A few years ago, even documentary gurus wondered if nonfiction wasn't meant for theaters.
"The bottom line is that not that many people go to see documentaries at the box office," HBO's Sheila Nevins told Reuters in 2007, the year Oscar-winner "No End in Sight" earned just $1.4 million. "People go to movies to escape," she said, "but they download to find out."
Four years later, IFC Films and Sundance Selects president Jonathan Sehring begs to differ. Flush with this year's doc success stories "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" ($5.3 million) and "Buck" ($4 million), Sehring says the market "has never gone away."
Of course, theatrical success for docs in 2011 requires a certain redefining of terms: We haven't seen an eight-digit documentary gross since the 2008 "Religulous" ($13 million). But if documentaries have achieved a modest comeback over the last 18 months with other releases like "Inside Job," "Waiting for Superman" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop," Sehring believes it's one that can be replicated over the long term.
He admits that for some time, his company "shied away" from docs. "They're so labor intensive," he says. "It was about the workload and the effort, and about finding the right one. Docs require a lot of grassroots work. They're harder than narrative films in a way. I think there's a much more intensive partnership with the filmmakers."
In the case of "Buck," producer Julie Goldman and her team, including director Cindy Meehl and executive producer Andrea Meditch, had weekly in-person meetings with the IFC/Sundance Selects distribution team, working closely with them on the release strategy and star Buck Brannaman's schedule.
Even before the film premiered, the "Buck" filmmakers felt the movie would be a strong theatrical contender.
"I think we knew the core audience would go beyond the horse world," says Goldman. "As we were finishing the film and showing it to audiences, we thought: 'Is this something that parents and therapists could also respond to?' " In addition, Goldman points to the film's primarily exterior "cinematic" Western locations that were conducive to a big-screen experience.
During production, they also gathered an extensive mailing list, and sent email blasts regularly to some 2,000 interested parties. Currently, "Buck" has nearly 30,000 Facebook Likes.
"For documentaries and films about issues and some community, I think Facebook is a really effective and low-cost tool to spread the word about a film," says IFC Films and Sundance Selects senior VP Ryan Werner.
"Pina," which Sundance Selects opens Dec. 23, has over 16,000 Facebook Likes, while "First Position: A Ballet Documentary," which the company will release next year, already has over 7,500 Likes.
Werner says this grassroots approach appeals to distributors and can make the difference for a doc in the theatrical marketplace.
"[Docs] are still tough," says Werner. "We're just choosy about what we do. There's not a lot of films like 'Buck' that cater to specific audiences. And people really connected to Buck [Brannaman] as an American hero."
After opening in June, "Buck" played theatrically for over 15 weeks. (Both "Cave" and "Buck" still have showings at the IFC Center in New York). And "Buck" played in theaters around the country that had never shown a documentary before, from Montana to Wyoming to Texas.
Contrary to IFC's frequently touted model of releasing movies day-and-date in theaters and VOD, both "Buck" and "Cave" were only available on VOD towards the very tail end of their theatrical runs. "Buck" opened in June, and didn't go on VOD until October.
One could argue that eschewing a simultaneous digital release helped boost those films' theatrical sales. Sehring doesn't necessarily buy that argument, but he says that for 3D docs such as "Cave" and the upcoming "Pina," or a potentially populist subject, such as Audience Award winner "Buck," a traditional theatrical release still makes sense.
To gauge interest in "Buck," Werner utilized the Demand It screening app made famous by "Paranormal Activity." As a result, there were towns requesting the film that the company's distribution team had never heard of.
Indeed, the potential upside for releasing docs is that marketing costs are often kept to a minimum. While "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" eventually got ads on local NPR stations and more costly online buys at NYTimes.com and Salon.com, for the most part these docs relied on good old-fashioned (if digitally assisted) word of mouth.
IFC also hired Los Angeles-based 360 Degree Communications to do outreach on a number of their docs, an investment that Werner says paid for itself.
"Buck" producer Goldman praises the 360 team, calling them "phone warriors" for their relentless calling of niche groups, from the mind-body-spirit community to members of Montana's Saddle and Sirloin Club.
"IFC didn't say, 'We can do it all,' " says Goldman. "I think bringing on 360 made a big difference. They were really hustling all over the place."
Werner says "Cave" and "Buck" will be among IFC's most successful movies. He says their theatrical releases were enough to put them in profit, without accounting for ancillary revenue streams. (Both are top sellers on
Sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine, who repped "Buck" and "Cave" believes more docs will make a theatrical comeback; since their budgets are usually lower, "the ratio of success can often be greater, without having to achieve multi-million
dollar box office results."
Goldman certainly hopes that's the case; she has two new documentaries premiering at Sundance next month, "Finding North" and "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry."
"To have a film that people are going to connect with, and want to share with people and they're going to be invested to get people to see it," she says, "that's the key."