Event Preview: Sunny Side of the Doc 2023

Sunny Side of the Doc returns to La Rochelle next week, bringing international documentary-makers and buyers together for an in-person, four-day market. Running from June 19 to 22, this year’s market is putting the focus on viewers—who’s watching what, what platforms they’re viewing on and more. Mathieu Béjot, director of strategy and development at Sunny Side of the Doc, speaks to TV Real about what to expect at the upcoming event.

“This year, we decided to focus on the viewers because we felt that they are key in our business,” Béjot says. “After all, you write, develop, produce and air documentaries so that they can be viewed by different target audiences. But we felt that they are sometimes neglected in the documentary world,” especially in more recent times.

Béjot points out that when producers used to solely deal with linear broadcasters, the broadcasters already had a relationship with their audiences. “The producers didn’t really have to think about that,” he says. “But nowadays, with changes in consuming habits, changes in behavior with all the platforms, with FAST channels, we feel that it’s more and more essential that from a very early stage, people think about who they are writing for. And for us, it’s a way of answering some of the key questions: Who’s watching what? Where? Why?”

This particularly applies to young viewers—those who no longer primarily watch traditional, linear television. “We have one session really dedicated to younger audiences,” Béjot notes. “The idea is to know how to reach them, where to reach them, and with what kind of storytelling and formats. To give you an example, a lot of people say that the old style of documentaries with voiceover really don’t make it with younger audiences.”

“Linked to that, we will talk about serialized documentaries as well,” he says. “We think it’s part and parcel of trying to find new ways of getting people interested in documentary and getting their attention, especially younger audiences who’ve grown up with drama series and who are used to different narrative codes and styles. We’ll have a session with Netflix, for instance, looking at how you can write, produce and edit, always thinking with the viewers in mind. How do you write the beginning—the first minute—of a show to make sure you grab people’s attention? So, a nitty gritty of how to make sure that the stories are relevant these days.”

Another main theme of this year’s event that ties into its overall focus on viewers is impact campaigns. Sunny Side of the Doc will feature a dedicated pitching session for producers looking for impact partners—not looking for financing, but for NGOs, foundation and impact producers who can help to create an impact campaign. Though impact and distribution are sometimes seen as contradictory, Béjot says, the market will include a talk about how the two can be mixed successfully.

“We are in the documentary sector, not in drama,” he notes. “The end result is not always to make as much money as possible, otherwise I think people would produce different kinds of programs, but really changing people’s behavior, changing their way of thinking, raising awareness for some topics. A call to action sometimes is very, very important, but how do you make it coincide with the fact that you need to recoup your investment and make a bit of money to invest in new documentaries?”

In addition to the industry talks and showcases, Sunny Side of the Doc will again host seven pitching sessions: the five main specialist factual categories (Science, History, Arts and Culture, Nature and Conservation, and Global Issues), as well as New Voices and Impact Campaigns. Six projects were selected for each category out of 320 submissions received from 56 countries.

The chosen projects cover a wide range of topics, with climate change in particular proving to be a popular theme. “The impact of climate change is everywhere, in every single section,” Béjot says. He notes that this wasn’t a huge surprise, as the Sunny Side of the Doc Global Pitch that took place in February was centered on the topic. That being said, “we were really amazed that a lot of submissions, whether in the Arts and Culture category, in Science, Nature and Conservation, New Voices, Impact—climate change is everywhere.”

Another major trend Béjot makes note of is documentaries moving away from exclusively using official archives to featuring more personal archives. This “means being able to tell stories from the point of view of people, not just the official point of view,” he says, which ties into the main focus on audiences. Sunny Side of the Doc is working on a focus on Australia and plans to center more on First Nations in the future. “Typically, when you talk about audiences that you need to conquer, First Nations and underrepresented groups don’t necessarily watch traditional media, so how do you reach them? What kind of stories do you tell them? It’s interesting because last year, we did a session on de-colonizing archives. It’s very much linked to that new archives [trend] and new ways of telling stories for First Nations” and other underrepresented groups.

In terms of buyers signed up to attend, Sunny Side of the Doc expects to see over 2,000 attendees, just like last year. “We have all the traditional broadcasters from Europe,” Béjot says. “NHK will be there, PBS will be there. Canadians are really strong as usual. We have people from Brazil, from Chile. The Chinese are coming back after a couple of years where they couldn’t travel.”

As for the PiXii Festival, which usually runs alongside Sunny Side of the Doc, Béjot and the team made the decision to permanently move it to October. “It was a little confusing for some people who didn’t quite know whether it was a public festival or a B2B festival,” he notes. “In terms of programming, obviously you don’t show the same kind of experiences if you’re addressing a professional crowd versus a general audience. We were trying to do both, and that’s the best way of not doing any of them really well. So, we’ve decided in June to focus on the B2B events.”

Béjot stresses, however, that the innovative side of Sunny Side will still be present. “We’re looking at all the forms of storytelling in documentary: traditional linear documentaries, immersive content, VR, AR, etc.” Multiple industry talks are scheduled for those interested in curating more immersive experiences with their content.

Though this year’s Sunny Side of the Doc covers many topics through its various talks, pitching sessions and showcases, the most important facet remains: “always, always putting the viewers at the core of our thinking,” Béjot says.