Documentaries are a notorious tough sell to both distributors and audiences. Those that reap significant box office coin usually fall in the big-format category (Imax) or are performance films; reaching $1m is considered a home run in the narrative doc world.
In light of docs’ slim box office returns, UA’s Cannes pickup of Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (financed by Alliance Atlantis) for a reported $3 million for US rights seems an optimistic gamble, although the filmmaker/scribe/activist is a master of self-promotion.
In a letter on his eponymous website, Moore voices serious doubts that UA will have the corporate wherewithal to actual release his personal doc, an incendiary rumination on America’s culture of violence at home and abroad.
Even as real world events eclipse imaginative scenarios, have U.S. audiences shown any greater inclination to view docs at their local multi-plex? Most doc distributors think not.
“Documentaries are very difficult to release theatrically, there’s a very select audience,” says Patrick Gunn, exec vp of Artisan Entertainment. Before acquisition, Artisan considers docs very carefully, looking for films that will affect auds in a profound way. “We only pick up and release those we care about and feel passionate about, ” says the distrib exec. Artisan’s past successes are films that operate on many levels such as “Startup.com,” which captured a heady moment in time, or “Buena Vista Social Club,” that benefited from a lyrical musical genre unknown to US auds.
As will all indie films, locking in theatres is extremely competitive, especially in summer and holiday periods. Adding to doc’s razor thin profit margins is the matter of financing; often docs aren’t available for a complete package of rights making it impossible to recoup.
Jon Vanco of Cowboy Pictures theorizes docs will cross over if the story can be potentially realized as a fictional narrative (as in George Butler’s “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition”).
“Usually the cream of the crop docs won’t work theatrically no matter what you do,” says Vanco. A human drama needs to be communicated.
“I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” director Sam Jones’ 16mm B&W film, is a recent Cowboy Pictures pickup. Featuring the alt-country band Wilco recording their latest album, the movie delves into the conflict between art and commerce when the band is dropped from their label after delivering the album.
“It’s so much more than a music film,” notes Vanco. “I really like moments in docs when what you’re being surprised by is equal to what surprised the filmmaker,” says Vanco. As the band faced a crisis, the filmmaker reacted as well.
For the film’s promotion, Cowboy will work the band’s new label. “Flexibility is your friend,” says Paul DeGooyer, general manager Palm Pictures. The distrib specializes in music-themed films: “Scratch” from Doug Pray is still in theatrical release and “1 Giant Leap,” is upcoming, first as a DVD release, then theatrically. The musical travelogue required an inside/out marketing plan. In the fall, “1 Giant Leap’s” filmmakers will tour with chapters from the film, promoting the DVD/CD release. A cut down version of the DVD, will be released in theaters in early 2003.
“You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach (to releasing),” adds DeGooyer. “Scratch,” has earned close to $500K in 70 markets and is still in release. However, there won’t be a window between theatrical and DVD output.
“There won’t be a relaunch,” says DeGooyer, hoping that theatrical will serve as the engine for DVD, Palm will sidestep the need to reinvent the film for each distribution stage. The feature will air on the Sundance Channel in the fall.
L.A. based Strand Releasing opened directors Bill Weber’s and David Weissman’s “The Cockettes,” this month in select cities and will roll out the film over the next three to six months. A rollicking portrait of the legendary San Francisco theatre group, “The Cockettes” has been a festival crowd pleaser from Sundance to Outfest. Strand searches for films that will be critically driven but as Jon Gerrans, co-prexy of the art house distrib surmises, the percentage of doc filmgoers has shrunk over the last decade.
“The competition from pay cable overall has been good for the format and filmmakers but not necessarily for theatrical,” says Gerrans.
Ancillary markets are also tough for indies. According to Artisan’s Patrick Gunn, a film that grosses less than $2M theatrically will be difficult to market in home video. TV offers limited buyers as most services produce their non-fiction material in-house.
In the release pipeline for Artisan: “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony” directed by Lee Hirsch, a double prizewinner at Sundance 2002, and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” from director Paul Justman. Soundtrack releases will accompany both films.
Essentially, a doc’s subject matter dictates access to funding and distribution.
“The power of non-fiction is that it’s true,” notes producer/helmer Brett Morgen of “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” “Clearly, though we all have to understand the marketplace and certain films that take on heavy subjects, have a limited place in the marketplace,” adds Morgen.
At U.A., Bingham Ray will have to reach the broadest audience possible for Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” Perhaps aiding distribution, Moore’s 64 appearances in 47 cites for his tome “Stupid White Men,” drew standing room only crowds. The documeister also recently inked a reported $3M book deal with the Time Warner Trade Publishing Group.
“For anybody who thinks inside the box, they’re not going to see this as anything other than a doc,” Ray recently told Variety. “But I think Michael Moore has crossed over. He has brand-named himself. People line up to see his books and films.”