At the 2007 Oscars, Jerry Seinfeld called the documentary features nominated “incredibly depressing.” For the last five years Molly Thompson, VP of A&E IndieFilms, has been working on changing not only Seinfeld’s perception of docs but also the public’s.
Since the shingle’s launch in 2005, Thompson has been responsible for producing some of the industry’s most buzzed-about releases, including “The September Issue,” “Murderball” and this year’s “The Tillman Story” (directed by Amir Bar-Lev) and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” (directed by Alex Gibney).
While social issues can be found in each of the eight titles the shingle has produced, Thompson steers clear of films aimed at niches that are standard fare in the doc market.
“I deliberately make a point to hide the issues (within a film),” Thompson explains. “What we are looking for are not documentaries as much as nonfiction movies. Films with larger-than-life characters and great stories that have broad audience potential.”
Under Thompson’s short tenure, distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, the Weinstein Co. and Magnolia have fought over her titles.
In 2007 and 2008, “My Kid Could Paint That” and “American Teen” generated Sundance bidding wars. Although 2009’s “September Issue” has been IndieFilms highest B.O. grosser to date with $3.8 million, distributors keep lining up.
To keep them coming, Thompson says that her annual slate needs to remain small — so far one to two films per year. “A big part of the reason we do this is branding,” Thompson says.
“Having our logo on a theatrical film in cinemas is important. There is so much effort involved in releasing a documentary theatrically that you probably won’t see us with five films a year.”
The small slate also means less money to spread around, which reportedly allows A&E to give greater funding opportunities than some rival strands, attracting notable filmmakers like Gibney, R.J. Cutler and Nanette Burstein.
“I remember our first Sundance,” Thompson recalls. “We had two films there. I turned to my bosses and said it’s not always going to be like this, but we’ve been pretty lucky. Each of our films has managed to break through each year since then.” – — Addie Morfoot