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Docs Across America: Can Michael Moore Save the Theatrical Nonfiction Market?

Docs Across America: Can Michael Moore Save the Theatrical Nonfiction Market?

After a dismal year for the theatrical nonfiction business, when aside from Michael Moore‘s “Sicko,” only two documentaries – “No End in Sight” and “In the Shadow of the Moon” – made just over a million dollars, the iconoclastic documentary filmmaker wants to change all that. Last month, at the International Documentary Association‘s annual Oscar documentary celebration, Moore called for “Doc Night in America” (see related indieWIRE article), a plan which would see major theater chains dedicating one screen, one night a week, to non fiction film. While the proposal remains in its nascent stages, it has already spurred talk, both positive and negative, within the documentary community and the industry, at large. Will Moore’s plan take off? And if it does, is it a good or bad thing for documentary releasing?

Reactions to the plan are largely split between documentary filmmakers, who welcome any initiative that helps get their work out to the world, and industry insiders, who are skeptical about the plan’s feasibility and disturbed by what they see as a further ghettoization of the documentary form.

But everyone agrees on one thing: they want more information. (Calls and emails to Michael Moore’s people were not returned.) Documentary filmmakers and insiders have several astute questions that the program will have to address before it moves forward:

– Who will select the documentaries that are chosen? And on what basis will they be chosen?

– Will the documentaries already have distributors or not? Or will there be a mix?

– Will participating filmmakers pay a fee? Or conversely, will they get a split of the ticket sales?

– If most multiplexes are film-only, and the majority of documentaries are finished in a high-definition digital format, how will they be screened? Will expensive projectors be rented? Or will filmmakers need to pay for costly film transfers?

– Will Moore’s next film also go out through the program?

Even with such questions, however, doc director Doug Block (“51 Birch Street“) admitted, “I think any initiative that tries to do something about the hellhole of documentary distribution is better than sitting back and whining.”

Other filmmakers welcome the potential of such a program to garner much-needed press. “A Walk into the Sea” director Esther Robinson noted that if her film were able to play 35 cities on a single night, “we would have a shot at a kind of national coverage that would be really interesting,” she said. “If it could then go on to be booked for longer runs, it could function to focus national attention and then build on that attention where appropriate.”

AJ Schnack, director of “Kurt Cobain About a Son” and a prolific doc blogger (, likes the “notion that they are going to help you connect with local papers, press, radio, etc.,” he said, “essentially building a kind of underground network not unlike indie musicians did in the 1980s, which is something I’ve been advocating for a while.”

Distributors, however, are highly doubtful that such an effort can succeed without a major and expensive marketing push. “Non-fiction films will play on more (multiplex) screens as soon as someone spends as much (obscenely high) marketing money to take them to market as Warners does for each ‘Harry Potter’ film,” wrote veteran distributor and filmmaker Jeff Lipsky, who currently runs SenArt‘s distribution efforts. They released the “The War Tapes” last year. “It’s, unfortunately, all about marketing dollars, not about ‘Harry Potter’ playing on too many screens,” added Lipsky, referring directly to Moore’s argument that one of the several screens that a “Harry Potter” occupies on a weekday night could go to his documentary nights.

Distribs say it’s hard enough to get audiences into movie theaters these days, so why would they go to a “documentary”-only night? “A movie is a movie. If you don’t do musical night or western night, why would you do documentary night?” responded Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm‘s theatrical distribution unit, which released such critically acclaimed docs as “Zoo,” “In the Shadow of the Moon,” “Lake of Fire,” and recent Oscar-winner “Taxi to the Dark Side.” That film’s post-award ticket sales don’t do much to support a turnaround: the film’s weekend earnings came to just $18,430 from 18 engagements, for per-screen sales of $1,024 — actually less than they were two weeks ago.

Regal Cinemas‘ Sr. VP of Alternative Film Denise Gurin agreed that if a documentary is good, “Why not run it for a regular engagement?” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t think people are differentiating between documentaries and regular fiction films. They want entertainment; they want something good.” She suggested more audience-friendly docs, rather than political ones — such as Fox Searchlight‘s upcoming “Young@Heart” and Magnolia’s Sundance acquisition “Man on Wire” — will likely perform better than those in the past year.

For the multiplexes that Gurin books, she also warned, “You’re not going to get people into see docs once a week. That’s a lot of moviegoing that you’re asking people to do.”

But she suggested a more limited program could work, analogous to Regal’s Northern California Art Series, which books art-house films at cineplexes for 6 weeks in the winter, fall and spring — not in the busy times of summer or the holidays — for one night a week. But the series only plays in four venues in Northern California. It used to play in six, according to Gurin, but the Davis area garnered its own arthouse — making the program irrelevant for that market — and as for the 6th theater, “People weren’t going,” she admitted.

If Regal can find only four theaters for their special arthouse program, how can Moore expect to find a critical mass of multiplexes willing to participate? And already-existing arthouse theaters don’t make sense as a target, as Silverdocs festival director Patricia Finneran explained, “Those outlets are already supporting independent documentaries and foreign films; Moore’s goal is to expand beyond those outlets.”

Leading doc blogger Agnus Varnum ( also recently criticized the plan, for it “ghetto-izes certain films as unable to make a profit so they can only get into the theater on a night when almost no one goes anyways,” she wrote in a recent blog post.

If theatrical documentaries are in trouble, ThinkFilm’s Urman argued it’s because there’s simply too many of them vying for screens. “That’s the problem. Too many, too mediocre, too many feature-length and forcing them into the theatrical system when they’d be much better off finding their audience in a more user-friendly, more economically viable way. That’s the only problem. And that’s why god invented the DVD.”

Toronto International Film Festival doc programmer Thom Powers, who runs Stranger than Fiction, his own weekly documentary series at New York’s IFC Center, said it’s too soon to count out theatrical docs – or Moore’s program.

“When you have a curated event, you’re building a relationship with the audience. When they have a couple of good experiences, then they don’t have to be sold on each title individually,” Powers explained.

“It doesn’t surprise me that theatrical distributors have a hard time getting their head around it, because they’re in a different business,” continued Powers. “It’s about having a different target of expectations. It’s one thing to get enough people to justify the P&A budget for a week run, but there’s a lower threshold for having a hundred people turn out once a week.”

Powers and other advocates say the awareness of a national program has greater benefits. “The ripple effects of people who read about it and the word of mouth are going to help DVD sales and VOD sales, which is where these films are really reaching their audience,” admitted Powers. “We have a very good delivery system; what’s missing from the equation is a promotional arm to let audiences know about these films.”

Moore’s initiative may offer a possible solution to that quandary, but there’s no telling what the actual program will look like. Still, even if it isn’t the panacea that Moore contends, at least it’s getting people talking, say doc advocates. “Whether this brainstorm works out or not, we definitely need some fresh thinking about distribution,” said Powers. “We don’t know what models are going to work; but we definitely know the old models are flawed.”

For regular documentary coverage, visit indieWIRE’s special section.

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. . . and in the meantime, there is a brilliant documentary that’s doing pretty well at the box office – A Walk To Beautiful opened at the Quad in NYC for a week’s run on February 8th; it was extended a week, then another, and is currently showing there indefinitely. It also opened last week in LA, garnering an ecstatic review from LA Times’ Kenneth Turan,1459049.story.
It also won this year’s IDA award for best documentary feature, beating Sicko and Taxi To The Dark Side. No big-shot sales agent, no publicist, just a great film. Maybe it would be good for the doc community to hear more about success stories like this?


OK…so there was ONE off year in box-office $ success for documentary theatrical releases. And there will be more. This is cause for panic? Will documentarians suddenly stop working? In the entire history of film almost no documentaries made significant money at the box office. Is theatrical release the reason filmmakers make documentaries,or are theatrical releases more about ego? Until Michael Moore (an anomaly) the most successful $ theatrical documentary of all time was WOODSTOCK, a film backed by all of the enormous resources Warner Brothers could muster. There have also been great theatrical successes throughout documentary history. NANOOK OF THE NORTH was a worldwide smash. NANOOK himself remains the biggest documentary star ever-Flaherty saw almost no money (like almost every documetarian since) because of the deal he made with Pathe. Pare Lorentz’ THE RIVER played at hundreds of theatres across America in 1937 and 38 to rave reviews. The 1950s saw huge hits liike KON TIKI. The 1960s had ENDLESS SUMMER and GIMME SHELTER. The 1970s had THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLES, MARJOE, THE MAN WHO SKIED DOWN EVEREST,THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY, GATES OF HEAVEN and many more. Dozens played in the 1980s and 1990s. HOOP DREAMS was away back in 1994 (ask KARTEMQUIN how much they ultimately received for this release).

Yes theatrical showing can increase a critical profile, but the same reviews can generally be had at major festivals, especially now that there are so many. Millions see documentaries in other ways. INDIEWIRE seems fixated on the theatrical documentary, virtually ignoring the true venues and motivations of most documentarians. There is nothing wrong with this POV;it is an admirable niche, but then be clear that theatrical is the focus for coverage.

And Michael Moore’s idea is grand in every sense of the word. As I have commented here before; was even Robert Redford able to pull off his announced chain of documentary theatres? I was present at Moore’s, and at Redford’s passionate announcements of these plans, and even with highly enthusiastic audiences they were met with mixed response. As someone who has spent years trying to get people into theatres to see documentaries, I know how very hard it is. Try the feeling of seeing 4 people in a 800 seat theatre. When I recently screened Alex Gibney’s TAXI TO THE DARK side at a Landmark, there were 6. Maybe the lack of audience in these was my fault. But sitting in a theatre, paying to watch EUROPA EUROPA this year I was one of 7. Yes Moore mentioned that the theatres are seeing tiny audiences for even major fiction films, so why not show a documentary. Why not? The cost of marketing a documentary is prohibitive for most.

Dear friends, look at the history of theatrical release for the genre. Applaud those who can make it work, (Berlinger and Sinofsky four-walling the nation come to mind)but don’t cry wolf or think that theatrical release is THE answer. The industry held out the same hopes for VHS and is now touting DVD rentals as well as downloads. Lots of money there for documentarians–not.

I and many others stand ready to support Mr. Moore’s concept. Let our experience help him, in whatever small way it can.

Betsy A. McLane

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