Documentaries are booming at Cannes, both in selection and the market. Melanie Goodfellow looks at this year’s crop and asks the experts about the current appetite for non-fiction work.

Amid the hubbub of the red carpet and the big fiction-feature roll-outs, Cannes is an increasingly important event for the documentary world.

Cambodian Rithy Panh’s hybrid work The Missing Picture premieres in Un Certain Regard and James Toback’s Cannes 2012-set Alec Baldwin-fronted exposé of the film industry Seduced And Abandoned has a Special Screening.

Beyond the Official Selection, Oscar winner Marcel Ophüls stepped on to the Croisette for the first time in 18 years on Friday night for the Directors’ Fortnight premiere of his autobiographical Ain’t Misbehavin (Un Voyageur).

A fast-moving, ricocheting collage of scenes from Hollywood classics and interviews with famous friends such as Jeanne Moreau and Frederick Wiseman, the work pieces together the film-maker’s peripatetic early life with legendary director father Max Ophüls and later his career as the Oscar-winning maker of documentary classics such as The Sorrow And The Pity and Hotel Terminus.

But it is beyond the festival and in the market that documentary’s presence is truly burgeoning. More than 500 documentary features are on offer this year, roughly 50 of which will be market screened.

The ever-increasing presence of the documentary world at Cannes prompted the Marché du Film to open a dedicated Doc Corner in 2012.

This year, they have enlarged the space to provide tables for a handful of documentary sales companies including the UK’s Dogwoof, Tel Aviv-based Cinephil, Zurich-based First Hand Films and German Rise and Shine World Sales. Some 200 titles are available for viewing in the Doc Corner library.

Today’s Marché-hosted documentary brunch will welcome 200 professionals from the sector.

Hot titles available across the market include Exclusive Media’s high-end Formula One racing action documentary 1, the latest film from the company’s award-winning documentary arm Spitfire Pictures, which also produced the Oscar-winning Undefeated, George Harrison: Living In The Material World and Foo Fighters: Back And Forth.

Focus Features International has launched pre-sales on Senna director Asif Kapadia’s highly anticipated Amy Winehouse project, featuring previously unseen archive footage. A short teaser piece is screening on the company’s stand.

Paris-based Cité Film will hold a private buyers screening this week of an advance rough-cut of Samsara director Pan Nalin’s Faith Connections, following Hindu pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela religious festival.

Rezo kicked off its market last Wednesday with a screening of Patrick Rotman’s Being President following French president Francois Hollande behind the scenes at his official residence the Elysée Palace. As well as selling Panh’s The Missing Picture, Films Distribution is also handling Robert Reich’s Inequality For All examining the impact of the wealth gap on US society. Los Angeles-based sales company Recreation has brought Robert Greenwald’s War On Whistleblowers to the market.

Dogwoof Global, the sales arm of UK documentary powerhouse Dogwoof, will market screen Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s sea park exposé Blackfish and also has a first trailer of 112 Weddings in which a professional photographer tries to trace all the couples he snapped.

In the Doc Corner, buyers can screen award-winning Israeli film-maker Yoav Shamir’s Michael Moore executive-produced 10%, an exploration of what makes a hero. Cinephil is selling. The film recently premiered at the Visions du Réel festival in Nyon, Switzerland.

Buyers can also catch up on buzzy Sundance and Tribeca documentaries. Elle Driver is screening its Sundance pick-up 20 Feet From Stardom and London-based K5 shows Hilla Medalia’s Tribeca-selection Dancing In Jaffa.

“I definitely have a sense that more and more companies are getting into documentaries,” comments Anais Clanet, head of Paris-based documentary specialist Wide House who is selling Ophüls’ Ain’t Misbehavin.

“I see a lot of companies, traditionally specialising in fiction, now handling documentaries. They have woken up to the fact documentaries can actually be more profitable than fiction and easier to place, especially when there are fewer and fewer broadcaster slots for fiction features,” she adds.

In addition, she says, there is an increased appetite for documentary, both theatrically and digitally. “People want to go into subjects more deeply than the current affairs programmes on television. If you have a strong story you’ll find an audience,” says Canet.

“Documentaries are increasingly perceived as films so certain documentaries can really cross over and be marketed as films although each film is different,” comments Dogwoof CEO Anna Godas. The company’s UK distribution arm recently released Ken Loach’s The Spirit Of ‘45 and Sarah Gavron and David Katznelson’s Village At The End Of The World.

“The interest and appetite in docs has gone way up,” says Exclusive Media CEO Nigel Sinclair. “When I first started doing this, when I mentioned to a buyer we were doing a documentary they would offer $10,000 for all the rights. Today people readily accept that a documentary can be broad entertainment. We anticipate 1 will be distributed by some of the best distributors in the world in all the major territories.”

This optimism is surprising at a time of collapsed DVD sales and cuts in broadcaster investment for documentaries too, but a number of sellers concur with the positive take.

“It is a tough time because prices for TV rights have dropped but at the same time I am optimistic,” reveals Peter Jager of Vienna-based doc specialist sales company Autlook Films. “Digital revenues are beginning to pick-up, not enough to compensate for the loss of DVD sales but enough to give me hope.Documentary, even when dealing with big subjects, is essentially a niche product and niche products lend themselves well to digital distribution although a theatrical release remains important.”

Another sales agent to have embraced the digital age is Fabien Westerhoff, director of sales and distribution at HanWay Select, which is selling Seduced And Abandoned and Mark Cousins’ A Story Of Children And Film.

“The key questions for us are who is the audience for a film, how can we reach that audience and how to monetise that,” says Westerhoff. “We’ll do whatever is best for the film.”

He points to the recent sale of Woody Allen: A Documentary to Russian VoD platform Yota Play.

“A number of Russian distributors made offers but not at levels we thought the documentary was worth. Yota Play came along. They were very keen to be attached to the project and acquired all rights with a day-and-date release in mind. For them, there were the bragging rights and media aspect while we got a figure way above what a distributor would have paid. It will get a day-and-date release in August,” explains Westerhoff.

But theatrical deals remain king, he admits, for the media attention they bring a film. In a bid to get a UK distributor on board the Woody Allen documentary last year, he engineered a reverse deal, lining up broadcasters and cinema commitments and wrapping it up in a package for Soda Pictures.

“They did an amazing job as a distributor… there were posters everywhere on the [London Underground] and for Soda it was reassuring to know what kind of ancillary revenue streams were already in place,” he explains.

Fiction-focused companies bringing documentaries to Cannes for the first time, meanwhile, include Lightning Entertainment which is showing two documentaries — How To Make Money Selling Drugs and Geneva Motor Show — alongside its usual slate of fiction features.

“Every once in a while we’ll see a documentary film we think might be right for our line-up. In the case of How To Make Money… we thought it was well made and highly entertaining on a subject matter that is not easy… we thought we could do some good business with it,” says Lightning president Robert Beaumont.

Focus Features International’s head of sales Alison Thompson — who previously sold Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and, while at Pathé International, Touching The Void — says the decision to take on Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse project is not part of a wider documentary strategy.

“The amazing thing about Asif’s last documentary, Senna, was that it was as if Senna were defining the story about his life and we hope Asif will do the same thing for Amy’s story too,” says Thompson, referring to Kapadia’s 2011 box-office hit.

“When producer James Gay-Rees approached me with the project, my eyes popped and I was begging him to allow us to work on the movie,” she recounts.

“We don’t have a policy on whether or not we should be doing documentaries… For us it is all about how exciting a project might be and in this particular instance it was absolutely irresistible… Ultimately, it’s all about good storytelling and good subject matter — it doesn’t matter what the format is.”