Top docs draw top dollar

Event-style pics prove B.O. worth

Documentaries not only made a big splash onscreen in theaters at Toronto, but also offscreen, in deal memos. One of Toronto’s biggest doc deals came from Europe: Studiocanal’s acquisition of worldwide rights to upcoming Marilyn Monroe bio “Fragments,” from Liz Garbus.

Studiocanal’s co-financing deal had a low-to-medium seven-figure minimum guarantee, says the company’s head of international sales, Harold Van Lier.

Helping to drive sales has been the recent success of docus at the box office. Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” has cumed more than $5 million in the U.S.; horse-whispering “Buck” has posted $3.9 million.

But Studiocanal and “Fragments” producer Stanley Buchtal aren’t just relying on an improved marketplace. They hope to turn the docu into a theatrical event, like U2 docu “From the Sky Down,” which opened Toronto.

They’re planning on an ad campaign comparable to the marketing campaign used for high-profile features, in terms of scale and cost. The campaign starts with viral marketing when the doc is in production to get the word-of month rolling, and then grows into a cross-media-platform model that uses a strong web component.

Van Lier would not comment on the cost.

Garbus sees “Fragments,” based on the eponymously titled book of Marilyn Monroe’s writings, diaries, poems and letters, published last year in 17 countries, as a good project to bet on.

“There is no other such short-lived (person who) has evoked so much interest, so many questions (the mystery surrounding her death) … and above all, love and passion,” Garbus says.

Going into production July 5, pic will be ready for delivery by Aug. 5, 2012, the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death.

Several A-list actresses are being targeted to read Monroe’s poems and letters, and recording artists are being sought for original music for the soundtrack, says Van Lier.

“There’s a real appetite for big, celebrity documentaries,” says Van Lier. “And Monroe is the biggest star of them all.”Both Garbus and Sunny Side of the Doc fest topper Yves Jeanneau maintain that even in an up market, documentaries still require special care and feeding to nurture good returns.

“Event-style documentaries are the locomotives for the genre,” Jeanneau says, pointing to the near 10 million admissions worldwide for the Pathe-produced “Oceans,” and the PBS, ITVS and Ford Foundation co-financed “Half the Sky,” which focuses on women’s rights in emerging countries, produced by Maro Chermayeff.

“The prestige that goes with these types of big-scale documentaries, and the marketing that broadcasters and pay TV channels put behind them, have built up significantly in the past few years,” Says Chermayeff.

Clearly, adds Garbus, distribs are more willing to invest in the genre.

“Some distributors would take one doc and that would be their quota for the year,” Garbus says. “Now they’ll go to Toronto, Sundance and Berlin and are much more open-minded.”