As founders of film distributor Dogwoof, Anna Godas and Andy Whittaker transformed what audiences expect from documentaries. With a keen eye for factual thrills, they’ve now turned to production to seek out the next real-life drama.
Anna Godas and Andy Whittaker are behind-the-scenes titans of the documentary world. After meeting at the Cannes film festival, the duo founded Dogwoof in 2004. At the time Whittaker, from the UK, was working on developing digital strategies for companies such as Ebay and Barclays, while Spaniard Godas was straight out of university. In the past decade Dogwoof has been the UK distributor and international sales agent for every hit doc under the sun, from killer-whale thriller Blackfish to Indonesian genocide horror The Look of Silence and fashion drama Dior & I. And with the launch of their production arm in 2015, even bigger things lie ahead.
Monocle: Why focus on documentaries?
Anna Godas: We started with art-house and independent fiction. Our first documentary was in 2007 with Black Gold [about fairtrade coffee]. For the first time we thought that maybe we should be known for something specific; it really felt like the right thing to do.
Andy Whittaker: The trick was spotting that documentaries were of interest to people. We felt it was an underserved market and we played the long game. We had to fight cinemas to show them; they were like, “It’s a documentary, this goes on TV.” The mindset was that documentaries were niche.
M: How has the documentary landscape changed in the past decade?
AG: There’s a bigger market because of digital buyers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and iTunes. Documentaries do incredibly well on these platforms: they are the channels that make the most revenue. With cinemas it’s down to what the booker feels will work; with digital it’s about algorithms and bottom lines. It’s more corporate. And the content of documentaries has changed. They’re no longer filled with talking heads. What we do is cinema, films that just so happen to be true. Today they’re marketed as “films” rather than “documentaries” so people who would never watch a documentary watch them. If you see the trailer for Cartel Land, it is presented as – and is – an action film that also happens to be a true story.
M: Was there a film that changed the game?
AG: Blackfish, in 2013. At that time we were beginning to become sales agents and Blackfish put us on the map as a documentary specialist. This is a gatekeeper industry – it’s really hard to access buyers. Blackfish made us known to the US buyers; it changed everything.
M: Did you ever have any doubts about it being a hit?
AG: We wondered if international buyers would find it too American but the story transcended that. If you watch the trailer, you can see how it was marketed as a thriller. It wasn’t marketed as, “Poor whales, they’re so badly treated,” but as: “If you mess with nature, nature will get back at you.” No one wants to see animals suffer, but animals winning? Yay! No matter how good the film you can kill it if you market it the wrong way.
M: Why move into production?
AW: As a distributor you’re working with a film-maker who’s just finished a film and the natural conversation is:“What are you working on next?” With distribution we’re buying the finished film and getting it out there. By coming in early, as a producer, you have the opportunity to get the good films. If you wait, when they screen at Sundance, suddenly you’re competing with the US studios.
M: What is it about a film that makes you want to get behind it?
AG: There’s no secret formula but I always look for a character-driven story and a fairly traditional, clear narrative with an emotional arc and resolution. Access is key; some film-makers, such as Frédéric Tcheng in Dior & I, manage to get crazy access.
M: Is it hard to find a traditional narrative in events that have actually happened?
AG: If it’s an acquisition you can pick and choose: you watch the film and see if it has the elements you need. But if you get involved early on – especially as a producer – that can be a problem because you don’t know the outcome. You are at the mercy of the story.
AW: That flaw is the beauty of documentaries. For a feature film it’s all about a good scriptwriter who can pick that ending; in documentary the ending is just what happens. Talented film-makers are really good at spotting stories – and sometimes something completely unexpected happens and it’s captured on film. Those moments are gold.
M: How does the process work? Do you get into bidding wars?
AW: Absolutely. You get that real-life cliché where it’s 02.00 at some hotel in a far-off city and you’re at Sundance or something and have to make a decision. You can’t say “I’ll give you a call in a week.” You need to put your cap on and make a call.
AG: Sometimes you’re under the festival hype and, in the heat of the moment, can get carried away and make crazy decisions. Playing poker is a great skill to have. If you go in knowing what your walk-away point is and that you can bear to lose the film, you have the upper hand. If you go in and you can’t stand the idea of losing it, they’ll smell it. Then you’re dead.
2007 Black Gold (Marc and Nick Francis); made €216,000 at the international box office
2009 Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner); made €4.4m; Oscar nominee for best documentary feature
2013 The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer); made €689,000; Oscar nominee for best documentary feature
2013 Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite); made €2.2m; nominated for Bafta award for best documentary
2015 Dior & I (Frédéric Tcheng); made €958,000
2015 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer); made €147,000; Oscar nominee for best documentary feature
2015 Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman); made €755,000; Oscar nominee for best documentary feature
2015 Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore); made €4.4m
2016 Weiner (Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg); made €1.6m; winner of Grand Jury Prize at Sundance
2017 Dancer (Steven Cantor)