If indie film acquisitions look bleak, shouldn’t docu sales look worse? Few documentaries can boast the star power of Bill Maher or Ben Stein, whose “Religulous” and “Expelled,” respectively, have performed solidly at the box office. Sony Classics couldn’t crack $300,000 with doc superstar Errol Morris’ latest “Standard Operating Procedure,” which cost Participant Media and Sony $4 million to make.
Yet a recent uptick in doc buying has nonfiction filmmakers dreaming of a comeback. Much of the action has come from New York-based Submarine Entertainment, which has sold four docus in quick succession.
Last week, Submarine sold Participant’s “Food, Inc.” to doc-hungry Magnolia. The company had a run through a relationship with MSNBC Films, the channel’s longform programming arm, where it placed both “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” and the Sean Penn-narrated “Witch Hunt.” It also sold 1970s R&B music docu “Soul Power” to Sony Pictures Classics.
Submarine does rep narrative films. While it sold “Baghead” to Sony Classics at Sundance, the 7-year-old outfit’s Toronto Film Fest slate this year was docs only. “The fallback for documentaries is much better than narratives,” explains topper Josh Braun, who served as senior VP at Fremantle and exec-produced “A History of Violence.” “Showtime, HBO, History Channel, Discovery, TLC … the list of TV channels looking for docs is growing.”
And with some docs fetching mid-six figures and up for TV, filmmakers may not be as likely to cling to a theatrical release.
Braun points to his sales of Sundance docs “Kicking It” to ESPN and “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” which HBO got for nearly $1 million. Theatrical sales for both came later.
“I always try to gauge a filmmaker’s expectations before I take on a title,” Braun says. “Sixty percent of the docs I see are not well suited for a theatrical release.”
Braun feels to make the cut for theaters, docs must tell visually and emotionally affecting stories, which he saw in “Man On Wire,” a doc produced, in part, by two TV channels — the Discovery Channel and the BBC.
Submarine sold U.S. rights to the tightrope thriller to Magnolia. It has gone on to pull in $3 million in ticket sales — making it one of the top theatrical docs of the year.