Hot Docs Fest Highlights a Dismal Nonfiction Distribution Landscape

Despite a dismal documentary distribution landscape, hundreds of nonfiction filmmakers are heading to Toronto for the 30th edition of Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival determined to sell their independently made docus.

This year, Hot Docs’ programming director Shane Smith selected 214 films from 2848 submissions to screen in-person and online beginning April 27. The slate of nonfiction films from 72 countries will be spread across 13 programs and will feature 70 world and 33 international premieres.

“Part of our value proposition is really mining all of the corners and shining a light in all of the corners of the documentary landscape,” Smith tells Variety. “Kanopy and Tenk are going to be here as well as the bigger players like Netflix. So, we are looking to be a valuable resource for the entire landscape of documentary. Not every film is one that the streamers are going to acquire, but there’s a home for every doc that we show in the festival.”

Titles seeking distribution and making their world premiere at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, include “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” about Hong Kong dissident and activist Nathan Law, “The Rise of Wagner, an exposé on the collusion between Wagner Group mercenaries and the Kremlin and “We Are Guardians,” about Indigenous guardians of the Brazilian Amazon struggling to protect their territories.

Joe Piscatella’s “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” is a sequel to his docu “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” which sold to Netflix in 2017 after premiering at Sundance. Although Piscatella realizes that the current doc market has done a one-eighty since 2017, he remains optimistic.

“The themes of “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” can apply to everybody,” Piscatella says. “Yes, I make films with an eye towards, ‘How do I get the widest distribution possible?’ But I’m also making films because I believe in the people who are in them, and I’m driven to tell stories that other people shy away from or don’t have the courage to tell.”

This year’s Hot Doc’s line-up also features numerous hot titles from Sundance 2023 that are still seeking distribution. They include Alexandria Bombach’s “It’s Only Life After All,” Luke Lorentzen’s “A Still Small Voice,” and Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng’s “Invisible Beauty.”

Laura McGann’s “The Deepest Breath” will play alongside “It’s Only Life After All” and  “Invisible Beauty” in the Hot Docs Special Presentations section, which features high-profile subjects, award-winning films and filmmakers, and original perspectives on current events and pressing issues. “The Deepest Breath,” about high-risk freediving, was acquired by Netflix before its Sundance premiere earlier this year. Hot Docs marks the fourth film festival McGann has attended with the docu.

“Every festival has its own unique audience,” McGann says. “Being at Hot Docs is a great opportunity for us to get the film in front of the doc community as well as audiences who love documentaries before our July premiere on Netflix.”

The inclusion of documentaries that already have distribution like “The Deepest Breath,” and Apple TV Plus’ “Stephen Curry: Underrated” and “STILL: A Michael J. Fox Film” in the Hot Docs lineup is necessary, according to Smith.

“We have a role in all of the areas of the documentary ecosystem,” he explains. “And that includes supporting high profile docs that audiences want to see on the big screen as well as smaller docs that potentially aren’t going to be seen again in the city.”

In addition to showcasing 214 documentaries, the 30th edition of the Canuck festival includes the Hot Docs Podcast Festival Showcase, a compact sidebar featuring non-fiction storytelling by some of the best loved voices in the North America as well as the 24th edition of the Hot Docs Forum, the financing event aimed at securing co-productions and funds for feature length documentaries.

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