VENICE, Italy — Participant Media’s David Linde and Diane Weyermann made the trek to Venice for the world premiere Friday of Ai Weiwei’s migrant crisis doc “Human Flow,” which they say encapsulates exactly what the Hollywood mini-major is hoping to achieve with entertainment that aims to drive social change.
“Ai Weiwei wasn’t trying to make an art movie,” Weyermann said about the ambitious piece shot over more than a year in 23 countries by the Chinese artist.
“He was very clear about that. It’s about reaching people. He really truly believes that this is a major crisis, and there are many people out there who don’t know about it,” said Weyermann, Participant’s executive vice president of documentary films. “He wanted to reach a wide audience, to the extent that a filmmaker can.”
“Human Flow,” which Amazon Studios will release theatrically in the U.S. on Oct. 13 in partnership with Magnolia Pictures, marks the first time that Participant is working with Amazon on a deal that includes theatrical. It’s also part of the deal it struck in January with Lionsgate Intl., which has become the international distributor on the bulk of their product.
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That distribution deal has been instrumental for Participant to implement a timely multi-pronged release strategy on “Human Flow.” “We knew that the film would be ready for the fall, and it was really important to get it released this fall because issues move so quickly,” said Linde, Participant’s CEO.
Working with Lionsgate, they showed some footage to distributors in Cannes, generating a flurry of theatrical pre-sales to the likes of Altitude in the U.K., 01 Distribution in Italy, NFP Distribution in Germany, Nordisk in Scandinavia, Mars in France and Village Roadshow in Australia.
Not bad for a documentary. Then again, “we are on a good run,” Linde said, noting that Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel” is being released in 38 countries.
Locking down distribution early has allowed Participant to “to effectively work on campaigns with NGOs and foundations, building on existing work that they are doing,” said Linde. Representatives from several NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), The World Bank, and UNHCR are in Venice for the “Human Flow” premiere.
The deal with Amazon, which will make “Human Flow” available online in the U.S. in February, is also key to its impact campaign. “It allows groups to say: ‘Hey, let’s watch this on Amazon, so that we can then engage in the conversation,’” Linde said.
Participant, which was established by philanthropist Jeff Skoll, is now focusing on three to four large-scale campaigns a year that include NGOs and other organizations around the world. For “An Inconvenient Sequel,” they created an online “action center.” The point of these campaigns is not just to raise awareness, but to make a “concrete impact,” said Linde.
He took the reins 22 months ago and is turning toward “new kinds of growth around what has always made Participant great, which is its narrative film and documentary film program, combined with all these efforts that we make around real social impact around whatever issue we touch on.”
In December Participant bought digital short film company Soul Pancake. It is also moving back into TV development and production after having shut down cable TV network Pivot roughly a year ago.
Unscripted TV series “America to Me,” directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), is about race and education seen through the prism of a year at Chicago’s Oak Park and River Forest High School. The show is to be ready next year. There is also the recently announced limited series for Netflix to be directed by Ava DuVernay, “Central Park 5,” about the 1980s case of five young black men wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a white female jogger in New York.
Upcoming feature film releases include:
— October: “Human Flow” and Andy Serkis-directed “Breathe,” which will premiere in Toronto and open the London Film Festival.
— November: Stephen Chbosky-directed “Wonder,” about a boy, played by Jacob Tremblay, who is struggling to overcome a facial difference. Also starring Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts.
— December: Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s transgender drama “A Fantastic Woman,” which won best screenplay in Berlin and is going out in the U.S. through Sony Classics; also a limited release of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post”; Participant is the primary investor in Amblin Pictures, which is co-producing the pic with Fox. “The Post” will go out wide in January.
Features in the pipeline include Alfonso Cuaron’s untitled movie chronicling a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and four or five new documentaries next year, details of which are being kept under wraps.