Big screen docs: pushing your own product

It's an old story. The opportunities to land a theatrical release on a feature documentary are few and far between. Profit margins are so small it is seldom worthwhile for a distributor to commit to a theatrical run. And even if...
January 1, 1999

It’s an old story. The opportunities to land a theatrical release on a feature documentary are few and far between. Profit margins are so small it is seldom worthwhile for a distributor to commit to a theatrical run. And even if your film happens to be one of the lucky ones, the release is limited to a week-long run with a promotion budget that’s next to non-existent.

Rather than accept this dismal scenario, some documentary filmmakers are taking matters into their own hands and finding ways to release their films themselves. Or, working with sales agents and small distribution companies, they are taking charge of grass roots promo campaigns tailor-made to the specific needs of their film, and finding creative ways to do a lot with a little money.

But be forewarned: Most of these self-distributors say they took at least a year out of their life to bring their doc to its audience. Financial rewards are slim. It’s the satisfaction of getting their film out there that sees them through.

Let there be Garlic and dancing

California indie filmmaker Les Blank has been making documentaries since the early seventies and in the early years of his career worked with distribution companies. Frustrated with their results, he decided he could do a better job himself.

To pique the interest of potential audiences, Blank turns his film screenings into ‘film experiences’ – unique events unto themselves. Take his doc on garlic fanatics (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers), as an example. At a screening held in San Francisco’s 2000-seat Castro theater, Blank placed garlic cloves in a toaster oven and piped the scent into the theater during the program so audiences would have a true garlic experience. ‘Some theaters balked at this,’ he admits, ‘but it definitely caused a stir once word of the event began to circulate. It intrigued people enough to come to a showing.’

For Always For Pleasure, a film on New Orleans neighborhoods, Blank staged post-screening Mardi Gras parties right in the theaters, complete with wine and beer, Cajun cooking, loud music and dancing.

But Blank considers his best stunt to be for the 1982 release of Burden of Dreams. In one scene of the film aboriginal women in a jungle take part in a ceremonial ritual in which they cook and then chew a root-like plant, spit it into a tub and let it ferment until it becomes an alcoholic drink. Blank screened the film to a group of Californian teachers and then had them reenact the ritual scene.

‘It was really bizarre, watching a whole bunch of people spitting up this nasty white stuff,’ he recalls. Although the teachers refused to drink the end product of their efforts, the screening did lead to a number of bookings on college campuses (although the teachers all passed on any further reenactments of the drinking ceremony).

Blank generally sends copies of his films to universities with film programs and arranges for on-campus screenings, as well as contacting theater bookers himself. Blank has also found his website ( to be a worthwhile promotional tool. The site offers synopses of his many films, a section where copies of his films, t-shirts, posters, books and postcards can be ordered, and an event calendar of upcoming screenings.

A screening tied to a local cause, alongside a play in a rep cinema, widens the exposure of a film, generating more press and new audiences, says Montreal director Daniel Cross. ‘You need a local angle and a way to make the screening into an event, otherwise your film is just another film at the theater.’

Making the most of the social issue slant of his documentary The Street: A Film With The Homeless, Cross arranged outdoor screenings to stress the issues surrounding life on the street. In Montreal, the outdoor screening was combined with a fundraising concert featuring the film’s music composer, with all proceeds going to a drop-in center for street kids. An Edmonton theater run was also tied to a benefit for a homeless organization.

Cain and Abel

Considered the gurus of self-distribution, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of New York-based Creative Thinking International are one of the most successful American self-distributors. They made their first feature length doc Brother’s Keeper in 1992, financing the US$100,000 film on a credit card and a second mortgage. Set in rural New York, the film tells the story of four aging, illiterate brothers living together on a dairy farm until one is accused of murdering another.

Although it scored an audience favorite award at Sundance, distributors were not interested in making a deal because the filmmakers had ran out of money halfway through production and sold U.S. broadcast rights to PBS. Without the more lucrative downstream tv rights, the incentive on a theatrical release just wasn’t there.

‘We rolled up our sleeves and decided to take ourselves out of filmmaking for a year and a half, and book the theaters ourselves,’ says Berlinger. Brother’s Keeper earned almost US$1.5 million at the box office, an impressive figure for a self-distributed independent film, and played in over 300 theaters.

Persistence played into the success of the release. When they showed the film to Karen Cooper at New York’s Film Forum they were given a firm no. But they persuaded Cooper to screen the film at the Berlin Film Festival. Impressed with the audience reaction, she gave them a New York run. At the Film Forum, the filmmakers showed up at the evening screenings to chat with the audience, answer questions and cajole them into spreading the word about the film to their friends. In New York alone the filmmakers attended 40 Q & A sessions, often bringing the Ward Brothers along to the screenings.

Working with a small advertising budget of US$150,000, they had to be innovative. Seeking to widen the target audience, Berlinger and Sinofsky amassed huge mailing lists of potential viewers. As the film involved a murder trial, they sent postcards advertising the film to law firms, law schools and psychology associations, the Alumni club of Colgate University (which is near the town where the doc takes place), rural and farming groups (since the brothers were dairy farmers), and seniors and community associations (since the film deals with the elderly). Homecoming screenings were held in all the towns and at the colleges of the crew involved in making the film.

They also resorted to a few more extreme tactics, like getting friends to stand in line for another movie, talking loudly about an amazing film they just saw called Brother’s Keeper.

Behind bars

While some filmmakers choose to find as wide an audience as possible for their films, Jonathan Stack felt it most important to zone in on the particular population for which his documentary was made.

The Farm, produced by Stack and Liz Garbus (of New York’s Gabriel Films), picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Festival, ‘but the illusion that Sundance would translate into a million dollar deal quickly faded,’ says Stack. Echoing the case of many feature length documentarians, to finance the film they had sold American and U.K. tv broadcast rights, so distributors were none too eager to make a theatrical deal without downstream revenue potential.

The Farm, with its US$300,000 budget, looks at the lives of six men in a Louisiana prison and the effects of crime and violence on families and communities. Louisiana has one of the highest murder and crime rates in the U.S., as well as one of the harshest sentencing structures. Stack says he particularly focused on getting the film seen within Louisiana where he felt it had particular meaning.

Stack convinced A&E to give him a ten-month window before broadcasting the film. To bring some mainstream press to The Farm’s Film Forum opening, a glitzy party was held in New York and Anne Heche and William Baldwin showed up. The celebrity aspect brought a touch of glamour to the release and generated press for the film.

But Stack was brought back down to earth when the Film Forum told Stack that The Farm had generated $40,000 at the box office, but after the cost of the party and promotions, it had lost $5,000 – which they considered a success. The news came as a bit of a shock to Stack who hadn’t yet learned that indie films generally lose money in New York in order to gain enough critical acclaim to launch a wider release.

Wanting to make a difference in Louisiana, Stack worked with numerous foundations to set up special screenings. The Puffin Foundation provided funding and resources to create an outreach program which would get The Farm shown in every school and university in the state. Stack worked with local communities to set up town meetings where the film would play, accompanied by an inmate and a victim from the film who would take part in conversations about the judicial system.

Stack has not made any money on the theatrical release but has achieved the goal of getting The Farm seen in over 100 venues in Louisiana.

He says there is a lesson to be learned from his experience. ‘Documentary filmmakers don’t have the money to corral people into theaters, but we have human power – word of mouth is how we built audiences,’ explains Stack. ‘It’s slower but it is viable.’

Ace up their sleeve

Director Danielle Gardner and producer Lilibet Foster (of New York’s Asphalt Films) wanted to expose Soul in the Hole – chronicling the four-year relationship between a Brooklyn street basketball player and his coach – to as wide an audience as possible.

Although they worked with two small distribution companies in the U.S. (Creative Entertainment in New York and Northern Arts in Massachusetts) in order to get the widest possible release, they were very much on the front lines during the process.

‘Distributors have a sense that since they don’t have the money for a broad advertising campaign, they try to niche market the film to the art house crowd,’ says Foster. ‘There’s a belief that you can’t reach the Afro-American audience, the urban crowd, the art house group with the same campaign unless you have a huge budget.’

Foster proved this philosophy wrong by promoting Soul In The Hole among the young urban set, the older white-collar professionals who play basketball on the weekend, the Hip Hop music culture and everyone in-between. Foster made the most of the films links to the world of sport, music and youth culture, managing to get coverage in Premiere Magazine and Elle, as well as numerous music and sports magazines. But the biggest promotional win was getting the film on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Hip Hop sets the tone for the film. During production, Foster went in search of a soundtrack deal in the hopes that the theatrical release could piggy-back on the promo campaign supplied by a record label. Finding a company willing to commit to a small documentary proved difficult. Foster knocked on the door of every Hip Hop label she came across until a New York dj suggested Loud Records, because the owner was a big basketball fan.

In each of the 30 American cities the documentary played, Foster ensured local record stores were involved in cd and ticket give-aways and that radio stations aired the soundtrack and interviewed the documentary’s lead characters. Working with a sporting goods store, Foster organized a two-day event where artists featured on the soundtrack gave away CD’s, tickets, and signed posters.

‘Good reviews are not enough,’ says Foster. ‘We did as many tie-ins with other companies as possible. We had to find creative ways to make up for the lack of money.’

Foster brought an athletic wear store on board as official sponsor. Their logo was splashed all over the film’s posters, trailers and t-shirts, in exchange for supplying them with Soul In The Hole t-shirts and paying for adds in sports and music magazines.

The best New York street players were invited to a basketball game hosted by the film. When the parks department refused to allow the game to take place on their courts, the media, including cnn, covered the dispute. The controversy brought more free press to the upcoming screenings and turned the dispute into a tug of war between a little indie filmmaker and a big bad bureaucracy.

In addition to these savvy promo campaigns, the filmmakers also resorted to the sheer hard work of getting their posters plastered on as many street poles and into as many hands as possible. Over a two month period before the New York release, they rounded up groups of Brooklyn school kids and gave them the task of handing out stickers and flyers, postcards and t-shirts.

Docs from the dead

Foundations and charitable donations were the key to the successful release of New York-based Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelincic’s film Calling The Ghosts.

Before the film had completed production, the filmmakers were already hard at work on a campaign. Calling The Ghosts documents two childhood friends interned in a Serbian prison camp who suffer numerous abuses under their captors, but escape with the help of international journalists. Their torturers now stand before the International War Crimes Tribunal.

During production, Jacobson made a ten-minute sample tape and sent it to educational and human rights institutions, community groups, and women’s organizations. ‘My idea was to popularize the issue, generate anticipation and lay the foundation with various groups so that once the film was finished I had a distribution infrastructure in place,’ she explains. ‘We connected with existing networks that could promote their own agenda as well as the film.’

While in editing, Jacobson decided star power would be advantageous, and brought actress Julia Ormond on as executive producer and spokesperson. Coincidentally, Ormond’s latest dramatic film screened at the Berlin Film Festival alongside Calling The Ghosts and she spoke of her involvement in both films during press junkets.

Amnesty International, who were launching a campaign for the apprehension of war criminals, sponsored a 25 city U.S. tour of the film tied to panel discussions and conferences featuring guest appearances by the documentary’s lead characters.

The Connecticut Coalition to Save Bosnia hosted the film’s stars at a series of public speaking engagements and rape clinics, and universities became involved with special screenings. A Colorado prison asked to show the film as part of its rehabilitation program for sexual offenders and Television Trust for the Environment acquired distribution rights for developing countries which cannot afford the commercial rates for broadcast.

Jacobson also set up a website for the film with links to organizations dealing with Bosnia, war crimes, and women’s issues and through these sites has sold copies of the film.

hbo’s primetime cable service Cinemax picked up Calling The Ghosts for American tv and also held special screenings prior to the broadcast which were tied to political lobbying campaigns and meetings between the prison camp survivors and high ranking government officials. Calling The Ghosts ended up playing for The Council on Foreign Relations, the Human Rights Congressional Caucus, and members of the u.s. Senate and Congress.

The political stir led cnn to buy segments of the film and feature the directors on an `All About Women’ program and `Q & A with Riz Kahn.’ CBS’ 60 Minutes profiled and showed excerpts of the film.

Financed by family, friends, and various foundations, Calling The Ghosts was made for US$400,000. Jacobson relied on numerous agencies and grants to help fund the release campaign which cost roughly US$100,000. Jacobson spent 18 months promoting the film and says she is still trying to recoup costs.

‘The audience for documentaries is there, but you need to put a decent amount of money into distribution to find the audience,’ says Jacobson. ‘We need to convince documentary buyers to put money into the marketing. I found out through Calling The Ghosts that if audiences have the opportunity, they will watch documentaries.’

Over the pond

While variations of the self-distribution model have developed a following in North America, European feature-length documentarians appear to be less enthusiastic about its potential value. ‘Some of the documentaries shown on arte can reach one million viewers but get only audiences of 10 or 20 thousand viewers in theaters,’ says Denis Freyd, producer at Paris-based Archipel 33. Freyd says he will sometimes give his films a short theatrical life in Paris and outlying regions, working with small distribution companies. The release is generally a token for the directors who like to see their films on the big screen, he says. Often filmmakers negotiate deals with the broadcaster to allow for a theatrical release following the tv broadcast.

Paul Wilmshurst’s documentary Mob Law, a portrait of a Las Vegas Mafia lawyer, was financed by Channel 4 and came close to a theatrical deal in the u.s. but was eventually passed up. Wilmshurst, based in London, opted to stay away from the self-distribution game because it would take up far too much time – time which he says is better spent on what he does best: making films, not releasing them. ‘The dilemma is: do you make another film or spend a year of your life trying to get your previous film seen?’

The difference between the North American and European approach to long-form documentary filmmaking is found in the funding opportunities, says Wilmshurst. ‘Television is the natural home for Britain’s documentaries – they are a popular tv genre, beating out entertainment and fiction. I can’t think of anyone here who makes a film without a tv sale, and that limits the chance of theatrical distribution,’ he says. ‘When you have a broadcaster willing to give you money, what do you say? `No thanks. I’m an artist.’

‘For those American filmmakers who spend years and years making their films because of the difficulty of raising the money, the film becomes their baby – they want everyone to see it,’ continues Wilmshurst. ‘But we don’t dedicate our life to a project. In the U.K., we are always on the treadmill – on to the next project right away. So we don’t have the same attachment and aren’t as likely to take our film around in vans, showing it on university campuses.’

The Sundance Film Festival: the goods

The Sundance Film Festival’s documentary competition screens roughly 16 feature length films annually and offers exposure for films and filmmakers. An audience of more than 12,000, including distributors, broadcasters and the press, converge on Utah for the event. Of last years’ premiering docs, executive media manager R.J. Millard says roughly ten were picked up just prior to or during the festival for a cable broadcast or theatrical release. The 1998 notables include Barbara Kopple’s Wildman Blues, picked up by Fineline Features, and Caipirinha Productions (of New York) Modulations which went to Strand Releasing; New Yorker Todd Phillips’ Frat House licensed to HBO; and Steve Yeager’s (of Baltimore) Divine Trash was taken by the Independent Film Channel.

Running January 21 to 31, the 1999 edition of the Sundance Film Festival will screen over 2,500 independent dramatic and documentary features and shorts. This year, documentary submissions totaled 200, a slight rise from last year’s 190 entries.

The festival program includes an independent feature film competition which premieres more than 30 feature-length documentary and dramatic films. Other categories are American Spectrum, Frontier, World Cinema, and Native Vision.

Sundance awards a Grand Jury Prize to a film embodying great artistic accomplishment and the essence of the independent spirit. Excellence in documentary filmmaking is recognized by the Freedom of Expression Award. Audiences cast a ballot to choose Audience Award winners and filmmakers themselves honor a film with a Filmmakers Trophy. Accolades for directing and screen writing are also handed out. The awards ceremony is slated for January 30th and prize-winning films are screened at the festival close on January 31.

Banff Mountain Film Festival: festival as distribution tool

More than just a festival, the Banff Mountain Film Festival is moving further into the role of distributor, and has found some unique ways to bump up the exposure for films in which mountains play a key role.

An international film competition held for 23 years in Banff, Alberta, the Banff Mountain Film Festival showcases over 130 mountain films each year from more than 25 countries. Many of the films are alternative documentaries that do not fit into conventional tv slots or are feature length without any distribution attached.

Following the festival, the best films from the program are sent on a world tour, which winds its way through 250 cities. Screening at a variety of different venues, the films are viewed by a total audience of 74,000 people.

A menu of potential tour films (around 12 programs) are selected from the festival program. The Banff Centre For Mountain Culture works with university lecture series, outdoor organizations and retailers, who sponsor the screenings and choose five or six films to be showcased in their respective cities. Filmmakers are paid royalties by the festival to take the film on tour. The fee depends on the length of the film and the number of times it has screened.

Films that have screened at previous Banff Mountain festivals have the opportunity to be broadcast on television. The festival annually packages a 16-part tv series ‘A Night At the Banff Festival of Mountain Films’. The program is broadcast on the Resort Sports Network, which provides info and entertainment tv programming to more than 100 resorts and resort towns across the U.S. The Banff Mountain festival acts as a sales agent and negotiates a non-exclusive license agreement with the producers to broadcast their films.

Throughout the year, the festival receives numerous calls from around the world from broadcasters and distributors, organizations and other filmmakers seeking mountain films for broadcast, educational purposes or to use as archival footage. To meet this growing demand, The Banff Mountain Festival is in the process of building an archive of films which have screened at the event throughout its history. The archive currently holds 550 mountain films, and by next year the compilation will include around 2500 mountain films.

The festival is also planning to offer itself as a distribution service – handling the films for archival footage sales, distribution to educational and non-profit markets or for commercial release.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.