Reflecting on Features

Collectively, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker and Jan Rofekamp have 100 years experience in the doc business. Pennebaker first entered the scene in the 1950s and gained recognition with Don't Look Back in 1966. He partnered with Chris Hegedus in the mid '70s, and their New York-based prodco, Pennebaker Hegedus Films, has since turned out such films as Jimi Plays Monterey, The War Room and, most recently, Jan Rofekamp, of Montreal-based distributor Films Transit, has spent the past 28 years championing docs, including Long Night's Journey Into Day (Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann), Crumb(Terry Zwigoff), and Grass (Ron Mann).
September 1, 2001

Collectively, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker and Jan Rofekamp have 100 years experience in the doc business. Pennebaker first entered the scene in the 1950s and gained recognition with Don’t Look Back in 1966. He partnered with Chris Hegedus in the mid ’70s, and their New York-based prodco, Pennebaker Hegedus Films, has since turned out such films as Jimi Plays Monterey, The War Room and, most recently, Jan Rofekamp, of Montreal-based distributor Films Transit, has spent the past 28 years championing docs, including Long Night’s Journey Into Day (Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann), Crumb(Terry Zwigoff), and Grass (Ron Mann).

They’ve each learned a lesson or two about how to navigate the industry – from the festival circuit to television broadcast – and they all agree that their education hasn’t ended yet. The following is their take on surviving and thriving as doc-makers.

What’s the most practical approach to the festival circuit?

Jan Rofekamp: You’re looking at about 2,500 film festivals around the world that play films in the larger sense of the word. I’ve picked out about 50 of them that make sense to me. If your film pops up at each of those 50 events, it’s present all through the year and gets a little notoriety. It becomes one of those, what I call, ‘unavoidable films’. It creates a notion among the buyers that these are the key documentaries of the year. Beyond those 50, I’m not going anymore, because it’s incredibly labor intensive and it costs a ton of money. It is a slow process to make those major festivals aware of the fact that if I have to make three prints to circulate, that’s going to cost me US$10,000.

Chris Hegedus: We used the festival circuit in an interesting way with, which was distributed by [California-based] Artisan Entertainment. First, we premiered at the Sundance Film Festival [Park City, U.S.]. Then, between Sundance [January 18 to 28, 2001] and May 11, which was our premiere screening in New York, we went to every single festival we could find in a big city in the U.S. that would be useful. The festivals flew us out there and put us up in a hotel, then Artisan hooked up with a publicist in each town and we did a lot of publicity for the film. Later, the film opened at a theater in that city. It was a way of promoting our film and getting paid as filmmakers to go around and promote it, which I thought was a pretty cunning idea.

Do festival kudos make a significant difference to sales?

D.A. Pennebaker: Where it really has leverage is with a film like [Chris Wilcha's] The Target Shoots First, which came out of the blue. It was done by a guy who never made a film before and had no background as a filmmaker. hbo ended up buying it. [Target earned best doc honors at Park City's Slamdance Film Festival and the South By South West Film Festival in Austin, Texas. See RealScreen, June 2001]

How are festivals changing?

DAP: What I think is coming is much more use of video. I think that worked pretty well at Sundance.

JR: It’s a good point. I remember at Docfest in New York I saw an eight o’clock screening and a 10 o’clock screening; one was a beautifully done digital projection of a digital tape, the other was a classic 35mm transfer. The first one was really more beautiful. I think we’re right in the middle of a transition period. I think, and I’ve been saying it to filmmakers, that having a print will really not be necessary within a year.

CH: That’s the future of theatrical projection also, which is going to change the market even more. It’s coming.

Where do docs belong in the marketplace?

JR: The ultimate market for all documentaries is television, and, in the future, the internet. Other markets, like festivals and theatrical distribution, are a step up to enhance a film’s reputation.

DAP: If theaters can switch over to video projection, then I think old films could have a longer life in that market. It’s hard for us to keep a 35mm print in good shape. We can’t afford it, so we tend to discourage that. But, I think with video, [theatrical distribution] could work.

How can you make a theatrical run work?

CH: If you feel like you have a film that will do a theatrical run, then you’re competing on the same ground as any fiction film. You need to promote it in the theaters, you need to get it on TV, you need to promote it on dvds and videos afterwards, and you have to try to retain the rights to it, which gets very difficult. With The War Room [about the behind-the-scenes action of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign], we went with October Films [now USA Films in New York] and they did a very good job on the theatrical distribution. They sold it to Disney, and Disney paid a lot of money for it, which was very nice. But, the company that bought the video rights did almost nothing. So, you can get caught if you lose control of your film and it just sits there. For us, it was very frustrating to watch all of these different things happen to Clinton, whether it was the Monica Lewinsky story or the election or whatever, and have no type of promotion happen with our video because it was just one of a million [they were representing].

It’s hard for indies because the amount of time our films spend in the movie theaters is much less than fiction films. Then with television, it’s on once and you don’t see it again. So, if you can get it into the video stores, it becomes something that becomes part of people’s vocabulary and they remember it for the next one.

What other challenges do producers face with theatrical distribution?

JR: When you talk to distributors, many immediately start asking for ten or 15 year rights. You release the film, it plays for three months, you release it on video, and then you may sell TV. This all happens within a year. What do you need the other 14 years for?

DAP: It was 20 years that Artisan demanded for, and they wanted more. We got them down to 15 or 18, but it was much more than we normally do, which is seven. But, if someone comes to distribute your film… Believe me, you don’t want to do it yourself if you can possibly avoid it, because that’s really hard work.

Have you ever tried to distribute on your own?

DAP: We did that with Moon Over Broadway, and it was tough. I know we did it a disservice by trying to do it ourselves. You want to give it all the help you can.

What made you decide to self-distribute?

DAP: We couldn’t get a distributor for it. We self-distributed it through a friend who had experience and knew a lot of the theaters around. So, we underwrote it really.

CH: It was a time of flux – the NEA had fallen out, the little theaters were changing over to calendar houses, it was a difficult time. Bravo was very interested in trying something new. They were going to show the film, but before that they would give us some money for the blowup and a window for theatrical. However, they weren’t going to distribute it. They let us find a distributor, but no distributor wanted it because we didn’t have the TV rights. So, we went to a smaller person, Sandie Zeig of [New York-based] Artistic License, who probably got it into exactly the same theaters as, which was with a big distributor. But, it was much harder.

DAP: She didn’t have the deep pockets, the advertising budget. In the beginning there’s a crucial moment when you have to persuade the national magazines that you’re going to be in something like 130 cities. If they decide that you are, they’ll give you the coverage that’s essential in terms of reviews, because even though you open locally and you don’t go out there for months, everybody reads those magazines and remembers them. If you don’t get those, you lose momentum.

Do rookie filmmakers even stand a chance?

JR: I’m not saying to people that they should go and find themselves another job – probably as a backup, it’s not a bad idea. But, if you look at the slots that pay significantly for documentaries and the enormous number of producers out there who make films, it’s become completely out of proportion as a realistic market idea. That is a bit of a problem. With all my experience, I still pretend that the major TV stations open my mail first. In reality, I also have to wait a long time for a decision, because there are so many films out there.

Have specialty channels led to a step forward or backward?

DAP: Backwards. I don’t think the doc was ever meant to be an assembly line product. And, anyone who sets out to make one a day has to give up something, even if they have all the money in the world and all the people to do it. There’s a settling out time for these films. They aren’t just put together from products and files, they’re put together in the imagination, and this turns that off. People with imagination go into a different business, it just doesn’t welcome them. That’s been the effect – it’s driven out a kind of talent that this kind of film really needs badly. It may advance equipment, but I don’t think it’s helping individuals.

Chris, do you feel the same?

CH: No, not exactly. I think that it has potential to be helpful because it gives more options for more varied programming. I think that it’s part of this whole shakeup that’s happening now. There are more channels, but there are also more products. The filmmaking business is being put into the hands of many more people, so they [the channels] are now in the position of not paying much. That’s very difficult, because they’re becoming one of the major exhibitors of programming, but the filmmakers can’t make a living selling their shows to that market. But, I think this will change.

DAP: I’m waiting to hear why you’re not depressed. This is a very important moment.

CH: I’m not depressed because I think it’s good to have another market. I think there are so many people out there making films now that it’s good to have the ability to have them exhibited on these channels, but I don’t think what’s happening right now is beneficial financially to filmmakers. However, it does give them someplace to show their films.

JR: I think the specialty channels have been the main cause of the industrialization of documentary which now exists, because they ask for a lot of production for relatively low money. But, the specialty channels have also done some good. They’ve created a wider interest for documentary subjects and they’ve created a larger audience for documentary as a genre. More people watch docs than ever before. But, they’ve also lowered the standards of production. The fact that specialty channels exist is the primary excuse for the main channels to dump docs and decrease the number of high paying slots. BBC4 is a great example.

DAP: Do you think people watching an endless procession of ground-out material labeled variously documentary will, over a period of time, learn to distinguish the good from the bad?

JR: I think that the effective, well-made documentary that really makes an impact will prevail. If the channels become cheaper and cheaper, audiences are going to turn away. But, windowing on specialty channels does help create longer lives for docs. It’s a mixed blessing.

Is this a rosy period for docs?

JR: Generally I would say yes. There are more festivals than ever paying attention to them, there are great films coming out, and the press has been encouraging towards documentary as a genre.

DAP: Any period when we can work is pretty rosy to us. I wouldn’t want to go out into the market and extol that thought, but yeah, as long as we’re making the films and they look interesting, that seems like what we’re supposed to be doing. I don’t know that it’s rosy in terms of investment. For Chris, certainly it’s got to be rosy for her, as she’s just hit one out of the park and that’s hard to do.

CH: I tend to think optimistically about things, and it’s an exciting time coming on us. You could get really depressed and run away from it, but it’s a challenge in some way, and I’m kind of interested to see what will happen next.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.