Sunny Side Of The Doc Wraps 35th Edition, Pledges Support For Documentary Field In Time Of “Societal Polarization, Rise Of Extremism”

Sunny Side of the Doc, the world’s biggest documentary-focused marketplace in the world, wrapped its 35th edition Thursday, after gathering 2,100 participants over four days in La Rochelle, France.

The anniversary event brought together major broadcasters, streamers, foundations, distributors, financiers, and museums from around the world, as well as 90 exhibitors, all looking to acquire, sell, or co-produce nonfiction content for a global audience. Delegations from 40 countries attended, including Australia, Spain, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, and China.

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“We’re very pleased,” Mathieu Béjot, Sunny Side’s head of strategy and development, said regarding this year’s gathering. “Everybody is telling me they had great meetings, concrete meetings. There’s a kind of atmosphere in La Rochelle, we’re graced with a beautiful sunshine for three days. And it does help. It makes Sunny Side sunny. But it’s not just about the weather — it’s the right people being here, concrete meetings with fellow producers, with international broadcasters, for instance. So, the feedback right now is extremely positive.”

Sunny Side of the Doc
Sunny Side of the Doc

The 35th Sunny Side took place at a dramatic moment for France and for Europe as a whole. French President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the National Assembly earlier this month after a far-right French party surged in elections for the European Parliament. Macron called new legislative elections for France, which will begin at the end of the month. In the U.K., Brexit architect Nigel Farage is running on an anti-immigration platform as a candidate of the Reform UK party in the country’s general election, set for July 4. Right wing parties have gained increasing support in Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. And in the U.S., Donald Trump is running to regain the presidency, appealing to nativist sentiment.

These are alarming developments for a documentary field predicated on democratic values, right to free speech, and holding the powerful to account. To see the potential impact of a right wing rise on documentary makers, one need look no further than Hungary and its strongman Victor Orbán (a hero of the right in the U.S.). After he came to power, he muzzled independent media. Former Pres. Trump, meanwhile, has consistently sought to discredit the news media.

Mathieu Béjot and Aurélie Reman at the closing ceremony for the 35th Sunny Side of the Doc.
Mathieu Béjot and Aurélie Reman at the closing ceremony for the 35th Sunny Side of the Doc.

Béjot alluded to that context in a statement issued at Sunny Side’s closing. “In the current context marked by societal polarization, the rise of extremism, and international geopolitical tensions, Sunny Side supports the powerful and impactful documentary genre more than ever,” he said. “While preserving the DNA that has characterized it for 35 years, Sunny Side continues to diversify to include the entire documentary value chain. The market brings together impact actors, archives, and distributors who play an increasing role not only in the circulation of finished films but also in the pre-financing of projects.”

Béjot expanded on that in an interview with Deadline as Sunny Side wrapped. “It’s on everybody’s mind,” he said of political developments on the continent and elsewhere. “We know we’re going to have to fight probably… And because documentary can be a little irritating sometimes [to those in power], trying to discover the truth behind the facade. So, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a hard fight.”

Aurélie Reman, Sunny Side’s managing director, told Deadline the documentary community will not abandon its traditional role of truth teller.

Crowds in Sunny Side's exhibition hall.
Crowds in Sunny Side’s exhibition hall.

“I really wanted to ensure that this 2024 edition would pave the way to new talent, new voices, so that they understand that sense of mission that is within the community,” she said. “They’re so resilient, so determined, and they cannot be defeated even with the current [political] affairs we need to deal with. And here at Sunny Side, it’s really about remaining on the ‘sunny side of the doc’ because we cannot stop believing that our work and the work of independent producers and content creators has a meaningful impact on societies.”

The European Union as a whole has traditionally supported the arts, including documentary film with public spending (Sunny Side receives some of its funding from the EU’s media program). Even so, public broadcasters have scaled back funding in many European countries, making for lean times for content creators. Over in the U.S., the dilemma for many filmmakers is how to get their work distributed if it doesn’t fall into the marketable genres of true crime, celebrity, music and sports.

“The state of the industry is a little bleak at the moment,” Béjot said. “Contraction seems to be the buzzword that everybody uses. Fewer commissions from the streamers because they’re looking at profitability rather than getting new subscribers through investing in content. Private broadcasters see a lot of their advertising revenue go to the digital world. Public broadcasters are under threat in many countries, including France, where we are about to have some elections and the far right wants to privatize the [public] broadcasters. So there’s a lot of pressure coming from all directions.”

He added, “Financing is getting extremely complicated. Getting shows on air is more and more complicated as well. So, the industry — not just in documentary actually, but particularly in documentary – is going through a pretty tough time.”

True to its name, however, Sunny Side maintains its optimism. The key to get content made in Europe and other parts of the world is through co-production. That’s one of the event’s primary missions – to bring decision makers, funders, distribution platforms and other stakeholders together to allow collaboration to flourish.

“When you look at smaller countries, including European countries, it’s extremely difficult to finance an ambitious project in your domestic territory,” Béjot observed. “So any ambitious projects — which comes with an ambitious budget — requires international co-production. But I think international co-production goes way beyond a simple financial arrangement. It’s also about enriching stories, because everybody brings something different to the table — their own expertise, their own access, their own stories, their own angles, their own talents. And I think that’s really the way for a successful international production.”

Sunny Side participants take a break along the quai.
Sunny Side participants take a break along the quai.

Adding a similarly hopeful note is Reman, Sunny Side’s managing director. “What I’ve seen here at Sunny Side is the creation of an alliance between broadcasters, including American ones working with Europeans, to make sure that we could still produce very ambitious blue chip projects.”

Sunny Side will return for its 36th edition next year. The event announced the dates: June 23-26, 2025 in La Rochelle, the Atlantic seaport town south of Nantes and north of Bordeaux (the event originated in Marseille and moved to La Rochelle in 2006). And where did Sunny Side get its unusual name? Béjot solved that mystery for us.

“The name came from the two co-founders of Sunny Side [including Yves Jeanneau] who unfortunately both passed away. They were great fans of jazz and ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street.’ And they tried to be positive,” Béjot said. “They created this market because they believed in international production. They believed in the documentary genre at a time, 35 years ago, where documentary probably didn’t have the same recognition, especially from broadcasters. But ‘the Sunny Side of the Street’ was really to be on the positive side and hence ‘Sunny Side of the doc[k].’ The market started near the harbor of Marseille as well. So the docks [not docs as in documentaries] but the sea docks were always very present in our life.”

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