TIFF 2011: Spurlock, Broomfield talk digital distribution

Directors Morgan Spurlock and Nick Broomfield (pictured) kicked off TIFF's third annual Doc Conference this morning, with a discussion centered on the financial and creative challenges facing modern-day documentary filmmakers.
September 12, 2011

Directors Morgan Spurlock and Nick Broomfield (pictured) kicked off TIFF’s third annual Doc Conference this morning, with a discussion centered on the financial and creative challenges facing modern-day documentary filmmakers.

The session, held at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, saw both men discussing the issues they had faced in making their past films, as well as problems encountered on their latest efforts.

Spurlock said that digital platforms were increasingly significant for his work. With his film Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope, outlets such as Netflix, iTunes and YouTube were becoming more and more important.

He singled out the Xbox Live Platform, which he said his team is in talks with regarding distribution of the doc. “That’s a core demo for the Comic-Con movie,” he said. “There are some other platforms that we’re exploring streaming with also.”

He added: “There’s been a real shift where filmmakers realize if you’re going to work in the business, you should have a real understanding of how the business works.”

Broomfield, meanwhile, said that with his current doc, Sarah Palin – You Betcha!, the plan had originally been to release the film across multiple platforms simultaneously, on a day-and-date model.

“The original idea was to do a platform release all on the same day, so it would go out on VoD and the Internet all at the same time, but because of scheduling we couldn’t do that,” he said. Instead, the film will follow a more traditional route, opening in two weeks’ time in New York and LA, followed by other parts of the U.S., and then the UK.

The pair also discussed challenges they had faced at the start of their career, when trying to get their early works made. Broomfield recounted a humorous anecdote about getting arrested holding a can of glue after twice being caught fly-papering posters for his films on the streets of London.

“The second time we got arrested I thought that this is probably not the way to release the film,” he joked.

Spurlock, meanwhile, explained that with his debut doc, Super Size Me, the staff working on the project all went unpaid until the film started making money.

“We made that movie for $65,000 and had a crew of about 40 people, and everybody worked for free,” he recalled. “After the movie came out, everyone got paid in installments, but for about three years nobody saw anything.”

The film went on to gross some US$28 million worldwide. However, Spurlock said that he and his team only saw about $3 million or $4 million of that, because of the deal they struck. “All of the people at my company, I paid them three- to four-years of back salaries,” he said. “After paying three or four people the three or four years of back salaries, what’s left is not much.”

Elsewhere at the session, the duo bought their trademark humor to the table. Spurlock told the audience that he did not appear onscreen in his latest film, Comic-Con, so “everyone who has hated every film I’ve done until now, you’re going to love this one.”

Broomfield, meanwhile, told the audience that ingratiating himself with locals in Alaska for the filming of his latest Sarah Palin doc involved sitting down with many of them for moose dinners. “After a few moose sessions you then get into the filming more,” he said, “but the moose is good.”

Of the latter film, Broomfield said that he had gone through a rough period last year with the passing of his father, and that following that event, “the thought of going to Alaska became increasingly appealing.”

However, he revealed that the crew faced problems before even arriving in Palin’s hometown of Wasilla – of the four-strong crew, two were arrested and deported upon arrival in the States.

“Two of our crew were deported straight away in orange jumpsuits for having the wrong visas,” said Broomfield, adding: “They gave our researcher a home pregnancy test, against her wishes, and sent her home,” to gasps from the audience.

When asked to clarify whether he was being serious about the orange jumpsuits by TIFF moderator Thom Powers, Broomfield and his producer – who was in the crowd – both confirmed that they were.

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