The dismal record of docs at the box office is frequently a hot topic, but no one has put their spin on it quite like Sheila Nevins. Nevins, president of HBO documentary, said in her interview at Hot Docs in April that docs receive their largest audience on television, and a doc in the theater is only likely to attract ‘three guys in raincoats watching your film.’
Yung Chang, the Montreal-based director of Up the Yangtze, has the numbers to back up a rebuttal. His film recently broke the $500,000 mark in Canada, the third time a Canuck doc has hit that level. ‘Let the evidence speak for itself,’ he says. He believes docs should have the chance to grace theater screens, and planned his film as a cinematic documentary from the get go.
Jan Korbelin, managing partner at New York-based distributor Palm Pictures, says, ‘Great documentaries will always have a place in the theatrical landscape. Even though recent performance at the box office has been cyclical, the popularity of documentaries has actually increased over the past decade and they are more viable than ever.’
Jonathan Miller, president and owner of Brooklyn’s First Run/Icarus Films, says Nevins’ comment is a bit insulting to the audience, to filmmakers and to the theaters that show docs since they believe in them.
Miller says the fact that theatrical docs exist is validation for both theaters and distributors, even if returns are minimal. ‘The theatrical market, per se, for documentary films may not be a multi-million dollar business, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits of releasing a film,’ he says.
Miller now benefits from full ownership of Icarus Films – formerly a partnership with First Run Features. FRF will continue its theatrical, video and TV distribution, and offer non-theatrical titles through Icarus Films. FRF recently sold its interests of First Run/Icarus back to the company. Says Miller, ‘we will continue basically as we’ve been doing, except we will start to release our own home video DVDs for the market in the fall.’