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Marketing Is Important for Documentaries, Say Experts

April 3, 2018 Exhibitions No Comments Email Email

Marketing is just as important as product quality for the success of a documentary, industry experts told a 20 March seminar entitled “Documentaries: From Local to Global” held during the 22nd edition of the HKTDC Hong Kong International Film and Television Market (FILMART) (19-22 March). The speakers agreed that marketing must be part of the planning from the conception stage, particularly if the documentary targets international audiences. The seminar also discussed the major changes in the documentary market seen in recent years. While it has become more complicated, online streaming has made the market more exciting in terms of being able to reach wider audiences and tailor documentaries to specific viewer interests, the speakers noted.

– Streaming and TV drive revenue

Daniel Braun, Co-President of Submarine Entertainment, a New York-based producer and distributor of documentaries and feature films, remarked that there is no specific formula for success in the documentary field because of the fast-changing market landscape. In the past, he noted, a documentary only had to be sold to one company, whereas today, TV, streaming and theatrical rights need to be sold separately and the filmmaker has to try to figure out a balance.

Mr Braun noted that documentaries are usually loss-makers as far as theatrical rights are concerned, and that the earnings drivers are streaming and TV. However, he added, theatrical screening is also important as it drives the perception of value, elevating all the ancillary rights. He suggested that it is difficult to make a documentary focusing on just one group, such as millennials. “You have to reach a core audience and build on that,” he advised.

There are two types of marketing: trade and consumer. Mr Braun said marketing a documentary to the trade requires knowledge about the buyers, their tastes, how to communicate with them and how to position the product. If the documentary is not pitched right, the trade will not buy it and consumers will not watch it. For consumers, he believed, a three-minute documentary is an effective way to “seduce” an audience. Documentaries about social issues, particularly about elderly single people, tend to have a high click rate, he added. When viewers click trailers, they want to see the full story, usually because it is related to their life, in terms of solving problems, said Mr Braun.

He concluded with his most important piece of advice: “If you are an independent filmmaker, you must start thinking about how you will market your film right from the start.”

A 20-year-old boutique company, Submarine distributes 75 to 100 titles a year, based on the film festival calendar such as Sundance (Utah), Berlin (Germany) and Tribeca (New York). About 80 per cent of the titles are documentaries. It distributes films mainly in the United States, but also internationally, usually in partnership with overseas companies. His company helps producers raise financing and sell TV, streaming and theatrical rights.

– Documentaries that tell a good story have a better chance of success

Patrick Connolly, Vice President of Programming for New York-based AMC Networks and Sundance TV Global, explained that while AMC showcases original Hollywood films on AMC channels internationally, Sundance, continuing its founder Robert Redford’s mission of giving independent filmmakers a chance to be heard, showcases independent films and documentaries and is now in 70 countries. Documentaries make up about 30 per cent of Sundance’s line-up. He said documentaries were a harder sell because people want stories. He pointed out that documentaries can also tell a good story and can be impactful, but the notion is a harder sell.

Mr Connolly shared that his company buys what it thinks its audience will enjoy, and do on-air promotions and cross-promotions with different channels, such as a food documentary on the cooking channel. It also uses social media and websites, but bus sides and billboard advertising is too expensive for documentaries. He said a key factor was whether the film had a theatrical release or a film festival pedigree, since this adds cachet.

Mr Connolly pointed out that the video on demand (VOD) component is extremely important for documentaries, which must also be well-curated with attention-catching photos, trailers and laurels to seduce people into coming in for a closer look. Nevertheless, he said, in the end the film must stand on its own.

– Advanced data collection and analysis allows tailored recommendations

Summer Song, Director of Beijing’s Copyright Operation Center of China Visible Influence Pictures Ltd, said documentaries related to history and heritage, particularly national treasures, are popular on the Chinese mainland.

Ms Song is a senior film and television copyright business operator and producer. She works with major international documentary festivals, as well as TV and production companies in Europe, the US, Japan, Korea, Singapore and other places. She is responsible for the acquisition and distribution of all documentary films under DOCO Hot Records, an app run by China Visible Influence Pictures. She explained that DOCO is a premium platform and community, which promotes interaction, through both online and offline activities. DOCO releases documentaries first in Beijing to collect data on the platform to determine the customer response before releasing them in the wider market.

– Pay per view becoming a trend

Ms Song observed that paying to download documentaries has become more popular now, as people are getting used to paying for high-quality documentaries. Subscriptions have created a new profit centre, as the business has grown by leaps and bounds.

She said the company’s most popular documentaries are about history and culture. The most viewed documentary had a click rate of about 23 million in six months, resulting in a profit of over Rmb1 million.

Ms Song said the millennial generation tends to use media platforms to watch documentaries and that it has become almost a basic need. A higher percentage of the company’s customers are female (51%), who also tend to contribute more in the comment sections and have different viewing habits.

– Acquiring films or documentaries on the other side of the world

Mr Connolly said Sundance sometimes distributes foreign films or documentaries, after subtitling or dubbing in English. He noted that a strong story with good characters that the audience can relate to will work, and he advised documentary makers to keep the international audience in mind during production.

Mr Braun said it is a question of how the story is told. If it is done at a very high level and can get into a festival, they would look at it. If it is informational, without a main character, it would have to be less political. If filmmakers have plenty of potential, Submarine might take a chance on them and work with them although it did not expect to make money on their first documentary.

Ms Song said her company has acquired international documentaries from film festivals and translated them into Chinese. If the documentary focuses on basic needs and fundamental values, and especially if it is related to something in people’s lives at the time, it can be popular in China. Releasing trailers before the launch of the film or documentary allows the company to analyse the comments to decide whether to buy the film, said Ms Song.

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