For a Little Wisdom, Get Between the Covers

Get Your Documentary Funded and Distributed
August 1, 2005

Get Your Documentary Funded and Distributed

By Jess Search and Melissa McCarthy

Former C4 CE Jess Search is convinced British documentaries need to be rescued from an over-dependence on U.K. TV. Too many filmmakers, she says, are bereft of the skills needed to thrive in a market in which 100% of a budget will no longer come from a single channel. To help them loosen ties, she co-authored the latest book from Shooting People, the online film community she helped found. Part handbook, part pep talk, it’s rich with nuts and bolts info and international case studies about the biz stuff that comes before and after filming. ‘This book is aimed at a reasonably professional level,’ says Search, ‘because there are a lot of accomplished filmmakers in this country who are wondering how they’re going to get money to make their next film.’

Chapter 14: High End Distribution – Where does all the money go?

Q: My film makes £100,000 at the cinema box office. How much do I get? A: Very little You, the producer/filmmaker, make a deal with a distributor. They come to an agreement with a cinema chain (the exhibitor) and plan to release the documentary in four screens, with a P&A spend of £24,000. Each print currently costs £5,000, leaving £4,000 for the whole marketing campaign. The film opens, and the important figure is the box office take on the opening Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, divided by the number of screens it’s showing on (the capacity of the cinema doesn’t count, for this). A take of £1K per screen is a bad figure, but say the film does respectably and the cinema lets it stay on that screen. Say your marketing spend was wisely used, you got good press, and the word-of-mouth recommendations had audiences flocking in. Say it runs phenomenally well for two weeks and brings in £25K per cinema, grossing £100,000. A happy story? Of this £100,000 taken in ticket money, 70% of the gross will go to the exhibitor, leaving £30,000. Less VAT at 17% is £24,750. The distributor then recoups their P&A spend of £24,000, leaving £750. If you have a 50/50 deal with the distributor on back end profits, you’re both left at this point with £375. If a sales agent or producers rep struck the deal with the distributor for you, they get their 30% and you’re left with returns from the cinematic release of £262 and 50 pence. If the distributor advanced you any money on taking the film, you’ve done well because they have still only made £375 on your film and will be hoping to make some money later down the line on DVD/TV rights.

The Art of the Documentary

By Megan Cunningham

Before professional-quality equipment was in the palm of every Blair Witch wannabe, directors were first apprentices and storytelling was a craft passed down from mentor to student. With tech no longer a barrier to great work, the art of the doc, purports producer Megan Cunningham, is the next frontier. Hence the title of her book from New Riders, which contains in-depth Q&As with 10 of the most accomplished doc talents in the U.S., including directors Ken Burns and Errol Morris, cinematographer Buddy Squires, and editors Geof Bartz and Larry Silk. ‘None of them have an identical process,’ says the author. ‘That’s something to celebrate from a creative perspective.’

A second book about producing – featuring Sheila Nevins, Cara Mertes and Alison Bourke, among others – is in the works.

Cinematography: Kirsten Johnson (Fahrenheit 9/11, The Hamptons, Derrida)

Have you experienced creative conflict?

Good question. Yes. I think sometimes I’ve been disappointed that a director doesn’t give themself the chance to film something in the way that it could be because they’re over-anxious, they’re poor planners, they’re in a hurry, or they can’t just let things happen, and they need to keep intruding on the situation. That’s the kind of tension I’ll feel more than any other. It’s feeling as if, ‘It’s here, in front of us, and we’re not behaving in a way that allows us to film what’s really happening.’

Then sometimes directors will give very vague direction. Such as, ‘Film everything.’ And I say, ‘I could do that, but it’s not going to be a very interesting movie. What exactly are we trying to film here?’

How do you handle that?

I often will push directors to define what they’re really looking for. I love just having access. With a director like Barbara Kopple, she’ll get you there, she’ll get you access, and then she has confidence that you’re going to shoot it in a way that’s going to work for her, so that’s what you do. Frankly, I love being left on my own and given access to situations. Great. But sometimes directors are asking for contradictory things. So you don’t have time to do anything.

(Excerpted from pp. 168-169 from The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, and Producers (ISBN 0-321-31623-1) by Megan Cunningham. Copyright © 2005. Used with the permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.)

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.