TVF's Samuel Joyce offers his key takeaways from Sunny Side of the Doc 2024

Samuel Joyce, 3 July 2024
From C21

Samuel Joyce, Acquisitions and Content Manager at UK-based distributor TVF International, outlines his five takeaways from his recent trip to Sunny Side of the Doc.

Last week, as the industry’s documentary makers, commissioners and buyers flooded the Espace Encan in La Rochelle, France for the start of the 35th edition of Sunnyside of the Doc, there was a sense of optimism in the air.

Between the 28°C weather and the ever-flowing rosé, the market was abuzz with energy, reflecting an industry with a renewed sense of purpose and a hunger to pull off the incredible, amid challenging times.

For those who didn’t make it, here are the five key themes I noticed:

1. Ingenuity and adaptability are vital
Between a global pandemic, strategy-shifting streamers and ongoing commissioning contraction, producers have learnt how best to keep their heads out of industry headwinds and keep pushing on big, ambitious projects. To pull it off, producers must be savvy to the distribution landscape and engage distributors who can help bring together major international partners. Distributors, meanwhile, must have their feet planted firmly in many global territories to keep their pipelines full of new content. The future of docs is truly international.

2. The marketing is not the message
In an era of algorithm-driven and multi-screen viewing, where holding an audience’s attention is harder than ever, finding a commercial wrapper to address pressing issues like climate change, social justice and dangerous tech is essential. Commissioners and producers must think inventively about how to create docs that cut through to elusive audiences, with both a sense of urgency and entertainment.

3. The future is premium
The top end of the market is where the money is coalescing. With commissioning budgets replaced by hard-won pre-buys and broadcaster ‘aqui-missions,’ it is the middle of the market that will be squeezed. And with the ongoing decline of pay TV in most regions, buyers at these usually volume-friendly markets are instead downsizing and seeking ways to ‘eventise’ their linear schedules and drive clicks to their ever-more important VoD platforms. This means premium miniseries and attention-grabbing one-offs are the order of the day. When buyers want blue-chip, so-called ‘blue-cheap’ content could struggle to make the cut.

4. Unlikely industry partnerships are on the rise
This Sunnyside, the name on almost everyone’s lips was Ubisoft. The France-based game studio behind Assassin’s Creed is seeing the fruits of a concerted push into the world of broadcast documentaries. Partnering with producers, Ubisoft will be able to use their CG asset libraries and game-engine expertise to bring vivid life to an array of exciting and accessible historical projects. And with the looming threat of AI-generated video throwing creative workers into disarray, it is reassuring to see alternative types of partnerships that can bring scope, scale and – most importantly – human craftsmanship to premium projects in a cost-effective way.

5. Docs matter
Despite the future of French public broadcasting hanging in the balance during the country’s elections, the local industry is powering ahead undeterred. While the threatened privatisation of French pubcasters would be transformative for the European documentary industry, doc makers around Europe should only be emboldened by the threats from the continent’s rising far right. Now more than ever, it is vital to champion diverse and inclusive stories that build bridges and forge a greater understanding of the world and our place within it.