×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Digital Platforms Boost Documentary Financing

Theatrical documentaries are a risky financial proposition at best. Few have major theatrical runs. However, 2018 saw several exceptional releases garner multimillion-dollar grosses domestically, demonstrating the genre’s cyclical ability to appeal and compete in a crowded field.

Five documentaries are among 2018’s top 100 box office grossers: Focus Features’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” ($22.6 million), Magnolia Pictures’ “RBG” ($14 million), Neon’s “Three Identical Strangers” ($12.3 million), Briarcliff Entertainment’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” ($6.3 million) and the still-in-release “Free Solo” ($3.6 million) from National Geographic Documentary Film.

“In 1986, when I began in the business, I felt like I’d missed the parade,” says Davis Guggenheim (Oscar winner for “An Inconvenient Truth”), producer of the 2018 Sundance documentary Grand Jury prizewinner “The Price of Free,” which chronicles Indian Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s crusade against child labor and slavery.

The film was co-financed through his Concordia Studio shingle and Participant Media and picked up by YouTube Originals. “I thought all my work would go to PBS. But that’s changed. There are more outlets, buyers and the audience is hungrier for non-fiction.”

Diane Weyermann, Participant Media’s president of documentary film and television, has seen the evolution firsthand as a veteran commissioner and financier of longform docs. “The sea change has been the advent of streaming outlets looking for content for their platforms,” says Weyermann, referring to the addition of players including Hulu, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and YouTube Originals. “That’s the good news. Although there are more opportunities than ever, it’s still difficult and challenging even with greater financing available.”

Foundation funders, development and acquisition execs remain supremely selective when backing projects. Most features are financed from a mix of sources that can include non-profits (Ford Foundation, Sundance Documentary Fund), private equity, cablers (HBO and Showtime), grants (NEA), and international pre-sales or commissions from online outlets (Netflix is now a major backer). A filmmaker’s track record and a superstar subject advance the probability of financing.

“McQueen’s” co-directors Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui pitched their feature documentary concept on the influential fashion designer Alexander McQueen at the Berlinale’s European Film Market. Distributors responded immediately to their approach.

“We wanted to elevate it visually and create our own imagery to give it its own identity,” Bonhote says. The project was pitched as “a theatrical cinematic proposition” and its U.K.-based sales agent Embankment Films raised the initial financing in three days. Bleecker Street handled U.S. distribution.

“It’s very tough to make these things, but Alexander McQueen is a star so it was like having an A-list actor attached to a concept,” Ettedgui says, noting that there was a real demand from indie distribs for the subject.

“International sales made the difference and was the major shift for us,” says Paris-based director-writer Tom Volf, whose debut documentary “Maria by Callas” is released by Sony Pictures Classics. Through a stop-and-start process over four years, with support from France’s TV production company Elephant, Volf eventually raised production financing through pre-sales orchestrated by MK2 Films. The firm sold the feature in 40 countries by close of editing.

“We never called it a documentary, we called it a film,” says Volf, who felt constrained by the 52-minute running time format popular in Europe. Volf credits his producer Emmanuelle Lepers for sharing his creative vision of famed soprano Callas’ complex life story. “The film is halfway between a documentary and a feature and it’s a model of an unconventional way of making a documentary,” he says of the 113-minute finished piece.

As the genre booms in popularity, the caliber and diversity of filmmakers multiplies, pushing creative boundaries. “Filmmakers and producers are more savvy today regarding what will work in the theatrical marketplace, as a series, or what will work in online streaming,” Ettedgui says.

Blockbuster docs — those with known subjects — are easier for theaters to program, Bonhote says. “Independent theaters don’t have the time or the resources to educate an audience, they need people to come with a desire or interest in the talent and subject matter.”

Audiences also have become more sophisticated as the form evolves. “The storytelling in documentaries gets better and better,” Guggenheim says.

The bottom line continues to be the determination of documentary filmmakers to craft and tell a compelling story. Premiering on HBO in June, funded in partnership with the late Paul Allen and his Vulcan Prods., director Erik Nelson’s “The Cold Blue” (now on festival run and screening at the AFI Film Festival) utilizes restored, raw footage from the National Archives, originally shot by William Wyler for his groundbreaking “Memphis Belle.” Nelson jumpstarted the project with his own funds.

“You have to put your own money and talent in,” says the director (who also directed “A Gray State” and produced Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man”).

Weyermann agrees. “The documentary world is largely driven by passion and commitment; it’s not driven by money or the business but driven by a person’s commitment to a story and how they doggedly they pursue it, financing or not.”

More Film

  • Gone With the Wind Screening

    Film News Roundup: 'Gone With the Wind' Sets Event Cinema Record

    In today’s film news roundup, “Gone with the Wind” sets a new record, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is acquired, and Tracy Oliver signs with Topic Studios. EVENT CINEMA RECORD The 80th anniversary release of “Gone with the Wind” has grossed $2.23 million in six nationwide screenings on four dates — a record as the [...]

  • Made in Abyss - Journey’s Dawn

    Film Review: ‘Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn’

    It’s a Herculean effort to take a multi-volume manga like author Akihito Tsukushi’s “Made in Abyss,” adapt it into a popular anime television series, and then compress the show into a coherent feature (technically, two movies), but the folks at Sentai Filmworks have done just that. Part one, “Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn,” will screen [...]

  • HAF: 'Assassination,' 'Apprenticeship' Named Project Market

    HAF: 'Assassination,' 'Apprenticeship' Named Project Market Winners

    Eighteen prizes were presented on Wednesday afternoon at the closing ceremony of the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum. The project market sits alongside FilMart as part of the Entertainment Expo in Hong Kong. “Wong Tai Sin Assassination” to be directed by Wong Hoi and produced by Derek Kwok Tsz-kin, was named the winner of [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild Makes Concession on Film Financing in Agent Talks

    The Writers Guild of America has made a concession in film financing in its negotiations with Hollywood talent agents — the second in six weeks of talks. WGA West executive director David Young said Wednesday that it had made a “significant move” toward reaching a deal with the Association of Talent Agents for a revamped [...]

  • Noah Centineo He-Man

    Noah Centineo to Play He-Man in 'Masters of the Universe' Reboot

    From a boy (who’s loved) to He-Man. Noah Centineo is in talks to take on the superhero in Sony Pictures and Mattel Films’ “Masters of the Universe.” Brothers Adam and Aaron Nee are directing the reboot. Mattel Films is partnering with Sony on the movie, which is based on Mattel’s beloved toy line that spawned [...]

  • Disney Fox Takeover Placeholder

    Disney, Fox Employees Grapple With Day One Transition on Two Hollywood Lots

    What kind of a boss will Disney be? That’s a question facing employees at 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, National Geographic Partners, FX Networks, and other assorted parts of Rupert Murdoch’s former media empire. Wednesday was their first full day as staffers of the Walt Disney Co. and the initial moves have done little to [...]

  • Derek Tsang Hong Kong actor Derek

    'Better Days' Director Derek Tsang Lands in World Cinema Spotlight

    Hong Kong actor-director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang has recently found himself in the spotlight of the world of cinema, but for the wrong reason. Tsang will be joining a Hong Kong filmmakers panel at FilMart on Thursday with Sunny Chan (“Man on the Dragon”) and Pang Ho-cheung (“Love in a Puff”). The 39-year-old filmmaker was expecting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content