Hot Docs: What’s working in doc distribution?

Tuesday's industry component of Hot Docs brought together a panel of experts to discuss different approaches to the ever-shifting world of doc distribution.
May 5, 2010

Sometimes a little dose of controversy will do you good. During Tuesday’s Hot Docs’ conference session ‘Distribution Now – What’s Working?,’ Peter Jäger, managing director of Austria-based Autlook Filmsales, used the example of the feature documentary Bananas! as a case study.

The doc, about a trial case against the Dole Food Company in which Nicaraguan banana workers claimed working on Dole plantations rendered them sterile, wasn’t originally deemed a good option for a theatrical release, according to Jäger, until it was due to premiere at the L.A. Film Festival. At that point the Dole Food Company sued the filmmakers for defamation (a suit that was later withdrawn), stating that the filmmakers didn’t revise the story to include information about the workers’ lawsuit being thrown out by a Los Angeles judge, and asked that the film be removed from the festival. The ensuing press led to Autlook immediately rethinking the distribution strategy to theatrical. With the new strategy, sales began with Berlin and more theatrical sales followed.

For Up the Yangtze, a film by EyeSteelFilm which is now the third highest-grossing doc in Canada, panelist and KinoSmith president Robin Smith said its success hinged on outreach and finding audiences beyond commercial exhibitions. For a documentary set in China about the repercussions of the Three Gorges Dam, Smith said the team initially aimed to get Asian-Canadians and environmentalist groups to screen the film. Finally, they realized the best strategy was to target seniors who frequent the cruise ships that travel the Yangtze River. Smith said that the strategy was reconfigured to focus on tourist and travel groups who would be interested in the film.

‘It’s so important to open where you guarantee you can have the strongest numbers you can,’ said Smith, adding that that can be community halls with film groups or screenings in libraries, and not necessarily commercial exhibitions.

Viable multi-platform options like VOD, iTunes sales and SnagFilms were also mentioned as well as more unlikely launch pads. For example, the MacWorld Convention and Expo helped MacHeads, a doc about hardcore Apple fanatics, get audiences. It was again the act of choosing the audience carefully that helped boost the doc’s reach, said Matt Dentler, head of programming for Cinetic Rights Management. The doc was sold on iTunes, made available on SnagFilms and aired on CNBC, while every major Mac site also picked up the film.

‘Everything we knew about distribution was thrown out the window on that film,’ said Dentler.

Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival continues until May 9.

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