Nonfiction filmmakers look to VOD, new release models

PARIS — As the documentary community gathers in La Rochelle, France, for nonfiction mart Sunny Side of the Doc (June 26-29), filmmakers are finding greater opportunities for theatrical distribution and new financing options for their wares.

There’s been an increase in viewership via VOD, and some distribs are creating release models using multi-territory day-and-date releases, which helps deliver more marketing bang for the buck. Sales companies are able to close more deals that include all rights — and distributors are able to sell off VOD.

“Digital platforms are opening up more opportunities and new revenue streams for documentaries,” says Annie Roney, managing director of California-based sales company Roco Films, “so a company that takes a film theatrically will also pick up the digital rights.”

Benoit Danard, head of statistics and studies at the CNC, says that the proliferation of digital screens has made access to theatrical distribution more flexible. France, for instance, boasts 5,464 digital screens, with more and more producers booking theaters and releasing films on a few copies themselves without going through a distribution company.

Moreover, nonfiction features are cheaper to make than fiction narrative features — an average budget is around $380,000 — and more distributors are willing to put up minimum guarantees on select high-profile docs they feel can connect with mainstream auds. For example, the Weinstein Co. picked up Bernard-Henri Levy’s doc on the Libyan uprising, “The Oath of Tobruk,” in Cannes.

“In European countries and Australia, theatrically released documentaries are on the upswing again,” Roney says. “Distributors are seeing the value of putting them out theatrically to drive VOD revenue.”

At Cannes, docs comprised 14% of all market titles (compared with 10% in 2010 and 8% in 2009) and the screening library, which boasted 220 docs, drew more than 2,000 viewings, per Cannes Marche du Film topper Jerome Paillard.

While TV sales still make up half the revenues of all docus, there’s also more financing money available from nonprofits, grants, private investors, equity investors and crowdsourcing, particularly for themes that resonate with given groups.

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the helmer/producer duo behind “The Invisible War,” a film that sheds light on the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military, and was released by Cinedigm in the U.S. on June 22, say they raised a good chunk of the pic’s budget from private donors and nonprofits, including Sundance Documentary Fund and the Funding Exchange.

Ziering and Dick also were able to use social media as an investigative tool to find sources, and to gather support for the doc.

“People were astounded and outraged that the situation had been going on for so long, and they realized the potential power of this film to change (things),” says Dick, who notes that the film prompted U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to announce a new policy toward the prosecution of such crimes.

Anais Clanet, who runs Wide House, a documentary banner launched by Paris-based sales shingle Wide Management in 2010, says, “Audiences are hungry for original documentaries tackling daring topics and dealing with social and political themes.” Two of Wide House’s bestselling titles are Goran Hugo Olsson’s “The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975,” and “In My “Mother’s Arms,” from sibling Iraqi helmers Atia Jabarah Al-Daradji and Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji.

Roney, who handles docs including “The Invisible War,” says she’s in negotiations with U.K., Canadian and Australian distribs who are interested in acquiring Brian Knappenberger’s docu on civil disobedience “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists” to release day and date over several territories to maximize P&A investment.

“That’s a new model,” she says.

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