Toronto-based film distributor Mongrel Media has been bringing fiction and non-fiction theatrical fare to Canadian audiences for the past 16 years. Tom Alexander, Mongrel’s director of theatrical releasing, talks to realscreen about why doc-lovers should make the effort to see non-fiction on the big screen, and what sorts of projects Mongrel is looking to snap up.
What is Mongrel’s mandate?
As a film distributor, our mandate is basically to introduce Canadian audiences to films from across the globe, be they documentary films, fiction films, [or] Canadian films.
What are some of the favorites in your documentary catalog?
I would say we have quite a few, the biggest being the Canadian [doc] The Corporation [produced by Big Picture Media Corporation] which was released in 2004. It was a big hit at the box office and found audiences across the country, theatrically and on video. We were very proud of that release.
Another Canadian documentary [that did well] is Manufactured Landscapes [directed by Jennifer Baichwal]. We’ve done a few of Jennifer’s films over the years, including Act of God.
We have an output deal with Sony Pictures Classics. We’ve had quite a few [of their films] theatrically, like It Might Get Loud, Every Little Step and Who Killed the Electric Car? Those are all excellent films. [Errol Morris'] The Fog of War is certainly one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries.
What sort of films are you looking to acquire right now?
In terms of documentaries we do find, generally speaking, that for those with a political skew, we’re able to marshal audiences to really get motivated to see [them]. We’ve always got our eye open for that and those tend to do well on home video as well. Having said that, Every Little Step was very successful theatrically and that was about A Chorus Line, so you never know.
The market for documentaries has certainly waned over the last few years. It is getting more and more difficult to make them really work in the marketplace. So, as with all of our acquisitions, we’re a little cautious.
Are you seeing any trends in terms of what documentaries are doing well?
Historically speaking, the one major obvious trend in documentaries is nature. Films like the Disney Earth series [are] doing well, [as is] [Discovery & BBC's] Planet Earth on television, and home video is monstrous.
There certainly have been a lot that have been environmentally-themed but I think since [Participant Media's] An Inconvenient Truth, the box office for them has faded a bit. With a film like The Cove [distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions], which is an excellent film (and not one of ours), just winning an Academy Award will obviously boost home video sales. But it was not a runaway hit by any means, despite the critical acclaim.
Right now when I look at which documentaries have been successful, music docs always come and go. It Might Get Loud did very well for us, but they have more of a life on home video.
What are some of the challenges in getting audiences to the theaters for docs?
I think the audiences for documentary film, being intelligent and web savvy, find a lot of what they want online. Certainly with a lot of documentary features that we’ve been involved with, they pop up through various web sites around the world, sometimes on YouTube, for which we have to make a case to get them off.
When you’re looking at the realm of politically-themed documentaries, the Internet is such a huge tool for activism. Any time a documentary with an activist bent comes up, the activist community finds ways of getting it virally distributed as a political tool, which is great, but it makes it more difficult for us to get the film out theatrically and in home video.
As well, more and more people are watching content like that at home on television as well. Let’s say you’ve got a documentary film about Darfur, to use an example from a few years ago, and on cable news channels all over North America there are specials or long-form news broadcasts about Darfur. It becomes harder to convince people to step out of their homes and buy a ticket when they can access that sort of content and subject matter through cable and the Internet.
Not only as a distributor, but as a movie buff myself, I love documentary cinema and I love distributing documentary films so I’m always hoping to find ways to increase our audience base. I would always encourage audiences to see documentaries on the big screen because often [with] film festivals and in specialized releases, we have a filmmaker in attendance [and] a Q&A opportunity. You not only get to see the film, but you can engage in a dialogue with the filmmaker or the subject in a live, one-on-one setting. I feel like that adds so much volume to a documentary and I hope that can help build audiences. It’s better for the films and better for the issues that the films raise.