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Documentaries hunt for bigscreens

IDFA winners often lack commercial appeal

AMSTERDAM — At Holland’s IDFA, the world’s biggest doc festival, this year’s biggest film was about a group of plane-crash victims stuck in the mountains where no one can find them and who eat their dead to survive.

Most documentary makers know just how they feel.

“Stranded,” directed by Gonzalo Arijon and winner of IDFA’s Joris Ivens award, will be at Sundance next month and hungry for success. “My personal prediction is that ‘Stranded’ will sell for big money at Sundance,” says Debbie Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies. And “Stranded” isn’t even her film.

The film Zimmerman does have — Kim Longinotto’s “Hold Me Close, Let Me Go,” a verite doc about emotionally disturbed children in an Oxford educational facility — won a special award from IDFA’s Joris Ivens jury, and is the subject of a bidding war between Canadian broadcasters.

The big question surrounding “Hold Me Close” is over which festival will get the U.S. premiere and whether it goes to American public TV’s “P.O.V.,” or another, richer outlet. But theatrical’s not even a question.

“It’s not worth it,’ says Zimmerman, who plans to charge festivals between $500-$1,000 per screening. During the IDFA, which wrapped Dec. 2, “Hold Me Close” played eight times in the fest’s largest theater. “Several screenings were sold out,” Zimmerman says, “and in a country that size, it’s a large chunk of the theatrical audience.”

Says Nick Fraser, commissioning editor/series director for BBC’s Storyville: “The films at IDFA usually do not have many commercial possibilities. They are not selected because they may do well in cinemas. They are at IDFA because they are thought to be good.”

It doesn’t hurt that “Stranded,” about the 1972 airplane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team, has already been the subject of a film — 1993’s “Alive,” a drama distribbed by Par, Disney and Film Andes. The current docu has been sold in many territories, Fraser says. “We co-produced it. The producers were short of cash and came back to us. We put in a bit more. It would probably do well in Latin America, and I think they are considering a movie release there.”

But “Stranded” isn’t representative of much going on in the global doc market, where festivals provide the de facto theatrical life of many movies, and television provides the money. “The doc world seen at IDFA is essentially funded by noncommercial TV and government subsidies,” says Jonathan Miller, of New York docu distributor First Run/Icarus.

HBO, despite their unwavering support for docs, didn’t send anyone to Amsterdam this year, but according to VP Nancy Abraham, that was a scheduling fluke: IDFA, she says, is always important, and if HBO people don’t get to IDFA in person, they track the films. “I have a copy of ‘Stranded’ in my in-box now,” she says, adding that the broadcaster was also interested in “Hold Me Close” and the Israeli film “To See if I’m Smiling,” winner of the festival’s Silver Wolf award for works under 60 minutes.

Abraham and Miller agreed that while there are more sources of funding than ever before, the amounts of money are smaller.

And there are fewer theaters willing to screen feature docus. David Rane, producer of “Fairytale of Kathmandu” — which concerns a well-known Irish poet’s sex tourism in Nepal — says he and director Neasa Ni Chianain were encouraged when they were chosen for the Silver Wolf competition. They also entered the film in IDFA’s market, Docs for Sale.

“We were perhaps overly optimistic that this might translate into commercial interest in the project,” Rane says. “But it hasn’t yet. We had only pre-sold the film to YLE in Finland and RTE in Ireland, and we were hoping that broadcasters, in U.K. and U.S. especially, might pick up the film at IDFA.”

However, although the film is about 40% in English, it is still, strictly speaking, a foreign language film, which, the filmmakers understand, likely makes it more difficult to place in English-speaking markets.

Nonfiction films are flourishing, however, in the non-theatrical market — universities, libraries, prisons, hospitals, “anywhere outside of the cinema,” Zimmerman says. “Our nontheatrical bookings are up 24% over last year.”

Adds Miller, “People are using media in more ways and areas than they have in the past, and this trend continues across more new subject areas and disciplines.”

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