“Fantastic Fungi,” a captivating and revealing new nature documentary from Moving Art, makes the case that the very essence of the world, humanity, of life and death, can be reduced to mushrooms. Cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg directs the docu, which is narrated by Brie Larson.
Released in late 2019, the documentary available on Apple TV and Prime Video, received a surprising second life when the coronavirus pandemic forced cinemas to shut down, the filmmakers pivoted to virtual cinema and introduced the film to a new audience.
Below, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg and distributor Kirt Eftekhar (Area 23a) discuss how they found a new way to distribute a film during a pandemic.
The film has gotten this second life because of the pandemic, can you talk a little bit about how that happened?
Louie Schwartzberg: We were going strong in the fall as the number one doc in theaters. We had a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score. We had events planned and when COVID-19 happened, we pivoted to the online virtual cinema. I think we pioneered virtual cinema. We didn’t abandon our partners, instead, we brought our partners with us and did a revenue share. We navigated the pandemic.
Did you ever think the film and its message about how fungi and killing viruses would ever be timely?
Schwartzberg: I don’t know if you saw that review we got in the Washington Post, but they said it was a cult hit back in the fall and it is now more mind-blowing than ever. The film talks about connection, and here we are social distancing. The film talks about shared economies under the ground where ecosystems flourish without greed, and that relates to what’s going on with the protests. It’s beautiful that we can mirror nature’s intelligence and have it be a metaphor for what we’re going through right now, without being prescriptive in terms of telling people how to behave or how to vote.
We went through the lockdown and virtual cinema took off which was a great thing for small independent films. How did that pivot help expose the film more?
Schwartzberg: I truly think it’s because the message of the film is completely in sync with what we’re going through right now.
How do we get out of this pandemic? Well, the answer is living in harmony with nature. Learning about biomimicry. The pandemic is just one aspect. I mean, there’s climate change. We’re going to go from one calamity to another calamity if we don’t get our act together.
Kirt Eftekhar: To the interconnectivity part, we had so many events throughout pre-pandemic, that the word of mouth on the film was so strong and the positive community experience that all the theaters had prior to the pandemic was off the charts. I think it pivoting into the virtual theater experience. There was such a pent-up demand for people to see the film, that the idea that we shared the film, even though our theatrical window wasn’t closed was really well received by the audience as well as the theaters, that’s why we were able to really sustain such a level of interest and success. It was just one of the magical experiences from a theatrical virtual side as well.
Was there anything else you did on the distribution side?
Eftekhar: From a distribution perspective, we didn’t follow any traditional rules. People really appreciate that we created experiences for people that were really immersive.
In the pre-COVID world, we actually had micro fairs where people would participate and bring in different types of mushrooms. People would intermingle with Louie and some of the sets of the cast of the film and when we hit the COVID space, we were also very innovative in the way we addressed that.
We had an afternoon of activities that included music, deep conversations about the environment, how fungi is connected to the environment and different types of environmental solutions. People really got a deep dive into the fungi kingdom and Louie’s work.
We were outside the box of not just being a virtual release, but a virtual experience and that accelerated our ability to connect with not only independent film audience but also, this counterculture movement audience from around the world.