Feature docs up the ante

Producers and distributors alike used to question whether a theatrical doc release was a viable business move. Now, the dialog around feature docs is focussed on bidding wars and box office stats.
March 1, 2004

Producers and distributors alike used to question whether a theatrical doc release was a viable business move. Now, the dialog around feature docs is focussed on bidding wars and box office stats.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival showcased a record-setting 46 docs, and the buzz around distribution deals was loud. Morgan Spurlock’s breakout hit Super Size Me – a satirical look at the fast food epidemic in America – had its theatrical and home video rights acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions for a reported us$500,000. Meanwhile, the Darlow Smithson-produced mountaineering docudrama Touching the Void – originally meant for TV – is smashing records both in the U.S. and the U.K., where it has become the most successful theatrically-released British doc.

Traditionally non-theatrical players such as Discovery are now entering the fray. Peter Gilbert’s With All Deliberate Speed (w/t) will be released in May as part of the Discovery Docs initiative of theatrical releases. And New York-based DVD label Koch Lorber Films recently picked up theatrical rights to Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, the company’s first documentary.

It’s clear that feature docs are currently finding mainstream success, but what elements are key to keeping the momentum going so that theatrical release success keeps pace with the growth? KV

What’s an effective marketing strategy for theatrical documentaries?

Tom Alexander, manager of theatrical sales and distribution for independent feature film distributor Mongrel Media in Toronto

We’ve seen documentary features become more successful theatrically, and we’ve been involved in quite a few that have done well for us. Our strategy has been to choose films that we can target to a niche audience, and then we identify the channels and the means by which to make the film available to them. With The Corporation, which analyzes the influence that large multinational conglomerates have on our society, audience members have taken the film to heart very strongly. It’s a matter of bringing that passion and feeling out for them.

We gave [The Corporation] a more significant push than we might have for a smaller, more niche-oriented documentary. We did a [grassroots marketing] campaign where we attracted audiences that would be critical of corporations, such as left-wing students and faculty members in colleges and universities, and supporters of ngos. But, because the film seeks to strike a balance between the argument for and against corporate influence in society, we wanted to reach the business sector and slightly more right-wing audience members. So, we did campus outreach to business programs, such as MBA faculties and students. We also took out newspaper ads in business sections.

With documentaries, often the subject matter is not only what makes an audience want to see it on screen, but it’s something that is very personal for them and they become more emboldened to spread the word-of-mouth.

What makes a documentary a likely prospect for theatrical release?

John Smithson, MD for indie prodco Darlow Smithson Productions, London

In the U.K., there had never been a successful [British-made] theatrical documentary. There needs to be something that persuades people to spend. If there’s something exceptional about the story, then docs can work on the big screen. Touching the Void started as a TV doc, but when Channel 4 became interested and then PBS, we knew there was something about this film that may have more potential. It was a story that worked – more than a million people bought the book. Then Kevin Macdonald came on board as director, who won an Oscar for One Day in September. All these things started to tickle our interest in theatrical. We put together a script and shot it on high-def. There is an intimacy to the story that works, and the mountains look beautiful on [the big screen]. And, once we started seeing the rough cut and started having preview screenings, there was a real buzz about the film.

Richard Lorber, president of Koch Lorber Films, New York

We plan to release a good number of documentaries, but The Five Obstructions is the first one we’re doing theatrically. The reasons are self-evident – we’re dealing with a director (Lars von Trier) who has a strong following in theatrical distribution.

We look for films that have a theatrical profile, that have been on the festival circuit and received positive response and enthusiastic audience acceptance. We look for strong story elements, or a strong concept. We also look for new talent – directors and producers who can deliver creatively with a sense of style, emotion and imaginative resources that really grip an audience.

There are challenges in selling docs that have to do with the lack of presold commodity values like star casting or famous directors, which means that documentaries have to [rely on the] intrinsic strength of the film. But, we’re finding that more films of great worth are emerging. On dvd, we’ll be releasing between 50 and 60 titles per year, and it wouldn’t trouble me if a full 25% were documentary features, if we could find really strong ones.

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.