The Buddy System

Midway through New York's Independent Feature Project market last October, during a panel about the do's and don'ts of distributing docs, Udy Epstein, of Seventh Art Releasing in Los Angeles, delivered a black cloud to the filmmakers scribbling down his advice: Documentaries playing in theaters usually lose money - unless they break even.
January 1, 2003

Midway through New York’s Independent Feature Project market last October, during a panel about the do’s and don’ts of distributing docs, Udy Epstein, of Seventh Art Releasing in Los Angeles, delivered a black cloud to the filmmakers scribbling down his advice: Documentaries playing in theaters usually lose money – unless they break even.

Most of the audience looked down at the words in their notebooks and began to shift uncomfortably, as well they should have. Epstein’s observation – and experience (Seventh Art has handled Liz Garbus’s The Execution of Wanda Jean, among others) – exposes a problematic truth: A doc might belong on the big screen, but its main revenue stream remains with television – that is, if it makes it to the big screen at all.

Funding from broadcasters usually comes with big strings attached. U.S. pay-TV outlet HBO, for example, has always financed a generous portion of the budget for its feature docs in exchange for the right to premiere the film. ‘Our operating philosophy was that everything was more valuable if it was on HBO or Cinemax first without any theatrical exposure,’ explains Nancy Abraham, HBO’s vp of original programming, documentaries.

Yet, theatrical distributors and exhibitors, already wary of the genre’s weak track record at the box office, are adamant that if a doc is to be released theatrically it must happen before the film airs on TV. ‘Everybody is scared of the TV audience,’ says Jan Röfekamp of Montreal, Canada- based Films Transit, a distributor with rights to such docs as Stevie (Steve James) and War Photographer (Christian Frei). ‘Honestly, it’s maybe a bit of a fiction, because documentaries on the main channels are pushed later on the clock. So, maybe some people see the film who then talk to their friends and create word of mouth, making a theatrical release after the fact possible. But, there’s so little experience in this area that – purely for business reasons – nobody’s going to take the risk.’

Röfekamp’s assertion is especially true for countries like the U.K., which has a strong tradition of documentaries on the TV, but almost none for theatrical exhibition.

Says Danny Perkins, marketing director for Optimum Releasing in London, the distrib that handled the U.K. releases for Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe), Dark Days (Marc Singer) and Biggie and Tupac (Nick Broomfield), ‘If a doc is on TV, for a British audience it’s more or less dead. It’s already a challenge to secure sites and exhibitors for documentaries and if it had been on TV, I think it would be nigh impossible. We have to get it out theatrically first.’

So, how does one determine whether a film should premiere in theaters or on television?

How a producer puts together financing often pre-determines a doc’s initial destination. Other times the decision comes down to a filmmaker’s instincts. But, there’s also increasing evidence that broadcasters and distributors are beginning to weary of their battle for premieres. Instead, they are finding ways to collaborate for their mutual benefit.

Let the games begin

Seventh Art’s Epstein followed his gloomy fiscal announcement at IFP by counseling filmmakers to generate media attention for their films. The resulting buzz, he explained, is critical to the success of a doc. Broadcasters with miniscule marketing budgets for factual fare agree, and fear that if a film is covered by the press during its theatrical release, its TV broadcast will go unreported.

‘If you’re trying to develop a digital channel from more or less zero, you’re grateful for every inch of press coverage that you get. It’s a factor for us,’ says Nick Fraser, the commissioning editor for ‘Storyville’, a strand on both BBC2 and digital channel BBC4. ‘Sometimes if a show goes into the cinema, then it’s not written about when it comes on TV. [directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim], for instance, got tons of publicity when it went into the cinemas and not so much when it was finally shown on BBC4.’

Fraser doesn’t insist that ‘Storyville’ films air before they’re released in cinemas, but he admits this is partly due to the lack of theatrical opportunities for docs in Britain. In other words, the problem rarely presents itself. Fraser has the good fortune, therefore, of simultaneously supporting what’s best for the film and for the BBC – not that he couldn’t conceive otherwise. ‘The more possibilities there are for theatrical release, the more we find ourselves having to entertain hold-backs when we would rather be putting the shows out. But, for the moment, I think we would stick with the policy,’ he says. ‘On the other hand, it depends how much money I’m putting in. If the BBC were 100% funding ‘Storyville’, we would probably insist on [a TV premiere]. But, we’re not.’

Despite siphoning off press pages, distributors such as Perkins insist that a theatrical run can benefit a doc’s TV ratings. ‘If we attract a lot of attention and raise the profile of a film,’ he explains, ‘it has a positive effect on audience figures come the broadcast.’

Round one

Next month, HBO will momentarily overlook its ‘premieres only’ policy to test this latter theory when Lee Hirsch and Sherry Simpson’s film Amandla! a revolution in four part harmony is released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on February 14.

Santa Monica, U.S.-based Artisan Entertainment became interested in U.S. theatrical rights to Amandla!, a powerful film that traces the role of freedom songs in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, when it played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. But, the film was contractually bound to a premiere on Cinemax Reel Life, which had backed the project for 10 years. When New York label ATO Records approached the filmmakers about releasing the soundtrack, however, they set out to convince HBO that a theatrical premiere could work.

‘Our interest piqued in theatrical after Buena Vista Social Club [directed by Wim Wenders and distributed by Artisan],’ recalls Simpson, the film’s executive producer. ‘That was the conversation we took to HBO. The soundtrack deal was heavily dependent on it going out theatrically, and that kind of boost can be huge for a film.’ (The soundtrack will be released on February 4.)

Patrick Gunn, an exec VP of Artisan, confirms that a theatrical run after an HBO debut was out of the question: ‘It eats into potential theater-goers too much to make it worth our while to release after TV.’

Not surprisingly, HBO had similar concerns. ‘In the past, part of the problem was that any positive theatrical exposure was not at all related to HBO/Cinemax or our support of a given film,’ says Abraham. ‘The difference with Amandla! is we have negotiated to be part of the theatrical release.’

HBO/Cinemax will be credited on all of the print, advertising and promotional materials for Amandla!’s theatrical release, Abraham explains, and will participate in the opening night festivities and other screening events. ‘That way, some of the excitement and buzz and reviews that happen around the theatrical run of the film will accrue to us,’ she continues, then adds, ‘Even with Amandla!, we’ll lose out in some respect. What we can gain, however, is a certain amount of fame, recognition and exposure for the film that we wouldn’t necessarily get otherwise.’

HBO also negotiated a limited theatrical run for the film. Amandla! will be released in major U.S. markets only before it’s broadcast on Cinemax; afterwards it will be released in secondary markets. ‘We’re dealing with a very tight window of how the film needs to perform for us to be able to make money,’ says Gunn. ‘To be honest, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to make a lot of money on the film.’ Still, Gunn thinks the experience will be worthwhile for both Artisan and HBO. ‘I hope in the future there are other docs we could work with them on,’ he says.

Abraham predicts HBO will theatrically premiere no more than three docs a year. ‘Part of the philosophy of original programming is to offer something exclusive,’ she explains. ‘[But], by choosing a few key projects, it helps bring the HBO brand into theaters, with regard to documentaries. And, it helps certain films flourish in a way that they deserve.’

Playing by the rules

Despite distributor reluctance to take docs into cinemas after they’ve aired on TV, Abraham says films such as The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) did well in theaters after premiering on HBO. But, where HBO prefers at least a three-month lag before the film hits theaters, French pay-TV channel Canal+ practices a more immediate turnaround. Explains out-going Canal+ doc director Anna Glogowski, ‘The journalists who cover TV [in France] are not always the same as those who cover film. So, if you manage to get a release at the same time on TV and on film, one the day before the other, that creates press about all releases.’

Glogowski says Peasant Profiles, by Raymond Depardon, was approached in this manner, as was Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, which premiered on Canal+ on July 6, 2000, and then launched in theaters the next day. ‘She’s now doing the same thing for The Gleaners and I: Two Years After, which means it was interesting for her,’ Glogowski hypothesizes. She adds, ‘I think there should be a relationship between the two means of broadcasting, especially in a country where people aren’t used to going to the cinema to see a documentary. There should be a synergy between the two that allows one to push the other.’

France adheres to strict rules, designed to protect its film industry, that control how and when a doc can enter the cinema or air on TV. This can make life difficult for doc producers, as many of the rules are based on how a film is funded. If a doc wins financial support from a broadcaster’s theatrical department, for example, or receives an advance on future receipts (money from a tax on box-office tickets) from regulatory body the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), then the doc is forbidden to air on TV for a minimum of one year and a maximum of three years. Conversely, if a film is funded by a broadcaster’s doc unit, it must debut on TV. If it is released in theaters first, it is automatically subject to the aforementioned quotas. As a result, docs often air on TV before they hit theaters.

Serge Lalou, executive producer at Les Films d’Ici in Paris, handles between three and six docs for the big screen a year – some produced for cinema, others released theatrically after broadcast. ‘The impact TV has on smaller films [10,000 to 20,000 tickets] is not that big,’ he contends. ‘If we’re aiming for 100,000 [tickets] immediately, then it would be a problem.’

In March, Lalou will release Iran: Veiled Appearances, by Thierry Michel, which was coproduced by ARTE France and aired on its ‘Grand Format’ slot last December. The film is also screening at Sundance this month. Although Lalou often coordinates a film’s promotional strategy with its broadcaster, he opted not to for Iran. Lalou explains that they didn’t want the public to associate the theatrical release with the TV broadcast. ‘It’s a film that has two entries: subject and filmmaker,’ he says. ‘For television it’s the subject that’s presented to the public; theatrically, it’s the filmmaker we’re going to sell.’

Michel’s 1999 film, Mobutu, King of Zaire, was financed theatrically, but Lalou says last year’s upheavals at Canal+ eliminated a key financier of authored films targeting cinemas, ‘So, it wasn’t a good moment to go theatrically,’ he explains. ‘And, it continues to be difficult with the TV channels on the theatrical side. We had a film recently that got [funding] very easily at the CNC, but nearly didn’t find a broadcaster to come in afterwards.’

Although Lalou was speaking specifically of the situation in France, his concluding remarks resonate globally. ‘In the end,’ he says, ‘sometimes you end up with less financing going theatrically than television wise, if you don’t get television to back up your film.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.