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Highlights from Hot Docs Industry Conference 2024

Fest saw meeting of the minds with Brett Story and Astra Taylor

22 mins read

Against a gloomy backdrop of financial crises, mass resignations, and future uncertainty, the 2024 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival nonetheless attracted a hefty corps of delegates to the festival’s Forum and Industry Conference. In previous editions, the Conference panels happened at TIFF Lightbox, while the Forum took place a mile north at the University of Toronto’s Hart House in its Great Hall. This time around, Hart House served as the headquarters of both programs, and provided ample opportunities for attendees to mix and mingle.

The Conference team programmed a blend of hour-long sessions, 30-minute “Hot Takes,” Work-in-Progress screenings, Close Up With…round tables (which were closed to media), and special symposia on festivals and markets and distribution and marketing.

However, one special event, made in coordination with the rest of the festival, took place outside of Hart House and was available for the public to see. (The Conference also featured Nisha Pahuja in conversation about the grassroots Oscar campaign for her nominated documentary To Kill a Tiger, which you can read more about in our fall issue.)

Astra Taylor (right) in What Is Democracy? | NFB

Astra Taylor in Conversation with Brett Story

Two powerhouses in provocation, authors/activists/filmmakers/educators Astra Taylor and Brett Story, met in University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall for an hour-long, on-stage conversation about solidarity, democracy, and filmmaking.

While she is best known for such written work as Solidarity, The Age of Insecurity, Remake the World, and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, as well as her advocacy endeavors, Taylor has made three films over the past 20 years–most recently What Is Democracy? (2018), which was inspired by the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. “Movements are centers of knowledge production and learning,” she related to Story, “and that’s what Occupy really was for me. People asked me, ‘Are you going to make a film about this?’”

She admitted an ambivalence about making the film, both then and in retrospect: “I have this very binary idea: I’m going to now be in the movement, as opposed to being a filmmaker who is outside of things. That binary has been really troubling me in the years since. While there are distinctions between filmmaking, writing and organizing, they’re also incredibly synergistic.”

Story agreed about the synergistic aspect of a multi-hyphenate career: “You and I are both people who make films but also write, stay close to movements, and organize. In my own life, there’s a kind of liberty when I make a film. I’m relieved of some pressure to feel like the film has to do all the things because I know that some of those things are being done in other forms.”

Taylor leaned into the book medium as her preferred mode of expression: “In a book, you can go on and on at length, and you can deeply footnote something; linearity does really help you make an argument. You want to keep the reader with you. Whereas cinema is much more intuitive. It’s much more associative.”

Story brought the conversation to Taylor’s recent books, Solidarity (co-authored with Leah Hunt-Hendrix) and The Age of Insecurity, a collection of essays and Massey Lectures, and how the ideas she explores relate to the documentary sector. Taylor pointed out that “Insecurity is really a key component of capitalist economics; it bridges the economic and the emotional…Filmmakers are not immune to it; this is a really precarious industry.” She pointed out the algorithm-and-shareholder-driven mindset of the streaming apparatus that, through consolidation and vertical integration, has limited opportunities for, say, investigative journalism–which itself has been subject to hundreds of layoffs in just this year alone. “We cannot rely on big corporations or a few seemingly well-meaning employers to sustain us and provide us security that we need,” she maintained. “So, I really feel that solidarity is the answer. There needs to be organizing for public reinvestment, in culture, in art, and also in journalism.”

Union | Hot Docs

Story related her experience of editing her and Stephen Maing’s Union, about a year-long struggle to organize Amazon warehouse workers in New York City. “I was thinking a lot about insecurity as something more than just their exploitation,” she recalled. “Part of the reason that they (the workers) were struggling is because they knew they were exploited by the company, and they were motivated to fight for dignity and better working conditions, but also the condition of just being precarious.” As far as how it related to Story’s team, “In the edit room, we were really watching, trying to create a narrative around it, trying to finish this film, and also feeling like we could so identify with this group of Amazon workers. We’re also negotiating an incredible amount of precarity, and then thinking about the challenges of collaborating even with a film team or across a set of filmmakers in a film ecosystem.”

Story had an ambivalent take on the term “storytelling,” allowing its role in political work, but questioning the propensity to reduce the term to “the simplistic ideas that stories are all it takes to change the world.” But she was curious about the possibility of organizing as creative work, and filmmaking as organizing, and the confluence between the two activities.

Taylor contended that while she is a filmmaker, she is more of an organizer, but felt that filmmaking is a public good that straddles both storytelling and work. “We all need as many people working on as many fronts as humanly possible, given all of the crises that we’re facing; none of us have the perfect lever to change everything. But if we all work from where we sit and do our part, and try to build solidarity, I really do believe that things can change for the better, and that we also are transformed along the way.”

The Hot Docs saga was an undercurrent of the conversation, of course, but avoiding specifics, Story talked about the value of institutions as enablers of community and collectivity, but amid the precarity of the market and the skein of institutional crises among legacy non-profit media arts entities, some of the work itself has evinced an aesthetic conservatism and a timidity about “what it even imagines it’s possible to say about the world.” She stressed the long-standing value of Hot Docs to the community and, following the lead of those who launched it 30 years ago, “When we think of it as ours, we can think about how to reinvest into it so that it’s doing what we need it to do.’


Hot Takes: Navigating the Tides of Change – Policy Updates with DOC

Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) Executive Director Sarah Spring presented findings from a survey of DOC members whose films were showcasing at Hot Docs. A few standout stats:

  • Eight of the films had secured international broadcasters, one had secured a US broadcaster, and none of the films had identified a foreign streamer.
  • Most of the docs this year were essay films, and half were world premieres.
  • A majority of the films were fully financed, and showed what Spring deemed a “really, really decent budget.”
  • Most of the films did not have sales agents, outreach producers or impact producers, while half of the films had distribution.

“I was shocked that 90% of the films are fully financed,” Spring remarked. “A lot of these films, I think, were put together over the pandemic and maybe had a longer time to put their financing together.” DOC plans to conduct this survey every year, following the lead of US-based Distribution Advocates, who asked filmmakers whose work premiered at Sundance or Tribeca how they funded their films.

Regarding the NFB, the long-time film producing Crown Corporation has been going through some notable shocks: 20% cuts to their workforce, including senior executive producers in Halifax and Edmonton. DOC has been conducted a series of virtual conversations since December with their members about their aspirations for the Film Board, which is itself developing a three-year strategic plan.

Finally, Spring noted the Alberta Chapter showed the biggest growth in membership, particularly among BIPOC communities.

Ari’s Theme was among the TELUS originals documentaries at Hot Docs

Hot Takes: Hyperlocal Storytelling in BC and Alberta with TELUS originals

Christina Willings, Senior Program Manager & Senior Production Executive, and Ken Tsui, Production Executive, led a 30-minute presentation of TELUS originals, a key funder and platform in the British Columbia/Alberta region since 2014, having contributed $27 million to support 350 docs and doc series over that time.

TELUS primarily works with mid-career filmmakers, mainly from BC and Alberta, although they can reside elsewhere, as long as their stories are 80% specific to the BC/Alberta region. Willings spelled out TELUS’ “four social purpose pillars of interest”: environment, community, connectivity, and digital access. TELUS-funded films stream on TELUS’ platforms, but, as Willings explained, “The producer retains IP (intellectual property), and our windows are completely non-exclusive.” They will hold back on streaming a given film for as many as six months.

Regarding licensing films for TELUS platforms, Willings explained that they limit the number of other partners that a film can have in their financing structure, including Canadian Media Fund (CMF) money. Filmmakers can, however, include educational broadcasters such as Knowledge and TVO in the mix, which don’t receive Heritage money. And, she added, the TELUS originals license makes films eligible for both federal and provincial tax credits.


Hot Takes: Equity through Artists Programs – EFM Toolbox

The Berlin-based European Film Market (EFM)’s Leticia da Rosa gave attendees a quick overview of their Doc Toolbox and Mentorship programs, which were launched at the 2020 Berlinale as a means to provide an infrastructure for producers, particularly from equity-seeking communities and the Global South, to navigate the intricacies of the EFM. Over the past four years, the programs have expanded to develop a diverse pipeline of talents and create a safer space for participation in both the Market and the festival.

To prep participants in the months leading up to EFM, the Mentorship program, da Rosa explained, pairs producers with expert consultants, who advise on projects at whatever stage of production, from development to post-production. Ms. da Rosa advised that the program only accepts feature projects, not VR works or series. These one-hour sessions–four in total–-run from November to February. The program also offers a two-week online workshop focusing on branding, marketing and PR, and grant-writing, as well as workshops in community-building.

Once the mentees arrive in Berlin, the program directors set up opportunities for them to meet with funders, distributors, commissioning editors and programmers.

Da Rosa stressed that the program is not open call; EFM works with 24 partner organizations from around the world, including Hot Docs, who recommend candidates to them and help cover the costs of their participation.


Hot Takes: Pulse Check – The Documentary Landscape in 2024

Daniel Cardone, Manager of Nonfiction Programs and Fiscal Sponsorship at Film Independent, sat down with Shoshi Korman, Co-Managing Director at Cinephil, a seasoned player in the international sales arena, for a conversation about what’s selling and what’s not within a volatile documentary ecosystem.

Looking back on a somewhat dispiriting 2023 for doc sales, Korman admitted feeling “a bit like a therapist,” given the continuing recovery from the economic ramifications of the pandemic, the fallout from mergers and acquisitions, the shuttering of once-thriving doc champions, and the decline of big deals.

This year, Korman sees a cautious optimism–not a full-fledged return to Before Times, necessarily, but more of a tentative wade into the waters. Her central challenge with her clients is to manage their expectations: that being at an A-list festival doesn’t guarantee anything.

Agent of Happiness | Hot Docs

Cordone asked about the theatrical window and whether it’s now more of a publicity vehicle than a revenue stream. Korman cited one of her films, Agent of Happiness, a co-production of Bhutan and Hungary that premiered at Sundance this year. The film, which follows two Bhutanese men on a road trip to remote areas of the country to gauge residents’ levels of happiness, has been sold to 20 territories. “I think that’s because people were desperate for some happiness, and for something a bit lighter,” she conjectured.

Nonetheless, Korman observed that overall, there are fewer places to play films on whatever platform, and there is less demand. “There are a lot of really great docs that aren’t getting distribution that I think five years ago would have,” she admitted.

If a filmmaker is faced with an offer of a global streaming deal or the option of selling different territories, Korman recommended engaging both a sales rep and a sales agent to suss out the particulars of those options–i.e. the respective revenue streams, the potential audience reach, etc. And filmmakers should ask themselves: What is best for my film? What do I want the film to do? Where does my film fit?

If a filmmaking team wants to approach Cinephil, Korman works with projects from early development, but also at the late development and rough cut stages. “It depends on the project,” she explained. “We can come on earlier, then we can do pre-sales and help you lock your financing for the film. If you’re more inclined to finance the film yourself, and you have all your rights available, then hopefully you can go further for the global option. It all depends on what the team wants and what our current slate is like at the time.”

Korman concluded by laying out a couple do’s and don’ts on how to approach a sales company. 1) If your film has already premiered, it’s very late to reach out to a sales agent. 2) She also advised brevity in emails when describing your project and to ask if they’d like to see a link before sending it.


Hot Takes: Being Your Editor’s MVP

The Hot Takes offerings weren’t all field reports and nuts-and-bolts information-sharing. Montreal-based editor Xi Feng (Cette Maison, Caiti Blues, La Guardia Blanca) shared insights about her creative process and the kind of projects that have inspired her.

Given her background in art and design, she considers herself not only an editor, but a co-writer and co-designer. Her practice is “about how to problem-solve…and convey the story in a more emotional way.” Her preferred sub-genres are hybrid docs, personal docs, autobiographical docs, and cinematic docs. “They have a more expansive way of telling stories, more like a visceral cinematic experience than just an informational movie,” she maintained.

As an example of her process, Feng cited Caiti’s Blues, about a New Mexico-based songwriter/musician who is struggling to find national success, Feng noted that the story lacked a clear structure and dramatic arc, so she and her team incorporated title cards that featured Caiti’s lyrics, which succeeded in both moving the narrative forward and underscoring the emotional weight of Caiti’s artistic journey.

Feng pointed out that the Association of Documentary Editors (ADE) has been leading the fight for fair editing timelines within an industry that puts unreasonable demands and pressures on post-production teams. ADE’s guidelines call for one month of editing for every 10 minutes of film, or nine months for a 90-minute feature. “It’s important, after all the effort and time spent on a project, to give enough time for the editors to really work on the stories and find the form of the film,” she explained. “That could really elevate a project.”

Feng concluded her presentation with a quote from Stanley Kubrick: “Editing is the only unique aspect of filmmaking which does not resemble any other art form–-a point so important it cannot be overstressed. It can make or break a film.”

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