Documentaries use live feeds, Internet to recoup

The playbook for documentary theatrical distribution is under review. Successful doc distribution these days requires a multiplatform approach backed by innovative marketing initiatives.

“Getting a documentary out is harder than making it,” says Peter Broderick, prexy of Paradigm Consulting. Distribution strategies must include the right distrib partners; filmmakers need to understand who their core audience is and the necessity of reaching that aud directly.

“As an independent without a major advertising budget, you’re not going to get enough attention,” Broderick contends. “There are too many cases of filmmakers’ hopes and dreams broken by theatrical.”

A customized distrib plan for each project is the new model: Increasingly, there’s a combination of efforts, some quite familiar such as a slow, multicity rollout or theatrical service deals, followed by broadcast, retail and educational sales. Also important to a film’s bottom line: entrepreneurial semi-theatrical screenings that earn filmmakers both screening and speaker fees; direct-to-consumer DVD sales via websites and screenings; and the many variations of digital distribution.

As the latter develops into a serious source of revenue, specialty players have emerged to help filmmakers navigate the potential of outlets including iTunes, Blip.tv, Lycos, Hulu, Joost and Jaman, plus Gotham-based Indiepix, which offers a burn-to-DVD delivery process.

“There’s opportunity for documentary filmmakers to hit a dedicated niche audience,” explains Matt Dentler, head of programming and marketing for Cinetic Rights Management, a division of Cinetic now repping films in the digital space. “Windows are being defined every day,” says Dentler, noting that it’s not uncommon for one doc to be accessible on a variety of platforms simultaneously, without cannibalization of revenues, as auds and formats are different for every site.

Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films specializes in direct-to-consumer releases via the Internet. “There are radically new ways of financing and marketing DVDs,” he says. In September his firm distributed Michael Moore’s “Slacker Uprising” online free before the election. Proving the reach of the Internet, the film received more than 3 million hits in one month and was No. 1 on Amazon.com, On Demand and iTunes. Promotion was almost entirely in the virtual realm via websites, blogs and email blasts. 

Building awareness for a documentary still remains a significant challenge as most docs have limited marketing coin. Roadside Attractions launched “I.O.U.S.A.” using National CineMedia’s network of HD theater screens.

The Thursday night before the film’s release, “I.O.U.S.A.” unspooled on 430 screens in 43 states followed by a live town hall event with Warren Buffett that played like a festival Q&A. The event sold 45,000 tickets.

“It’s an example of technology affecting distribution successfully; a theatrical network with a live feed is a pretty new thing and a sea change in terms of possibilities,” contends Roadside Attractions co-prexy Eric d’Arbeloff.

The year’s bright spot in doc theatrical distribution is Lionsgate’s release of “Religulous” ($12.5 million cume to date). To succeed theatrically a documentary “must be informative, provocative and broadly entertaining,” argues Lionsgate Films Releasing prexy Tom Ortenberg.

The film’s makers, helmer Larry Charles and Bill Maher, worked tirelessly to promote the pic. Thanks to word of mouth, both in the virtual and real worlds, Ortenberg contends, “It will have a long shelf life no matter what.” And most likely that “shelf” will be found on the Internet.

TIP SHEET
What:
Intl. Documentary Assn. Awards
When: Tonight
Where: Directors Guild of America, Hollywood
Host: Morgan Spurlock
Honoree: Werner Herzog

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