Sundance ’17: Doc makers seize the marketing reins

by Valentina Valentini PARK CITY, UTAH – In an unprecedented move for any Sundance film, Brian Knappenberger, director of Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press, added footage to his ...
January 26, 2017

by Valentina Valentini

PARK CITY, UTAH – In an unprecedented move for any Sundance film, Brian Knappenberger, director of Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press, added footage to his movie on Friday, re-closed the cut on Saturday, finished a DCP on Sunday and sent their lead editor with it on a flight to the festival on Monday.

Only a few people knew and were working on it to make it happen, but the stakes were high: The added footage was of U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony, the Million Women March and news footage of Trump’s first press conference where he called CNN “fake news.” It seemed a necessary point to be made in a film that follows the lawsuit of online tabloid Gawker by Hulk Hogan and, in the bigger picture, illustrates a growing, sinister trend at odds with our country’s free press. 

“There was a place for it in the film,” Knappenberger tells realscreen, “and being a filmmaker, it felt like it would hammer home the point we were already making about Trump’s threat to a free press. The audience at the premiere seemed astounded. It was very poignant in contrast to what the journalists in the film were saying.”

“It’s about taking risks. Fiction film can always use a bit more that.” - Hussain Currimbhoy

It’s a unique position that documentaries in. Very often, they are made with full knowledge of who their audience is, long before a narrative feature might, and especially when you take into consideration sales teams that come on board for narrative films wanting to paint the story in one light for buyers, and then buyers coming on board wanting to paint the story in a slightly different light for getting it out to their audiences. While this can leave room for experiential marketing tactics at the fest, it also can be as simple as allowing a doc to have a poster already made for its film debut – something many of the documentary competition films at this year’s festival did. With narrative films, distributors generally like to take the reigns in terms of imaging and messaging.

This year, there have been some inventive and exciting opportunities for films to think outside the box and show off their stories in unique ways. Step brought an entire step dancing team from Baltimore for a surprise performance on the Egyptian Theater stage after their second screening. It is a film by Amanda Lipitz, a Tony Award–winning producer and first-time feature film director, about The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and their “Lethal Ladies” step dance team (pictured) as they navigate a nerve-wracking college application process and strive to elevate the creative outlet that keeps them united and fighting to reach their goals.

“[Bringing the girls] did create two of the most enjoyable Q&As of my career,” says Steven Cantor who’s worked in docs since 1994 when his first short, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, was nominated for an Oscar.

“They and their moms and teachers took over the microphone and captivated the audience and there is no doubt that their presence here contributed to the sale to Fox Searchlight.”

However, Cantor makes it clear that they did not premeditate a way to create buzz, or a sale for that matter, but really wanted to share the experience of Sundance with the stars of the film who “made the whole thing happen through their generosity and bravery and spirit,” he adds. “Certainly having them here helped generate tremendous enthusiasm.”

External campaigns can be launched in hopes of attracting audiences that might not have been able to see the film, or as an added bonus to those that did. Chasing Coral – a timely documentary (picked up by Netflix) about the destruction of “coral reefs via a phenomenon called “coral bleaching,” which has accelerated at a scale and implication that is catastrophic for our ecosystem – parked a bus with a VR experience based on the film at Park City’s middle school next to the Eccles Theater.

And this isn’t the first year documentaries have worked in creative ways to compete with the flashy narrative films that sparkle at Sundance. Racing Extinction – in which filmmaker Louie Psihoyos draws attention to the human role in a potential loss of half of the world’s species – brought their retro-fitted Tesla to Sundance in 2015 and projected visuals of animal photos around Park City.

Hussain Currimbhoy, the festival’s documentary programmer, told realscreen that documentary filmmaking allows for “unique advantages” over scripted projects because of “the flexibility of the medium and the responsiveness of the filmmakers.

“In itself that creates opportunities to engage audiences in immediate, original ways. Often filmmakers have to take advantage of those opportunities to engage an audience beyond the theatre,” he said in an email.

“A good doc makes people want to dig deeper into its story. That’s especially true of this year’s program, which feels so timely. A story’s urgency has to be relatable. That’s a potent force a filmmaker can capitalize on in the marketplace. It’s about taking risks. Fiction film can always use a bit more that.”

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