Steve James The Interrupters found much of its funding at last year's festival. The Interrupters found much of its funding at last years festival.s festival.
Steve James The Interrupters found much of its funding at last year's festival. The Interrupters found much of its funding at last years festival.s festival.

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It’s a director’s dream scenario: A film withearly buzz but no distributor screens to a theater full of movie buffs and hopefully a few moneybags, the audience leaves raving, and a few days later a big-time producer—say, Harvey Weinstein—announces he’s purchasing the flick.

That’s what happened in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, when Weinstein announced his on-the-spot purchase of The Bully Project, a documentary that follows the despair of young people who suffer mental trauma at the hands of their classmates. Like Waiting for “Superman” in 2010, The Bully Project is now primed to be the year’s most visible, most zeitgeist-capturing social-issue film.

That’s not the kind of thing that happens at Silverdocs, no matter how much prestige the festival has amassed in its nine years. Silverdocs may be the United States’ most prominent documentary-only film festival, but it isn’t a marketplace like Tribeca, Cannes, or Sundance, and it doesn’t claim to be.

But there’s still plenty of commerce humming about Silver Spring each year during the festival, a collaboration between the Discovery Channel and the American Film Institute. Behind the scenes of arty types and suburbanites trying to get the early word on the year’s plate of nonfiction films, Silverdocs’ accompanying International Documentary Conference buzzes with directors trying to pitch grant-making organizations, and hopeful producers of unsold films pushing word-of-mouth hype.

The Interrupters, one of the current festival’s more prominent films, found much of its funding at last year’s Silverdocs Conference, where director Steve James met representatives of The Fledgling Fund, a nonprofit group that invests in media projects with a social-impact edge. James, known best for his 1994 magnum opus Hoop Dreams, charmed Fledgling with early footage from his new film, a portrait of former gang members in Chicago who try to deter kids from street violence.

James met with the organization’s representatives at a Silverdocs session co-organized with the Channel 4 BRITDOCS Foundation’s Good Pitch, a traveling panel of foundations, philanthropists, and nongovernmental organizations that considers funding “social-purpose film projects.” At the time, James had shot about two-thirds of his footage for the nearly three-hour film, and showed the potential donors a four-minute demo reel.

“After our presentation [Fledgling] told us they thought it was an important project and they wanted to follow up,” James says. Fledgling awarded James a $17,500 seed grant for The Interrupters’ social-outreach campaign when the film is released theatrically later this year.

In the room for James’ pitch were representatives from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. James’ production company, Kartemquin Films, had already submitted a grant proposal to MacArthur and had received grants from the organization for other films, but hadn’t heard back yet for The Interrupters. One month after Silverdocs, the MacArthur Foundation wrote Kartemquin a $200,000 check to finish the movie. “The first money in and the last money in are the most important. In the case of Fledgling they were the first in for the outreach, MacArthur was last in for production,” James says from his home in Chicago.

To some filmmakers, the Silverdocs conference can be a restful break from the speeding-bullet atmosphere that envelops the biggest festivals. “It’s done in a low-key, casual way that’s very conducive to creative partnerships,” says Julie Goldman, one of the producers of this year’s Buck, a study of the horse trainer who inspired the novel (and its film adaptation) The Horse Whisperer. Goldman and her fellow producer, Andrea Meditch, met the director, Cindy Meehl, after Goldman sat on a panel at Silverdocs in 2009. The three had lunch later that week and Meehl, a first-time director, found her producers. “A month later I found myself in Montana,” Goldman says.

Buck premiered at Sundance in January, where it won the Documentary Audience Award and was purchased for distribution by IFC Films. Still, Goldman says she wanted to give the Silverdocs audience a peek of the movie before its July 24 theatrical release. Goldman is doing another panel this year, but says she’s probably not looking for her next project—she’ll be busy promoting three movies. Besides Buck, she’s also a producer of Our School and Better This World.

The Silverdocs conference isn’t collaborating with Good Pitch this year, but there won’t be any shortage of potential funders milling about. The San Francisco Film Society is hosting a session to show off its new $300,000 documentary fund; Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Institute is also hosting an event.

“People are seeing these works and creating relationships,” says the festival’s director, Sky Sitney. “Whether its distributors or funders, there’s a lot of different relationships that get forged here.”

While nascent film projects will have noshortage of benefactors to appeal to during Silverdocs, the festival isn’t yet a place where films go to find their distributors. Most of the higher-profile films on this year’s festival slate already have set their plans for theatrical releases. The Interrupters, buoyed by a strong festival run, was snapped up by Cinema Guild in late March. Page One, a much-hyped look at the inner workings of The New York Times, was purchased the day after its Jan. 23 premiere at Sundance. Catching Hell, Alex Gibney’s look at the misery of the Chicago Cubs, is headed for ESPN this fall. Whether or not it wants to be a marketplace, one reason Silverdocs isn’t is because it takes place so far into the calendar year.

But sometimes, an unsold film can get a boost at Silverdocs. Bill Cunningham New York, the biopic about the New York Times style photographer, is one of the most favorably reviewed films of 2011. The movie debuted in March 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, catching the attention of Zeitgeist Films, a small distributor that puts out five or six titles a year. Zeitgeist’s early attempts to purchase Bill Cunningham New York fell through when it became unfeasible to meet the filmmakers’ desire to open during Fashion Week in September 2010, says Clémence Taillandier, Zeitgeist’s head of sales.

So the film bounced around the festival circuit until it came to Silverdocs. Todd Hitchcock, the AFI Silver Theatre’s programming director—but not part of the festival’s staff—says he told director Richard Press and producer Philip Gefter, “This is going to sell.” Hitchcock went into informal sales-agent mode, drawing comparisons to Wordplay, the 2006 documentary about crossword enthusiasts and their New York Times guru Will Shortz, and to Valentino: The Last Emperor, the 2008 biopic about the Italian couturier, citing those films’ high-end target audiences. When recommending potential distributors, Hitchcock says he mentioned Zeitgeist, which the filmmakers had already engaged, and the similarly sized Oscilloscope Pictures.

Eventually, Taillandier says, the producers of Bill Cunningham New York settled on a 2011 release; Zeitgeist got the distribution rights on Oct. 28. Taillandier won’t say how much her company paid, but with a box office take of $1.2 million so far, the film has been “extremely profitable.”

But Taillandier and Gefter give credit for the deal to their actual sales agent, Josh Braun. (The New York-based Braun could not be reached, but his name pops up frequently in distribution deals—he also negotiated the sales of Page One and The Bully Project.) “Not to diminish Todd’s generosity of spirit,” Gefter writes.

If Hitchcock’s input meant anything, it seems it was as an affirmation of audience reaction. “We could see the film is a crowd-pleaser,” Taillandier says. “A great festival circuit and audience awards are important.” Hitchcock admits as much: “I don’t want to take too much credit on this, but there is a nice storyline with Silverdocs.”

As in past years, there are plenty of titles on the slate still looking for their suitor, like The Rescuers. Representatives from big documentary production companies will be milling about the festival, Sitney says, listing HBO, the U.K.’s ITV, and the Independent Television Service. And, of course, the whole thing goes down in the shadow of Discovery Communications’ campus in Silver Spring. With 13 channels, Discovery has plenty of programming holes to fill.

Despite the pitch meetings, grant awards, and the relationship building at its conference, Silverdocs is still more a whistle stop on the festival circuit than a marketplace. But there’s always room for growth. At a press luncheon announcing some of this year’s highlights, Sitney played up the conference, saying it’s been beefed up to cater to “mid-career” filmmakers as well as the usual crop of aspiring next-big-things looking to form creative partnerships and find production opportunities. Even if there’s never been a “Sold at Silverdocs” announcement, there’s plenty of potential to make a deal.