This issue, we explore the options open to feature filmmakers as they consider bringing their work to market – be it with agents, reps or distribs. While I’ll leave the debate over who offers what to the report, I think it’s worth taking a step back to consider the medium writ large before we focus on the best way of getting to market.
There’s no arguing that features are hot. March of the Penguins continues to perform phenomenally well at box office worldwide. At about US$75 million at press time and climbing, it’s securely lodged in second place for most successful theatrical doc – just behind Fahrenheit 9/11‘s $222-million take, a mark which will probably never be eclipsed unless another Bush makes a run for the White House.
Why Penguins is doing so well is hard to pin down. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine film. But there have been lots of fine docs that have never spent a minute elbow-to-elbow with the dramas and comedies of the top 10. I think even the experts would have a hard time accounting for the film’s success and longevity. But regardless of the ‘why’, the success of Penguins is sure to spur others to rush their films to theaters. The fire that Fahrenheit began, Penguins will flame.
But I think a giant asterisk needs to be attached to those numbers. The truth is, the vast majority of features won’t see profitability in theaters. According to Box Office Mojo, only the top six highest-grossing docs cleared $20 million worldwide: Fahrenheit, Penguins, Bowling for Columbine, Madonna: Truth or Dare, Winged Migration and Super Size Me.
From there, the drop is precipitous. Only the top 54 feature docs on record cleared $1 million. The hundred ranked after those cleared between $100,000 and $1 million. The number 200 feature doc only cleared $29,000 in theaters. Factor in prints and marketing, and odds are pretty good that particular feature’s theatrical run actually cost money.
What can be said with some certainty is that feature docs are trending higher at box office. Eight of the top 10 titles on Mojo were released this millennium – the two exceptions being Hoop Dreams (1994) and Truth or Dare (1991). But trends are no guarantee of success.
I’m not saying the features market isn’t worth considering, and I’m not saying there isn’t an inherent, non-monetary value in having your doc screened theatrically. Even a theatrical run that loses money can feed tv sales or move DVDs. I’m saying: unless you consider your film to be one of the top 50 best feature docs ever made, don’t expect the immediate pay-off experienced by films like Penguins. They are, and will continue to be, as rare as hen’s teeth. (Or penguin teeth…) Do your homework, hire experts to help – listen to them, of course – and then decide if it’s worth the risk. In many instances, the numbers just won’t add up.