High-profile screenings at Cannes give pics a push

The launch of “Countdown to Zero” at Cannes marks the latest effort to turn a theatrical documentary into a global event.

The film, a wakeup call about nuclear proliferation, is following the same trajectory as “An Inconvenient Truth” from the same producers, Lawrence Bender and Participant Media, which also took its consciousness-raising campaign from a world premiere at Sundance to an international splash on the Croisette where it gets a special screening berth.

In a market ever more driven by blockbuster 3D spectacles, docs have to fight even harder to make their way onto the bigscreen. The more noise they can make, the better.

“Countdown to Zero” is being sold internationally by the Works, which has become something of a specialist at spotting docs that have what it takes to secure a high-profile global release. It previously handled “The Cove” and “Man on Wire,” Oscar-winners for the past two years, as well as rock doc “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” — three very different films that all managed to tap into the zeitgeist and imprint themselves firmly in the public consciousness.

“There are three types of docs that have theatrical value,” explains Works topper Carl Clifton. “Great narratives, like ‘Man on Wire’ or ‘Touching the Void,’ that take you back into a historical event as though it’s happening now; spectacle docs, about things like surfing or base jumping; and issue docs, like Michael Moore’s films or ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ which are supported by big names and have a campaign machinery around them.”

“Countdown to Zero,” by Brit director Lucy Walker, preaches the dangers of nuclear weapons and argues the case for worldwide disarmament. It’s co-financed by Participant, which is deploying its own highly evolved social action network to support the film’s release, and Global Zero, an international campaign for the elimination of nukes. The film opens Stateside via Magnolia in July.

The Cannes launch will involve a press conference, a party and a photo op with prominent Global Zero supporters including Richard Branson, Queen Noor of Jordan and Meg Ryan, to grab the attention of the news media as well as film journalists.

“Without those elements, and the built-in campaign network of Global Zero, it probably wouldn’t be such an interesting proposition to us,” says Works marketing chief Juliette Gill. As Clifton explains, “Distributors are not just buying a film, but buying a support structure.”

The best docs have a unique power to stir passions and provoke media coverage, often far out of proportion to the size of their theatrical audience.

For instance, “The Cove,” which also had marketing support from Participant, struggled theatrically, grossing just $800,000 via Roadside in the U.S. But the publicity is paying off handsomely in DVD and TV sales — and just as importantly, halting the slaughter of dolphins by Japanese fishermen that the film exposes.

“Theatrical is a shop window that enables you to eventize the film,” Clifton says. “Even if the results are modest, the profile you get can be enormous. ‘The Cove’ got front-page treatment in every territory where it’s been released, and DVD and TV values are holding up well, pegged to that theatrical profile.”

“Theatrical is a way to get that visibility way up and to create an event that gives you momentum to hit your big numbers in other windows,” agrees Jim Berk, Participant CEO. “We love it when ‘Food, Inc.’ becomes profitable from its theatrical release alone, but the cumulative audience is what really matters.”

It takes more than juicy subject matter to turn a doc into a theatrical event.

When Fisher Stevens came aboard to produce “The Cove,” he was instrumental in recutting a worthy piece of environmental filmmaking as a thriller. With “Countdown to Zero,” Bender says the key was finding a balance between “the filmmaking side, the visuals, the sound, the music, which is all really cool, and the information side, which is pretty fucking scary. When the two work together, you know you’ve got a theatrical movie. But it’s really hard; it took us two years.”

For Participant, which makes as many as four campaigning docs a year, the key to making its docs break through is mobilizing support from activists long before release. “If you don’t do this type of ground-level social action and cause marketing, it’s very difficult for a small film to get above the clutter than exists in the theatrical marketplace,” Berk explains.

Of course, publicity can come from opponents as well as supporters. The offices of Japanese distrib Unplugged were picketed last month by angry right-wing demonstrators protesting against “The Cove.” It wasn’t much fun for the staff, but as Clifton admits, it was fantastic PR, not just in Japan where “The Cove” will be released in July on 20 screens, but around the world where the film is still slowly rolling out.

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