Raw TV’s bigscreen ID: ‘Imposter’

Pic about mistaken identity put Brit doc shingle into plexes

With unusual-character-driven titles like “Sleeping Beauty,” about a teenager with a rare sleep disorder, and “Gold Rush,” in which a group of unemployed men aim to support their families by striking it rich mining in Alaska, it makes perfect sense that Brit docu shingle Raw TV should look to another troubled soul to help it cross over into the theatrical realm.

“The Imposter,” the story of a young Frenchman, Frederic Bourdin, who convinces a family from San Antonio, Texas, that he was their missing teenage son, hit U.S. theaters July 13 via Indomina, which acquired rights shortly after the pic debuted at Sundance. Revolver Entertainment and Picturehouse are co-releasing the pic in the U.K., with Madman Entertainment owning Australian rights.

“We’re story junkies,” says Raw producer and managing director Dimitri Doganis. “That’s the thing that really defines us.”

Trawling for stories, the shingle’s creative director Bart Layton, who also directed the movie, says he knew he had something when he stumbled upon the article about Bourdin. “This guy had successfully stolen the identity of another human being. If it was fiction, it would be farfetched,” Layton says. “We thought it was incredibly compelling and bigger than TV. We’d been looking for (the subject of) our first feature film, and this certainly felt like it had potential to have a new kind of documentary language.”

Genre has been Raw’s stock in trade from the outset, since Doganis, a former video journalist, set up the London shingle in 2000 with a £25,000 ($38,770) development deal with Blighty’s Channel 4 to make popular docs. Leyton joined Raw in 2005. Today, the company boasts revenues of around $31 million, with shows including “Gold Rush,” which airs on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. and has been renewed for a third season, and “Locked Up Abroad,” the longest-running series in the history of the National Geographic Channel.

But the bigscreen has always been the shingle’s goal. “?’The Imposter’ is what we’ve been working toward,” Doganis says.

Layton says Raw committed to making the film before it had secured funding, bringing Bourdin over from France to London, where the director spent two days interviewing the imposter in a studio. “We found out that his story was a story about self-deception,” Layton says. “We were just so gobsmacked that we felt it was worth committing to.”

After sinking the initial coin into the project themselves, the Raw execs managed to secure the rest of the near $1.4 million budget from A&E Indie Films through its veep, Molly Thompson, and Channel 4’s feature film arm Film4. They also brought on two heavy-hitting producers, Passion Pictures’ John Battsek and Red Box Films’ Simon Chinn (“Man on Wire”), to exec produce the pic.

“We weren’t trying to do upscale TV here,” Layton says. “We were very clear that this was going to be cinema, and when we were looking for financing, we pitched it as a thriller that could potentially play to a non-documentary audience.”

The feature film format, says the duo, was the best way to convey the story.

“TV is quite proscriptive in the way in which you structure something,” Layton says. “You’re in a space where you’re competing with dozens of other channels, and if you haven’t gotten someone in the first 10 minutes, you’ve lost them. With movies, you can invite an enjoyable confusion.”

Indeed, it’s this confusion of reality, in which “Imposter” offers up a raft of conflicting versions of events, that has hooked festival auds from Sundance to SXSW, Edinburgh to Sydney.

Raw, which also has a small office in Gotham, now has a development deal for feature films with Film4 and is working on two projects with the banner. While Raw is reluctant to reveal any specifics of the projects just yet, Layton says one is fiction and the other is a true-story/drama hybrid.

“We are always working toward different kinds of filmmaking,” Doganis says. “Feature films and drama, those are next in our game plan. We’ve grown steadily every year since we’ve formed, (but) not so fast that we lose creative control.”

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