At a time when filmmakers the world over are struggling for funds and distribution outlets, a documentary filmmaker is doing well to sell his movie before it debuts at a fest like Tribeca. Now more than ever, as the breakout documentary hit is largely confined to the likes of pop culture entertainers Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, often the best sale to make is to HBO Documentary Films, which pays serious upfront dollars, throws you a premiere, and even markets your movie. That’s more than most distributors are coughing up in this DIY era.
HBO has acquired U.S. TV rights to Alex Gibney’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which debuts at Tribeca next week, along with his work-in-progress doc about scandal-plagued ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer and one of six segments of Freakonomics, which closes the fest (Magnolia is releasing).
Based in New York, Gibney sits comfortably at the top of the documentary food chain. His worst fear: overextending himself with too many projects and throwing his back out with fatigue. The NYT writes about him often, as it does here in the context of Tribeca, which also debuted the 2007 HBO film Taxi to the Dark Side, which went on to win the Oscar. Gibney later assailed ThinkFilm for its lack of marketing support at a time when their funding was drying up and they were barely paying their bills. It’s not clear how much better the tough look at Guantanamo and other prisons holding terrorist suspects might have fared with moviegoers.
Magnolia did better with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Gibney’s latest Magnolia release, the Washington lobbyist expose Casino Jack & the United States of Money, debuted at Sundance and comes out this May. Still to come is Sony’s Lance Armstrong doc covering last year’s Tour de France.
Part documentary and part performance piece, My Trip to Al Qaeda is based on journalist Lawrence Wright’s one-man show (he wrote the script for the 1998 terrorist thriller The Siege). He had written the 2006 bestseller The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which chronicles how a journalist remains objective in the face of fundamentalist Islam’s rise to power. The film will debut on HBO in fall 2010.