He did it his way: A Q&A with a filmmaker who decided to strike off on his own

Documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, winner of the 1997 Sundance Festival's filmmakers trophy and the directing award, and a veteran of the theatrical distribution game, is considered one of the best in the business when it comes to promoting his product. Ian...
January 1, 1998

Documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, winner of the 1997 Sundance Festival’s filmmakers trophy and the directing award, and a veteran of the theatrical distribution game, is considered one of the best in the business when it comes to promoting his product. Ian Edwards asks Dong about his experience with Licensed To Kill, a documentary about the realities of gay bashing. He distributed it on his own.

EDWARDS: Did you have a specific distribution game plan when you took Licensed to Kill to Sundance ’97?

DONG: The distribution strategy actually started before Sundance. Karen Cooper, director of the New York City’s Film Forum, saw a rough cut of the film in 1996. She booked it for two weeks. We decided it would be best to play the film post-Sundance, hoping that it would garner some media attention there – which it did, in addition to picking up two prizes. The date was set for April 1997, [time enough] to mount a proper publicity campaign.

If a film starts at the Film Forum and does well, most like-minded theaters in the nation will take note. We were fortunate that our New York run was successful both critically and financially and, indeed, many bookers who called us did so because of the Film Forum engagement. Some bookings were initiated by me. My previous film, Coming Out Under Fire, was distributed by Zeitgeist Films. I used the list of theaters where it played to pitch Licensed to Kill; I didn’t have to start from scratch, and since I could say the Film Forum had already booked the film, it made it that much easier for them to be interested.

EDWARDS: Where has the film played?

DONG: As of November 1997, we played in 30 commercial art-house venues. We also concentrated on college and community screenings. So far we’ve done 20 of these screenings, many of which were either connected to a conference, or used as benefits for local social-service agencies. Film festivals were also important; to date, LTK has played in over 30 festivals domestically and abroad. One main advantage for festivals outside of the U.S. is the exposure leading to international television sales.

What kind of box office has Licensed to Kill generated?

DONG: In 1997, US$100,500, with more to come in 1998.

EDWARDS: What was the budget?


EDWARDS: Was there interest from distributors?

DONG: Yes, three offers. But despite my positive experience with Zeitgeist’s handling of Coming Out Under Fire, I felt too close to Licensed to Kill to give it away so soon. lt was in my mind for 20 years and I wanted to see it through to make sure it got out there.

EDWARDS: Were there pitfalls in doing it yourself?

DONG: It’s too soon to say. But for now I can say it’s been a totally gratifying experience. We set out to garner public awareness on the issue of anti-gay violence, and we were able to do that through distribution. The media attention in each city was, for the most part, very positive and extensive.

EDWARDS: Do you have a domestic broadcast deal?

DONG: No. But there have been foreign tv sales, with more to come.

EDWARDS: Is the market changing for docs to get wider audiences in the U.S. and abroad?

DONG: Definitely. I’ve been making documentary films for over 15 years. Until the success of films like Thin Blue Line and Roger & Me in the late 1980s, a documentary in theaters was a rarity. Because of subsequent successes, the idea of going to a theater and actually paying to see a documentary is no longer far fetched. And I just returned from the International Documentary festival in Amsterdam. The festival was a city-wide event with extensive tv and press coverage. Filmmakers, buyers, and documentary lovers came from over 50 countries. The audience count was over 50,000. It was exhilarating. Whatever magic formula Amsterdam has, all countries should follow suit.

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 the Associate 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.