The status of docs jumped at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (September 5 to 14), with both theatrical buyers and regular cinema-goers packing the seats for non-fiction films.
Ron Mann, the Toronto-based director of Go Further – which features actor Woody Harrelson and his healthy-living message – says TIFF has become the ideal venue for getting attention for docs. ‘The Toronto festival is used either to sell films or to launch films,’ he says. Noting that Go Further premiered at the Austin, U.S. South by Southwest Film Festival (March 7 to 15), Mann says he purposely ‘turned down 30 film festivals to attend Toronto’ in order to maximize the marketing potential offered by North America’s largest event of its kind. ‘Toronto crowds show a distributor that there is a [theatrical] audience for a film,’ he says. At press time six U.S. buyers were bidding on theatrical rights to his film, Mann adds.
Mark Urman, head of U.S. distribution at New York-based theatrical distrib ThinkFilm, explains that in the wake of theatrical successes such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Jeff Blitz’s Spellbound (the North American theatrical rights to which ThinkFilm acquired after last year’s tiff), U.S. film-goers are more willing to watch docs. As a result, theatrical buyers at TIFF made catching them a priority. ‘They were all at the same screenings of non-fiction movies that I was,’ he says.
Urman, who would not divulge which titles were his own acquisition targets, points out seven TIFF docs that ‘are all very strong candidates for theatrical distribution in North America’: The Corporation, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott (Canada); Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, Vikram Jayanti (U.K.); The Yes Men, Dan Ollman, Sarah Price and Chris Smith (U.S.); The Story of the Weeping Camel, Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni (Germany); The Five Obstructions, Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier (Denmark); Festival Express, Bob Smeaton (Canada); and Mann’s Go Further.
Jan Röfekamp, president and COO of Montreal-based doc distrib Films Transit, says the reaction to non-fiction at this year’s event was remarkable. He had three films screened at the festival, including The Corporation. Röfekamp says he organized a private screening of that doc – to which he holds the worldwide rights -before its TIFF premiere with an audience of selected theatrical buyers, including Miramax Films, Icarus Films and New Yorker Films, all based in New York. ‘We invited all the important distributors and everyone came,’ he says, adding that negotiations were taking place with several attendees. ‘This was unthinkable two years ago,’ he continues. ‘Two years ago, I would take a doc to Toronto and maybe catch [the interest of] a couple of festival directors.’ This year, ‘there was clearly an atmosphere of ‘We don’t want to miss out if the next Bowling for Columbine comes down the corridor’,’ he says.
Although both Go Further and The Corporation screened outside the doc program Real to Reel, films within R to R also fared extremely well. Perhaps the unlikeliest hit was The Story of the Weeping Camel. The doc sold out every screening – including an extra scheduled viewing – and drew the attention of theatrical buyers from around the world, including ThinkFilm and Los Angeles-based Fox Searchlight Pictures. (At press time, the producers had signed a contract covering all rights in Germany, Switzerland and Austria with Munich-based Menemsha Entertainment.)
Weeping Camel‘s producer, Tobias Siebert, says the film’s popularity wasn’t the result of any marketing or publicity stunts. ‘We didn’t even throw a party, because we didn’t have any money,’ says Siebert. It is the first feature-length project for everyone attached to the film. ‘We are film students, basically,’ he says. He notes the prodco behind the quirky doc, which tells the story of a newborn albino camel and a musician (set in Mongolia, no less), is in fact the Film and TV School in Munich, Germany. Bavarian pubcaster ARD/BR is a coproducer.