Life on the Big Screen

The dreams of your average feature doc-maker are modest: a theatrical run, some critical acclaim, and a solid box-office gross - say, in the low seven figures....
September 1, 2000

The dreams of your average feature doc-maker are modest: a theatrical run, some critical acclaim, and a solid box-office gross – say, in the low seven figures.

In reality, these goals are difficult to achieve, requiring a pre-release game plan, developed months or sometimes years in advance.

Unfortunately, there are no general rules for the successful distribution and marketing of a doc. Movie-going audiences are fickle and unpredictable. Each film requires a unique promotional approach, usually tied to its subject matter (e.g. music, sports). Doc distributors also face stiff competition – from studio blockbusters as well as other art-house films – for theater bookings, licensing agreements and ancillary deals.

Absent the existence of a ‘how-to’ manual, the best way to learn about selling a doc is by studying the lessons of past docs that have done well.

Capitalizing on Circumstance

One such success is Hoop Dreams, which earned US$7.8 million in theaters, making it one of the top-ten grossing documentaries of all time. Not too shabby for a film that cost $398,000 to make.

Fine Line Features, the film’s distributor, opened Hoop Dreams in New York City and Los Angeles initially, which is typical for docs. ‘There’s an audience for documentaries in all major cities, but people need to hear about the film first,’ says Steven Friedlander, executive VP of distribution at Fine Line. ‘You need to establish yourself in New York and L.A., get huge numbers, get the New York Times review, the L.A. Times review, get some prestige, and then take that out to other areas.’ It can also be valuable to include in a theatrical opening those cities where a doc will have a strong core audience, adds Friedlander.

After its October ’94 release, Hoop Dreams played in calendar houses for limited engagements, which meant that Fine Line earned smaller rental fees, but didn’t have to spend very much on advertising because the theaters had their own mailing lists.

The doc, which depicts the lives of two African-American teenagers struggling to become professional basketball players, struck a chord with audiences and became a critical darling. Encouraged by the positive reception, Fine Line moved the film into art houses and to more cities, supporting it with a $500,000 promotional campaign that included newspaper ads and cable TV spots.

‘One of the key marketing components to this film was the film itself,’ says Liz Manne, who was executive VP of marketing at Fine Line when the film was released. ‘I know it sounds kind of silly, but when you encounter a film like that, with the unbelievable ability to move you, in a sense half your work is done for you.’

The doc’s emotional heft aside, Fine Line faced three major marketing hurdles with Hoop Dreams: the film’s two-hour-and-49-minute running time, its subject matter (inner-city kids), and the fact that it was shot on video. ‘At the time, there was still a subliminal racism on the part of many theatrical distributors, who thought it was hard to market films with black people in it,’ Manne recalls.

The producers of Hoop Dreams also wanted the film to be screened for young people in urban communities where the movie’s message could have a pro-social impact. The Fine Line marketers had to strike a balance between advertising the doc to sophisticated movie consumers and getting it in front of audiences where it could make a difference, all on a relatively shoestring budget.

The distributor got a huge boost when Nike signed on to help promote the film, lending its trademark ‘Swoosh’ logo to print and movie ads. The shoe company also provided money for radio promotions, direct-mail flyers, and an ’800′ line – (800) 308-HOOP – that community groups could call to arrange for tickets.

Sports Illustrated, brought in by Nike, bolstered the educational campaign by paying for the publication of study guides about the film’s issues, which Fine Line distributed to students and teachers nationwide. Another benefactor, signage company Gannett Outdoor, contributed free billboards and bus-shelter promos.

In those days, according to Manne, studios traditionally designed separate ads – one for the black market and one for the white market. ‘There was a truism then that you didn’t put black faces in ads, because that would turn off an art-house audience,’ Manne says. ‘What we used for both markets was a generic triumphant pose, without a photo from the film, filled with quotes. We talked about the film in words, and made the words more prominent than the image.’

The distributor’s efforts, the groundswell of public and private support, and the stirring power of the film all translated to $4 million in domestic box office gross by the time of the Academy Award nominations in February 1995. Hoop Dreams was infamously snubbed by Oscar that year in both the best documentary and best picture categories, but that only enhanced its commercial profile.

‘We knew that if the film got a documentary nomination, it would get big press,’ Manne recalls. ‘But we also knew that if it didn’t get nominated, that would be story of the year.’ Seeking to capitalize on either scenario, Fine Line broadened the doc’s release to 250 screens the week before the Oscar nominations were announced.

‘It was a calculation we made to blow it out, on the assumption that it didn’t matter if we did or didn’t get the nomination, because either way it was going to be good news financially,’ Manne says.

As it turned out, the Oscar brouhaha nearly doubled the film’s theatrical gross, and set the stage for the home video, which did 120,000 units in rental and 140,000 units in sales, according to Manne, who is now executive VP of programming and marketing for the Sundance Channel. ‘Hoop Dreams became this cause célèbre. It took on a life of its own,’ she says. ‘We were there to position the film and take advantage of the controversy.’

DIY Distribution

Not all docs benefit from the notoriety of an Oscar ruckus, however, which means a more creative marketing approach is needed. When Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of New York-based Creative Thinking International finished their doc Brother’s Keeper (about a dairy farmer in rural New York who is accused of fratricide), they had trouble hooking up with a distributor.

‘We felt that the deals being offered were minuscule in terms of advance, and that they weren’t expressing the kind of passion you need for releasing a film,’ Sinofsky says. ‘They wanted to treat it like a product, not like a film that has an importance to it.’

Dissatisfied with the offers, the pair decided to distribute the movie themselves. Having already mortgaged most of their possessions to come up with $100,000 for the doc’s production, they went $18,000 further into debt to bankroll a New York City release. ‘Our strategy was to open it in New York, see how it did, and then go from there,’ Sinofsky says.

Unable to afford radio or TV spots, they put up posters and hired students to hand out flyers. Sinofsky recalls approaching people in line to see A Brief History of Time at Lincoln Center. ‘I was shameless. I would hand them a flyer and say, ‘This is a film that I made, and I’d really love for you to come and see it.”

Brother’s Keeper performed well in New York, which encouraged Berlinger and Sinofsky to strike more prints and talk to calendar houses in other cities. Beginning in September 1992 with only five prints, they waged a nearly one-year campaign to distribute their doc around the country.

They contacted theater owners directly and supported openings with newspaper ads. When money came in from one city, they would use it to subsidize a screening in another, essentially ‘bicycling’ the doc from city to city. They also traveled with the film as much as possible, hosting question-and-answer sessions, so that theater owners could bill the screenings as events.

With just 30 prints, the doc ended up playing on 340 screens and grossing $1.5 million. The total spent on advertising was $150,000. ‘Believe me, distribution is not brain surgery,’ Sinofsky says, reflecting on the experience. ‘It’s just a lot of work.’

Self-distribution is not a strategy that Sinofsky recommends for every documentary. Much of the way is fraught with frustration, including late payments, theater owners dropping specialized films to make room for summer blockbusters, and the hassle of dealing with ad representatives. Additionally, the process is all-consuming; Sinofsky stopped making films for nine months while he labored to get his movie into theaters.

‘You have to circumvent your ego, which just wants to be in the theater so you can say you’re a filmmaker,’ Sinofsky says. ‘In reality, you need to ask yourself: ‘Does your film deserve to be in the theater?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ the next step is to roll up your sleeves and work your ass off.’

The Grassroots Approach

Aviva Kempner worked on her doc The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg for 12-and-a-half years, at a total production cost of $1,000,000. She shot her film in 16mm and edited it on a Steenbeck editing station. ‘It was always meant for the movie theater,’ she says.

But when she went hunting for a distributor last year, she found the offers insufficient. ‘They wanted all the rights for so little money,’ she says.

Kempner opted to sell the television and video rights separately, and eventually contracted with New York-based Cowboy Booking International to help market and distribute the film theatrically.

Cowboy Booking’s strategy was to spend conservatively on advertising and reach audiences by other means. Since Greenberg is about a Jewish baseball player, the company focused on Jewish communities and baseball fans. They phoned rabbis and heads of Jewish Community Centers, asking them to post flyers. They advertised in Jewish weeklies, rented prints to congregations for private screenings, and passed out flyers at baseball stadiums. Kempner appeared on sports radio programs to talk about the film.

‘You’ve got to find other ways to build word of mouth,’ says John Vanco, co-president of Cowboy Booking International. ‘You’ve got to identify the people who are most likely to fall in love with your movie, and figure out cheap ways to communicate with them.’

Greenberg, which opened in January at the Film Forum in New York City, earned $827,000 in its first six months of theatrical release, and is on track to gross at least twice that amount. According to Vanco, approximately $100,000 was spent advertising the film.

Miscalculating Miami

The key to marketing a doc is to pinpoint a core audience that will be motivated enough by the subject matter to plunk down $8.50 to see it in a theater. When Artisan Releasing distributed Buena Vista Social Club in theaters, they had the advantage of a related album that had already sold in excess of one million copies.

It made sense, then, to target people who were already familiar with the Buena Vista soundtrack – mainly Caucasian adults between the ages of 25 and 54 – through promotions on National Public Radio in the U.S. and specialized cable stations, such as Bravo and A&E.

In addition to New York and Los Angeles, Artisan also opened the film in San Francisco, where music-themed movies have historically done well, and Miami, which has a large Cuban population. Simple logic suggested that these four markets would have yielded significant box office grosses. In at least one market, though, that logic failed.

The film performed well in New York, L.A., and San Francisco, but in Miami… disaster. ‘The Miami run was probably the worst run of the top-50 cities in the country,’ says Steve Rothenberg, president of Artisan Releasing. Buena Vista sold better in Kansas, Seattle, Portland, and most other big cities.

‘We found that the film was more than just musical entertainment,’ Rothenberg says. ‘Wim Wenders [the director] tried to make a film that was apolitical, but since it didn’t come out against Castro’s regime, it was met with a very lukewarm response.’

Artisan elected to premiere the doc in June, as a kind of counter-programming to the summer films. In its 35-week theatrical run, the movie’s box-office take was $7 million, with a prints-and-advertising budget of just over $1 million.

‘Our strategy was to open in a city, get as much box office as we could, and then move to another city,’ Rothenberg says. ‘It was a really cost-effective way of maximizing the box office while minimizing the ‘P & A’.’

Touring slowly around the country allowed the film to play out as long as it could, Rothenberg says. ‘We never felt it warranted blowing out with several hundred prints. We felt that would be the best way to just give back all of our profits.’

In advertising Buena Vista, Rothenberg did what most marketers do – he tried to draw attention away from the fact that it was a documentary. ‘Sometimes when you use the ‘D’ word it scares a lot of people off,’ he says. ‘So we really tried to focus on the entertainment and musical aspects of it.’

Few documentaries make it into theaters, notes Rothenberg, because the genre is inherently unprofitable. The success of a documentary depends on a number of factors, many of which are unforeseeable during the planning stages of distribution and marketing. Says Fine Line’s Friedlander, ‘It really is a result of a confluence of things you can’t control – the reviews, the word of mouth, whether it strikes a resonant chord.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.