or maybe after a distributor has discussed you with some mutual friends. "[An award] would be icing on the cake," says Gillis "but whatever form of buzz comes from it, that's a helpful strategy." While the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival generate buzz for their multimillion-dollar distribution deals, most documentaries generally get financed through a variety of sources. It's rare for a distributor to be "exclusive" with their suitors, at least until things "get serious" and have to be clarified later on.

The Deal Maker session, which is more about finding production funds than distribution or broadcasting rights, looks more like "speed dating" than the previous meeting, but a festival staffer informs me that it's not that random; all the meetings are scheduled in advance. It takes place in a grand University of Toronto debating hall with long tables lined up. "Decision makers" (a festival term for people offering money), including reps from big players like France's Canal+ and Germany's ZDF, were seated at the tables and identifiable by makeshift nameplates. At almost every spot, filmmakers sit across from their prospective partners with laptops, showing of their concept trailers. After 15 minutes, a happy-looking volunteer rings a bell and everyone moves on to their next set of meetings.

After one of these 15-minute sessions, I moved to the lobby and chatted with Matthew C. Kennedy, the filmmaker behind Blind Date, an unfinished documentary about a woman in an arranged marriage in central China. He informed me that he just had a meeting with the Knowledge Network to gauge interest in the film, which he hoped to submit to festivals soon. "They basically just said that it's a great story and they admire it," says Kennedy, "but they have too many similar topics from other cultures." While things didn't work out the way Kennedy had planned, there were no hard feelings. Like Tinder, part of playing the festival game means moving on when things don't work out, and hoping for better luck next time.

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