Few producers have a better record producing feature documentaries than Simon Chinn, who won Oscars, Baftas and just about every other award going for “Man on Wire” and “Searching for Sugar Man.”
But theatrical docs are a niche market, as Chinn admits. That’s why he joined forces last December with his cousin, Jonathan Chinn, a Los Angeles-based, Emmy-winning reality showrunner, to launch Lightbox. The new company is dedicated to a broader range of factual programming across a wider variety of platforms.
“Jonathan has a reputation for being at the more thoughtful end of reality programming in the U.S., while I’m seen as being at the more commercial end of feature documentaries. So we thought, what’s the sweet spot between the two?” Chinn says.
In less than a year, Lightbox has harvested a first crop of commissions from Esquire Network, VH1, ESPN and FX. In August, the U.K.’s Channel 4 bought a minority stake in Lightbox as part of its $33 million Growth Fund, injecting the cash for further production on both sides of the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, Chinn continues to plow his feature furrow through his London-based Red Box Films.
In 2014, Red Box delivered “The Green Prince,” about a Hamas agent-turned-Israeli spy, which won the audience award at Sundance and opened in limited release in the U.S. Sept. 12 via Music Box; “Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty,” centering on the search for narco kingpin Joaquin Guzman, which bowed at SXSW; and “Garnet’s Gold,” the debut of young British director Ed Perkins, which screened at Tribeca and Edinburgh.
Chinn has signed Perkins to work exclusively on development projects for Red Box and Lightbox.
To find space for his expansion, the producer is finally moving out of the London office he has long shared with John Battsek and Andrew Ruhemann’s Passion Pictures.
Many of Chinn’s highest profile films — including “Sugar Man” and “Project Nim” — were exec produced by Battsek. They jointly produced “The Green Prince,” and worked together as exec producers on 2012’s “The Imposter,” which won a Bafta and two British Independent Film Awards, and played in festivals around the world.
Chinn hopes the alliance will continue. “John is an extraordinary producer, and Passion is pretty much the best in the business. We aim to work together on our more ambitious projects, on the basis that two brains are better than one.”
That’s clearly the principle behind Lightbox, too.
“We want to find really smart ways of doing documentaries and reality that feel both popular and have integrity,” Chinn says. “What appealed to us particularly was the idea that (we could) work with non-traditional platforms — Netflix, Xbox, Amazon, Hulu — as well as with traditional TV networks.”
Xbox gave Lightbox its first commission: “Digital Revolution,” a six-part series about the dawn of the digital age. The first episode, about the fall of Atari, directed by Zak Penn, sneak-peeked at Comic-Con. The second, about citizen journalism and the Boston bombings, just wrapped. While Microsoft has shuttered Xbox Studios, it says it will honor existing projects.
Chinn is sanguine about such comings and goings on the financing front.
“Every couple of years, there’s a new kind of player,” he says. “The emergence of Netflix as a real champion of feature docs is fantastic. Discovery Films closed, but CNN Films has emerged. A&E Indiefilms is thriving.
“I don’t think all feature docs lend themselves to theatrical release — the opportunity to be commercially successful is pretty narrow. But the landscape for quality docs is pretty healthy in spite of that. From a business point of view, it is easier to make documentaries that I can set up very quickly than to toil for years and years in development on a drama.”