Sheffield ’16: BBC, Discovery, Dogwoof talk theatrical

Michael Moore encourages making theatrical docs, but how many enjoy lucrative runs at the cinema? Reps from the BBC, Discovery, Dogwoof and Lightbox sounded off on the topic at Doc/Fest. (Pictured, L-R: My Scientology Movie, Blackfish)
June 15, 2016

Michael Moore returned to Doc/Fest after 18 years this past weekend, and in a keynote address on Sunday (June 12) continued to extol the importance of making documentaries for the cinema.

But as delegates heard in a Monday (June 13) industry talk, the trajectory of first getting a film to theaters and then enjoying a lucrative run is murkier for most directors. Representatives from the BBC, Discovery, Lightbox Entertainment, Dogwoof and DocHouse explained in the “How to Get Your Theatrical Doc Funded and Distributed” session that the world of theatrical isn’t available – or advantageous – to all docs, and is best regarded as a marketing platform.

2016 sheffield documentary festival

Photo courtesy of David Chang

Moderator Claire Aguilar, director of programming and industry engagement at Doc/Fest, framed the discussion around the measures of success for each of the panelists, who included Kate Townsend, commissioner for the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand; Oli Harbottle, head of distribution for Dogwoof; John Hoffman, executive VP of docs and specials at Discovery Channel; Simon Chinn, co-founder of Lightbox Entertainment and Red Box Films; and Elizabeth Wood, founder and director of the Bertha Foundation-backed London doc cinema, DocHouse.

Dogwoof’s Harbottle pointed out that, as an indie distributor, the term “theatrical doc” is something of a misnomer.

“That’s not where money is made. It’s completely an awareness platform,” he said, later adding that, for Dogwoof, theatrical success often means wide editorial coverage and social media impressions.

“When a film is released in the cinemas, we’re looking at how many pre-orders we had on iTunes, and on Amazon for DVD, because that’s the purpose of us doing theatrical. I would say one in 10 films makes money at the box office theatrically. It’s a very expensive exercise to get films out there.”

A successful distribution strategy for the Blackfish and Weiner distributor – which releases about 18 films a year in the UK – means considering the whole lifespan of a film from the outset and working out windows to broadcast, digital platforms and DVDs. In order to monetize films, the indie looks increasingly at collapsed windows, day-and-date releases, short windows to DVD, and also working with broadcasters and SVOD platforms on short windows.

Simon Chinn, meanwhile, expanded on his experience as a producer on Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie - the British presenter’s first theatrical feature doc.

louis theroux's my scientology movie

Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie

Chinn said challenges for the BBC Films-backed project included competition with Alex Gibney’s acclaimed doc Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and also the question of whether audiences would go to see Theroux – traditionally known for his TV doc series – at the cinema. The film has been successful, however, in securing distribution: Magnolia has picked up U.S. rights, while Altitude and Madman will handle rights for the UK and Australia, respectively.

“It’s going to have a proper theatrical life. Will it make money in the back end? Remains to be seen,” said Chinn. “In the end, that film will largely get sold to television, which I think precedes the journey of many films.”

As previously reported, Chinn is also at work on an official doc about late singer Whitney Houston, directed by Marley helmer Kevin Macdonald. “There are very few docs that warrant traditional theatrical release. The [Houston doc] is being treated as a tentpole doc that will be treated in much the same way as a proper movie.”

The producer says the new project managed to raise its entire budget through theatrical pre-sales at the Cannes Film Festival.

“That’s a new thing for docs, to be able to pre-sell in that way,” he said. “And it does show you how the market and theatrical audience has changed for docs, because that never used to be possible 10, 15 years ago.”

Elsewhere, Kate Townsend said measures of success for ‘Storyville’ came down to two criteria: broadcast ratings and reputation.

“We’re always looking for those ‘Blackfishes’ – noisier films that we know will get rated for the subject matter. India’s Daughter last year was big for us, and it meant people were talking about the film and there was a fair amount of online traffic afterwards,” she said, adding that the strand also looks to push boundaries with more experimental fare, such as Notes on Blindness.

Townsend showed a sneak preview from Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Girls, on Japan’s “idol” subculture of young female pop singers and their adult male fans. The doc was pitched at the IDFA Forum in 2014, as covered by realscreen, and is currently being edited. It will look for a festival premiere early next year.

animal planet's toucan nation

Animal Planet’s Toucan Nation

Later on, Discovery’s John Hoffman discussed the Sheffield premiere of Animal Planet’s 40-minute short Toucan Nation, on an injured toucan in Costa Rica who receives a 3D-printed beak. The film – which airs on the U.S. net in August – is playing as part of the shorts competition, with an eye on “having a life towards an Oscar short.”

Hoffman, who was previously at HBO, says Discovery’s doc push has been “a learning curve for the company” in managing the launch of a film. Hoffman called the acquisition of international rights to Louie Psihoyos‘ Racing Extinction a bull’s eye for the brand.

“I don’t know if we will ever find a film that matches that, which is scary in some regards, but I think the idea for me, in terms of having a measure of success, it really showed that one film can draw an audience, create remarkable buzz, garner awards and huge amounts of press.”

When Chinn asked Hoffman if the doc might have “entered the bloodstream” in a different way had it been given a significant theatrical release globally, the exec said the broadcast versus theatrical debate was an “eternal discussion” at HBO and also applied to Discovery.

While the film had a brief theatrical run – like many films commissioned by Discovery – the strategy ultimately comes down to exposure and press.

“The mainstream press… will only talk about a film once, so you release it theatrically – six months or three months before broadcast – that’s the hit. Some of the most important outlets that will write about film, the timing is off, and if you’re in TV and you want to get that television audience, that press attention goes for theatrical,” he explained.

“It’s nice to see a film you love getting good press attention, but you are possibly compromising audience for the television [broadcast] because you’re not syncing that unpaid promotion.”

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