The Doc Side of Sundance

Even Errol Morris, one of the half-dozen American documentary filmmakers to make a buck at the box office, has little distribution advice for the producers showcased in this year's documentary competition at the 1998 Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah....
January 1, 1998

Even Errol Morris, one of the half-dozen American documentary filmmakers to make a buck at the box office, has little distribution advice for the producers showcased in this year’s documentary competition at the 1998 Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah.

‘Good luck,’ he says with a knowing air that suggests there are no secrets for success. Explore your passion in the process of making the film, then cross your fingers that people will want to sit in the dark with it for a couple of hours. ‘There is no mystery,’ Morris concedes. ‘If you show films at Sundance, then theatrical distributors will step up to the plate.’

Whether they will swing, well, that’s another matter. Even if the distributors come through with a single or a homer for a documentary, the theatrical realities are still pretty bleak in the U.S. The documentary film – traditionally the nerdy overlooked brother of the glamorous dramas in the Sundance festival – is by and large left off the theatrical distribution team. And there are never guarantees that the most meritorious documentary at Sundance will walk away with a deal.

A recent exception, Morris’ Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which debuted at Sundance last year and was picked up by Sony Classics, is showing on 40 screens in the U.S. and Canada and, as of the end of 1997, was still in the red. Chronicling the eccentric lives of four men, Fast, Cheap comes on the heels of several box-office successes for Morris, including The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time, which grossed in the neighborhood of US$2 million each. For docs, those films are blockbusters.

His next film, about an electric-chair repairman, already has studio backing, but Morris admits his level of success is a rarity. There is an ‘unfortunate reticence’ on the part of the Hollywood establishment to support documentary features, says Morris. Without star power or huge special effects to draw the masses to the box office, documentary films can’t offer attractive returns to the money men. Risk control, says Morris, is the documentarian’s worry.

While there is evidence that American audiences are beginning to warm up to documentary films, the business case for the filmmakers remains pretty much the same. A theatrical release is regarded as a marketing exercise to collect critical reviews, improve the profile of the filmmakers, earn notoriety on the festival circuit, start momentum for the next project and boost the audiences for video release and a television debut.

Documentaries in theaters can break even, and possibly make money, but the winners are few and far between. The number-one box-office draw among documentarians, year after year, is Warren Miller, whose latest formulaic ski-themed annual, Snowriders, grossed about US$2.7 million and ranked 200 on the top 300 films list. The Celluloid Closet (Sony Classics) was number 209; Al Pacino’s star-driven Looking for Richard (Fox Searchlight) was 219; Microcosmos (Miramax) was 223; and Anne Frank Remembered (Sony Classics) was 225. The total domestic box office for the 15 highest-grossing documentaries was only US$7.2 million.

Lettered film historian Betsy McLane, of the International Documentary Association representing 2,000 members in 25 countries, says documentaries have been released theatrically since Nanook of the North, and that trends in distribution have been in a holding pattern for about 20 years.

The current vogue of documentary films has more to do with talented filmmakers such as Morris and Michael Moore being successful in branding themselves visionaries, than any surprising increases at the box office. The challenges, McLane says, remain the American audience’s parochialism, its narrow view of entertainment value and a tragic opinion of what defines a documentary film.

‘I call it the hamburger-on-the-highway movie,’ says McLane about the common perception of documentaries, which is colored by pedantic educational films. ‘We were all forced to sit through those driver’s ed movies and those painful health films with the intrepid sperm.’

However, with the success of Hoop Dreams, Roger & Me, When We Were Kings and Crumb, to name a recent few, the documentary film is gaining new levels of acceptance. Dedicated festivals, such as Amsterdam’s documentary event (IDFA) this past December, packed in audiences, and movie-goers in general are looking for non-Hollywood-blockbuster alternatives to spice up their viewing fodder. As awareness of entertaining, provocative, well-made documentaries grows, word-of-mouth promotion increases, and potential ticket buyers become more interested.

At the same time, American audiences are becoming aware of how much documentary programming they enjoy at home through 60 Minutes or The Discovery Channel, and theatrical releases benefit as a result.

So, as a heterogeneous genre, McLane observes, documentaries are on a slow, but steadily growing, upward swing. ‘When you go to a documentary and you see real life, you can’t dismiss it,’ says McLane about the experience. ‘As artful as it may be, the documentary at its heart is still telling a truth. That’s a very different experience than walking out of a theater and saying, ‘That was fun, but it was just a movie.”

However, the plethora of options for film buyers continues to work against wider theatrical releases for documentaries. Consequently, the theatrical life of documentaries is very limited, says Elizabeth Dreyer, director of acquisitions at Miramax, which lists Michael Moore’s next Corporate America essay, The Big One, as the only documentary on its new release slate.

‘We will always watch documentaries at the festivals,’ she says, maintaining that distributors keep an open mind. ‘If you’ve gotten that far, then we want to see what you have. There is definitely a market [for documentaries], but it’s about deciding what will play to an art-house crowd versus the rest of America. It may be that that great documentary will do incredibly on cable.’

tv is, after all, the real market for contemporary documentary filmmakers, and broadcasters hungry for non-fiction content are becoming ever more voracious. The easier sales are for documentaries that tackle themes such as the animal kingdom, nature, history, travel, science and other topics that dovetail with the growing number of specialty channels, says New York-based distributor Jonathan Miller of First Run/Icarus.

Primarily a television distributor with more than 500 documentary titles in his 600-film inventory, Miller says the tougher sales involve films with socio-political messages, foreign languages or non-mainstream themes.

Documentaries lucky enough to be shown theatrically, even in special venues such as New York’s Film Forum, have a leg-up on the competition vying for broadcaster interest, says Miller. Even if they don’t make money, he adds, the theatrical release adds value to the after-market.

And those with credentials at Sundance, the U.S. theatrical festival awarded the greatest importance by the media and Hollywood, are hand-delivered to distributors and broadcasters with a built-in, third-party endorsement.

In this Report:
-The Doc Side of Sundance
-Sundance Short List
-He did it his way: A doc-maker self-distributes

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is a special reports editor at realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.