As 2023 draws to a close,, we’re taking a moment to contemplate this extraordinary year marked by the launch of DC/DOX amid a profoundly tumultuous landscape for both the documentary community and the world at large. We reached out to a diverse group of industry leaders, including filmmakers, impact producers, and distributors, to gather their insights on the most significant challenges and opportunities that the documentary community faced this past year. Additionally, we asked them to share their favorite documentary moments. We heard from Brian Brooks, Penny Lane, Debra McClutchy, Brian Newman, Dawn Porter, AJ Schnack, and Florencia Varela. Here’s what they had to say:
Brian Newman, founder, Sub-Genre Media, and writer of a newsletter on the future of film:
- Challenge/Opportunity – The greatest challenge for the community is the fact that the streamers have stopped buying almost any completed documentary films. Quality films, especially those with any “truth to power” aspect, which are playing film festivals to sizable audiences are not being acquired. This trickles down to where most other distributors can’t take a risk to buy them either, and the market has stalled. This, of course, is also an opportunity to rethink how we bring films to audiences outside of the usual system.
- Fave doc moment – Sitting in the Camden Opera House in a packed auditorium as their Points North Pitch began, and just as Elise McCave of Kickstarter was getting things started, the power went out thanks to Hurricane Lee hitting town – in Maine of all places. When it became apparent we wouldn’t regain power and had to leave, the audience – none of whom had left – cheered and stomped their feet to give a rousing ovation to the pitch participants, just to show their love. The community in Camden could not have been more supportive in adverse circumstances, and of course, a supporter came through with an alternate venue later in the day.
Florencia Varela, Program Lead, Learning & Filmmaker Outreach, Peace is Loud:
- Challenge/Opportunity – One of the greatest challenges I observe is the need for shared understanding and valuing of impact, especially outside the rails of a formal impact campaign. What does it look like to collectively invest, even industry-wide, in impact as an overall practice that is guided by care and solidarity?
- Fave doc moment – My favorite documentary moment of the year was co-facilitating the Impact Lab at DocsMX with our friends at Impacta Cine, and accompanying five truly incredible documentary teams. Being able to share our Collective Lens impact training program with filmmakers who are committed to having their films be in solidarity with social justice was holistically energizing and I can’t wait to see these films in action.
Dawn Porter, Director and Producer, Trilogy Films:
- Challenge/Opportunity – We are facing several challenges, but the most significant still appears to be the slow pace of commissions and sales.
- Fave doc moment – Favorite documentary moment this year was being able to celebrate screenings in person with some many longtime friends. Loved being back in DC for DCDOX – truly! DC needs a festival and it was so great to see it so well attended and supported.
Penny Lane, Director (Confessions of a Good Samaritan), Co-founder, Spinning Nancy:
- Challenge/Opportunity –The most significant challenge at the moment is that there’s a dispiriting sense of doom and gloom about sales prospects for documentaries, even as there are more incredible documentaries being made than ever before. There is more and more competition for fewer and fewer sales.
- Fave doc moment – My favorite documentary moment of the year was watching A Still Small Voice at DC/DOX. I was completely enthralled every moment. I am in awe of the craft and dedication that went into it.
Brian Brooks, VP, Documentary Projects at Cinetic Media:
- Challenge/Opportunity – One challenge were the strikes that cast a dark shadow over the entire industry. This was compounded by the slow sales of documentaries at Sundance last January and beyond. The opportunity is that creative non-fiction stories continue to proliferate.
- Fave doc moment – My favorite moment was seeing Kokomo City director D. Smith hypnotizing an audience of about 500 in Savannah with her charm and sass.
AJ Schnack, nonfiction filmmaker, artist and writer, co-founder, Cinema Eye Honors:
- Challenge/Opportunity – How do we connect our films to nonfiction-loving audiences as the models for distribution keep changing at such a rapid pace?
- Fave doc moment – Having the opportunity to screen documentaries at the newly-opened Vidiots in Los Angeles to full theaters and to celebrate the life and career of our friend, Julia Reichert.
Debra McClutchy, Filmmaker (The Martha Mitchell Effect), Archival producer:
- Challenge/Opportunity – There’s an opportunity to harness the energy of the writers/actors strikes and build a much needed labor movement within our own documentary community.
- Fave doc moment – The Oscar nom for our archival doc short The Martha Mitchell Effect was definitely memorable! But honestly, the simple act of watching movies on the Big Screen together with an audience feels more urgent and meaningful these days. Long live the film festivals and theaters that bring us that vital experience.