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A Conversation With: Jennifer Shah, Director of Sponsorships at Hot Docs

A Conversation With: Jennifer Shah, Director of Sponsorships at Hot Docs

9 minute read

  • With 32% of the Hot Docs audience having a Graduate School degree and 66% of the audience being female, sponsors have access to niche and desired segments.
  • Technology has been a driving force of change at Hot Docs; VR-filmed documentaries were screened in 2016 and a Podcast Festival extension debuted to sell-out crowds.
  • Hot Docs views streaming platforms such as Netflix favourably because they actually create positive affinity for the genre and lead to the discoverability of documentaries and documentary filmmakers.

Hot Docs is North America's largest documentary film festival. Over the past decade, they have transformed from a regional festival player to an organization with a global offering, a strong online presence, and a physical cinema that they own and operate full-time. This past year, over 215,000 people attended Hot Docs. Leading the festival/theatre’s sponsorship marketing efforts is Jennifer Shah. MKTG spoke with Jennifer to greater understand the property’s sponsorship offering for brands looking to tap into this emerging genre. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 


MKTG

Could you describe the demographic makeup of Hot Docs festival-goers? Is there anything that you think sponsorship marketers would be surprised to learn?

HOT DOCS

For the 15 years I have been at Hot Docs, our festival demographics have stayed consistent. I think the number one thing that people are surprised about is the education level of our audiences. 55% of our audiences have a university degree and on top of that 32% have a graduate school degree. Additionally, 66% of our audience is female; that is a statistic that has resonated with brands we talk to who are targeting woman. 

MKTG

Speak to the Festival’s methodology when it comes to pairing up current/prospective partners with a specific film or film series within the overall Hot Docs experience. 

HOT DOCS

Firstly, we have data on who is likely to attend a films in various timeslots so we are able to guide sponsors to the opportunity that best meets their objectives. Secondly, we look at our documentary categories and understand which brands are likely to be attracted by the opportunity. We know that our Scotiabank Big Ideas Series and our Special Presentations will feature more well-known directors or subject matter that is more accessible, making them attract a wider audience and therefore more mass brand appeal. We have an International Spectrum Program that focuses on more specific topics or features emerging filmmakers so it attracts a niche audience that not all brands would want to be associated with. We have a World Showcase Program that is sponsored by Delta Airlines and it gives them an opportunity to get in front of an audience that is diverse and likely to travel to foreign destinations. It is also part of our process to screen films under embargo for current and potential sponsors to ensure that the subject matter is appropriate for their brand standards and for employees or clients that are attending through a hospitality or hosting experience. 

MKTG

Hot Docs has grown significantly since its inaugural year in 1993. What do you think Hot Docs will look like 10 years from now?

HOT DOCS

Technology is going to be the biggest driving force of change. We currently have our Doc X program which features non-traditional documentaries shown on platforms such as VR. One of our bigger features this year was “Chasing Coral” and the filmmakers created new underwater time-lapse technology to demonstrate the effects of ocean degeneration. I think we will see a lot more documentaries that leverage VR, 360 and other interactive technologies. Documentaries lend themselves to these different technologies very well and the genre attracts many filmmakers who experiment with new tech. But as much as technology will impact the genre, we do think that traditional film and strong content will continue to drive demand.

We see an interesting trend across the film industry wherein many companies are diversifying away from traditional cinema and are looking to add multi-level entertainment experiences. Cineplex is expanding into E-Sports and VIP theatres. However, Hot Docs packed a theatre with a documentary about Turkish streets cats and it was a runaway hit.  People really do value traditional cinematic experiences and Hot Docs has a role to play in delivering those. 

MKTG

Hot Docs recently introduced a Podcast Festival. What was the genesis of this idea and what has been the response from the sponsorship community?

HOT DOCS

Last year, our programming team saw the connection between podcasts and documentaries. We always want to push the boundaries around the definition of documentary and podcasts were a natural extension. Also, listenership was on the rise and it was white space for us as a festival. Typically, podcasts are a solitary experience that people listen to with earbuds while they are on their commute. We wanted to make it a more social and communal experience where fans could see a podcast happen live and engage in Q&A with hosts. It was a massive success for Hot Docs and a second edition is being planned as we speak. When speaking with potential sponsors, we knew we couldn’t guarantee numbers because it was in the pilot phase. But we could guarantee great content. We identified advertisers working in the podcast space and ultimately secured a partnership with Casper (e-commerce bed-in-a-box mattress brand). Their brand was integrated throughout the event (bed was on stage during a “Sleepover” podcast) and they did product giveaways of Casper mattresses which really resonated with a podcast-savvy crowd who recognized the brand from their dominant presence in this medium.

MKTG

How does Hot Docs view streaming services like Netflix? Are they competitors because they make us lazy and keep us on our couch? Or, do they generate positive affinity for the genre by making documentaries more accessible?

HOT DOCS

We view streaming services like Netflix highly favourably. We have even worked with them before to screen Netflix Originals at the Hot Docs theatre. They have experimented with doing theatrical runs alongside their premiere releases on the digital Netflix platform. We do a lot of research into the discoverability of documentaries to identify where people like to discover their content within this genre. There are certainly those who want to watch documentaries online and that is why we are active on digital with the Hot Docs Collection on platforms like iTunes as well as other platforms where we curate documentary picks. But there are also others that want live cinematic experiences with opportunities to engage with filmmakers and subjects. For us, any platform that showcases documentaries is helping to grow the pool of potential festival-goers and the genre.

MKTG

Are there any other major film festival properties that Hot Docs looks to as best-practice?

HOT DOCS

The other major festival in town is TIFF and they are a property we look to all the time for key learnings. TIFF is one of the biggest reasons why Toronto has a strong festival-going audience. As a property, we are highly differentiated from TIFF. Their brand is about red carpet excitement and appeals to a VIP, front-of-the-line seeking audience. We have built our brand differently. We do not offer front-of-the-line access, even for top sponsors (with the exception of our Big Ideas Series). We want our brand to be about accessibility, authenticity and community; that is how we differentiate ourselves. When it comes to sponsorship though, the team at TIFF are pros. The work they have done with Ford around red carpet arrivals is best-in-class. 

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