Nonfiction filmmakers adjust to new market

Like all other things indie in 2009, the nonfiction business is in the midst of a wholesale overhaul.

The box office high-water marks of this decade so far — Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ (2004) and “March of the Penguins” (2005), which together grossed $197 million — have given way to much smaller returns for docus.

Today, with the exception of a few breakouts — “Religulous,” “Man on Wire,” “Food, Inc.” and anything with Moore’s name on it (this month’s “Capitalism: A Love Story”) — nonfiction films have virtually disappeared from the bigscreen in all but a few major markets.

The fewer than half-dozen nonfiction pics earning more than $1 million at the box office this year required innovative and labor-intensive release strategies. For the March release of “Valentino,” the film about the Italian fashion icon that has grossed $1.8 million domestically, sales rep Josh Braun of Submarine devised a plan that involved using Magnolia’s Truly Indie service system for an initial launch in major cities, then brought on niche distributor Vitagraph to do the rollout to additional markets. Submarine also cut individual deals for DVD, TV and foreign rights.

“These days, because the old mechanisms are no longer in place, each film needs to be handled very carefully and very specifically,” says Braun. His company repped sales on docs including Oscar winner “Man on Wire” as well as this summer’s “Food, Inc.,” which tops the specialty doc list with some $4.1 million.

“In some ways, we’ve reverted back to the days before ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ when a theatrical release for a documentary was a special and unusual thing,” says filmmaker Steve James. His revolutionary high school basketball doc “Hoop Dreams” tapped the zeitgeist in 1994 with a $7.8 million domestic gross, good for the second-highest take in nonfiction history at the time. “What’s different is that today there are so many more docs being made, and many of them are terrific, inventive films. There’s this creative explosion going on, but it’s nearly impossible for those filmmakers to make a living off their work.”

For financiers and producers, adjusting to the new landscape begins with drastically reducing expectations.

“Once upon a time, if you got a good review at a top festival, you could sell your film to a big distributor like Sony Classics, then make a TV deal with HBO, and everyone would make money. That doesn’t really happen right now,” says Jared Moshe of Sidetrack Films, a Brooklyn-based outfit whose credits include fest faves “Favela Rising” and “Kurt Cobain About a Son.” “Now, you have to determine your niche audience early, then go after them aggressively and do whatever it takes to raise awareness.”

For Sidetrack’s recent “Beautiful Losers,” about outsider artists in the skateboarding community, the company partnered up early on with sneaker and lifestyle brands, which provided some much-needed P&A money. Sidetrack then self-released the pic, including through a number of short-term rental deals with museums, private organizations and other non-theatrical outlets.

For filmmakers more concerned with finding an audience than making a profit, recent innovations in digital distribution are beginning to make the Internet more than a place to post trailers and clips. Last year, sports mogul and former AOL topper Ted Leonsis launched Snag Films (snagfilms.com), an online distribution outlet that allows users to view (and then share) full-length nonfiction features online for free. Snag also makes each film available for purchase via download and/or DVD, taking an 8.5% fee, and it splits online ad revenue evenly with the filmmakers.

A year after going live, Snag has an 850-plus-title library, 1 billion page views and 25,000 third-party websites hosting their content. “In the coming months,” says CEO Rick Allen, “we’ll continue to expand our network, add more films to our library and continue to encourage our growing audience to watch more nonfiction films.”

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