Happy October—or #Doctober as we’re calling it here at Greenlit. We’re taking this month to celebrate the many recent successes of documentaries crowdfunded on Greenlit, from Beyond the Red Light’s successful Skopje shoot, to the rave reviews of Getting Away with Murder(s), and the ongoing success of One Man and His Shoes, streaming on BBC iPlayer. And that’s just the start.
We’re also in festival season, and we’re partnering with great organisations, near and far. That also means we have some discount codes for submissions—further details below.
But let’s talk about docs. A lot has changed in the documentary space, especially with the advent of streamers. Here with us to talk about those changes are Al Morrow, Producer and Head of Documentary, and Vesna Cudic, Head of Sales & Acquisitions at MetFilm, a London-based international sales agency specialising in pre-sales and sales of documentary features and series. MetFilm recently released Misha and the Wolves, a documentary from director Sam Hobkinson that Variety calls “extraordinary”.
Vesna and Ali, tell us about yourselves. What are you working on currently, and how did you come to join MetFilm?
Al: I’ve been working at Met Film since 2007, so it’s been a while! I started to work for Jonny Persey and Stewart Le Marechal at APT Films back in 2003 and moved with him when they came to MetFilm. My first ever feature documentary was Deep Water(Pathe/FilmFour/UKFC) which Jerry Rothwell co-directed with Louise Osmond. I took Deep Water to APT as an idea and they loved it and came on board. Fifteen years on, I am working on a 4-part series with Jerry, Vesna, Stew and Jonny but I’m not allowed to say much more than that! And, of course, I’m in development on a range of projects that we are hefting toward production.
Vesna: I joined MetFilm in 2017 and set up MetFilm Sales, our international sales arm of the business. We pre-sell and sell documentary features and series globally. Prior to joining Met, I was the head of sales at Dogwoof from its inception in 2011 to 2017. While at Dogwoof, I was in charge of TV and SVOD sales, pre-sales, and acquisitions. During this time, I collaborated closely with Al and Jerry on a number of their docs, including Sour Grapes(Netflix) and enjoyed so much our collaboration that I decided to join them. Our most recent success has been Misha and the Wolves, which Al produced and Sam Hopkinson directed. Misha premiered at Sundance 2021. Having secured a global rollout for Misha, my focus has shifted to The Return: Life after ISIS, featuring Shamima Begum, which we’ve done with Sky Documentaries and SET!, which will be released globally by Discovery+ before the end of 2021.
Congratulations on Misha‘s release. Tell us about the documentary’s journey with MetFilm.
Al: It’s a co-production with our sister company Arts Alliance Production, and it was a project that Sam Hobkinson and fellow producer Poppy Dixon had been working on for a while. When Thomas Hoegh & Matt Wells from AAP brought the film to Met, Vesna and I knew it was something we wanted to do. It had a great director attached, and it’s just a fantastic story with plenty of unexpected twists—the perfect project. We spent some time honing a pitching trailer and deck and started to shop it around. The BBC came on board early in the process, and we had the most fantastic response to the trailer at the IDFA pitch forum. In the end, Vesna wrangled 16 pre-sales, which is just extraordinary.
Vesna: Our first ports of call for financing were global and US buyers. It took a while. It’s difficult for an European sales agent and an European project to get traction in the US. Distance pitching is really tough. I think my breakthrough came when I met with one of Netflix commissioners in New York and pitched it to them in person. (This was after they’ve previously passed on the project). By that stage, we already had about 16 broadcasters on board, including Arte and BBC, but a lot of them were small European channels, so we still had a large gap and no way of filling it without the US piece. Luckily, Netflix came on board. When the film premiered at Sundance, there was so much interest from US buyers, but of course, by this stage, the film was already with Netflix, so well done to them for trusting us that we would deliver a strong film.
Speaking of Netflix, how do you think the rise of streamers has changed the independent documentary landscape?
Al: Well, if you can get your project funded by a streamer, then it’s a one stop shop; you are not having to piece your budget together from a whole range of territories, which is a lot of work. I’m actually excited by the sheer amount of documentaries on the streamers—both one-offs and series—and I think it means there is an audience that will now watch docs as they watch fiction—they just want to be immersed in great storytelling. That’s really positive. However, I hope there is still room for the auteur director. Sometimes, I feel series, especially, are being made by too many voices and have become a little formatted. I hope there is room to take risks and to understand that the filmmaker vision is paramount.
Vesna: I agree with everything Al said. The impact of steamers has been huge. It has made the documentary industry more commercially-minded and more audience-focused, but also more risk-averse, which we have to fight and push back against. And we do push back, here at Met.
What documentary subjects do you think are currently resonating with audiences?
Al: Character-driven, very plotted storytelling. I’m always looking for those reveals, and who is going to take us through the story on camera. There are some films that I made years ago that just wouldn’t fly now.
Vesna: I think what most resonates with audiences today is inspirational films like Free Solo or My Octopus Teacher. Crime genre still sells. I know some people think the interest in crime has peaked, but I am not so sure. Well-known personality / celebrity docs do very well commercially, of course.
Let’s go back to basics. Vesna, can you explain for our readers the difference between a sales agent and a film distributor?
Vesna: Distributor will release the films directly. Their clients are consumers. Sales agent is the middleman. Our clients are theatrical, SVOD and TV buyers.
MetFilm has both production teams and sales teams under one roof. How does that work?
Al: Brilliantly! Before I pitch to anyone, I pitch to Vesna, and we work very closely together on the marketing materials and strategy for each film. As a producer, having an in-house sales agent that I trust implicitly is magic. It also frees me up massively as to embrace my creative producer side. I really do have time to dig into each story which is a real luxury. Before Vesna, I use to spend a lot of energy trying to sell my own films, as well as produce them. Any producer will tell you that is tough.
Vesna: This is the way the industry is heading. Other producers, sales agents and distributors are also vertically integrating their business models. This is driven by the streamers and their demand for high quality content. A lot of producers nowadays have a direct pathway to the streamers, without the need for sales agents. This puts pressure on sales agents and distributors to transform their models. Otherwise, they will become redundant. What I find amazing about working with MetFilm Production is that they have such a wealth of producing experience, so you really feel you are in safe hands. You can rely on them to produce content of the highest quality.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities in the documentary sales market right now?
Vesna: SVOD market is very competitive. While a few years ago, there was only Netflix (and occasionally Amazon) that one could take projects to. We now have more US players entering the global market.
What types of stories do you want to see more of?
Al: I do love those access-driven documentaries that take years and a lot of passion and belief to make. Those are films that often can’t be pre-sold very widely because commissioners need to see the finished project before understanding what the story is, or even what the project is. I’m thinking of films like Collective by Alexander Nanau or Josh Openheimer’s Act of Killing. They are incredible films. I would love to see more like them, but they are hard to recognise in development.
Vesna: I agree with Al. I’d love more access-driven stories with high stakes and jeopardy. I’m also looking for surprising, multi-layered, extraordinary stories like Misha and the Wolves. I’m drawn to great investigative journalism like the exposure of the Great Post Office Scandal podcast, which I found riveting, and stories that make headlines across the world, like Citizenfour.
A big thank you to Al and Vesna, for all their insights and advice.
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