TORONTO – When it comes to the subject of documentary features in brick-and-mortar theaters, the recent run of strong box-office performances is the headline-grabber.
But Hot Docs hopes we’ll see more stories in the near future about other cities launching venues similar to its Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, located on Toronto’s bustling Bloor Street corridor, where audiences gather to watch, discuss, and celebrate first-run documentary features year-round.
To encourage venue operators or doc organizations – and, hopefully, their philanthropic supporters – to take the plunge, Hot Docs has banded with the Maysles Documentary Center (New York), Bertha DocHouse (London), and La Compagna (Florence) to create the Documentary Exhibitors Collective, which they’re dubbing DocXchange.
Spearheaded by Hot Docs’ president Chris McDonald, Bertha’s Elizabeth Wood, and Campagna’s Camilla Toschi, the collective’s mission is to raise the profile of docs by offering “support and collaboration for documentary enthusiasts to create venues – from converted shopfronts to 500-seat deco cinemas – to inspire filmmakers and the public to ‘turn doc’!” said the group.
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“We want there to be more venues than ours in the world,” McDonald told Variety at the start of the 2019 Hot Docs festival, which wraps May 5.
“We are sharing best practices, tips on what programs are doing well, films that have performed and under-performed,” he said. “And as the big sister in the foursome, we are opening up our books and our business plans for others to see how we’ve done it.”
The larger goal of this, McDonald continued, is about helping filmmakers. “Our mandate is to showcase this art form and to help filmmakers to get them made and distributed and seen.”
Hot Docs’ own learning curve over the course of running and expanding the festival for over 25 years and, in particular, since launching its own cinema in March 2012, has shown the organization that being competitive isn’t always the best or only choice for finding success. “Over time we realized that the opposite is true. Every time we sit down with another group we are all learning practical things that help us all.
“With a festival, where you get bigger every year, you learn to live within your means, and anticipate and plan for various outcomes,” McDonald said. “In our second year of running the cinema, our box office was down significantly, and it dawned on us—we’re in a marketplace, we don’t control content the same way we do when planning the festivals.”
What the cinema’s programmers learned is that special or enhanced programming helps boost the box office when it’s a slow year for theatrical. In addition to its long-running Doc Soup series, Hot Docs has also created programming such as its Curious Minds series.
McDonald said he and his DocXchange collaborators plan to actively chat up the organization and the benefits of membership on the festival circuit in the months ahead: “We want to take the mystery out of running a dedicated documentary cinema.”