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Who Needs Theatrical Distribution? Here’s Why One Filmmaker Is Skipping Theaters.

Who Needs Theatrical Distribution? Here's Why One Filmmaker Is Skipping Theaters.

Doug Block has been working on documentaries for nearly 30 years. His last four films, including the award-winning “51 Birch Street,” the acclaimed “The Kids Grow Up,” and his latest, “112 Weddings” have all aired on HBO. Up until now, Block has insisted on having a theatrical release for all his HBO projects, and “to varying degrees of reluctance,” the premium cable network agreed to that, the director recently told Indiewire. But this time around, the industry has changed so much that Block didn’t bother to insist on theatrical distribution as part of his HBO deal.

For the past two decades, Block has supported his documentary filmmaking career as a wedding videographer. For “112 Weddings,” Block re-visited some of the couples whose weddings he filmed to see how their marriages have fared since. The film, a crowd-pleaser at Full Frame, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest and other festivals, premieres on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. ET.

“This was the first time that we didn’t fight for a theatrical [release]… It speaks to how the model for theatrical distribution for documentaries has totally changed and is broken. And it’s not just for documentaries,” said Block.

READ MORE: Here’s Why Making a Living as A Documentary Filmmaker Is Harder Than Ever

One of the primary reason filmmakers push for a theatrical component to distribution is the ego gratification factor. What filmmaker doesn’t dream of watching their own film with an audience at a theater? Plus, there’s the issue of eligibility requirements for the Academy Awards (films need to be publicly exhibited at a commercial venue before airing on TV).

“We get Oscar fever and that’s very attractive. We want to be eligible for Oscar consideration. Who doesn’t?” said Block, “I’m a little bit more realistic about that. I tend to make films that I don’t think have huge chances, given what they’re about. But every filmmaker wants to be this year’s ‘Man on Wire’ or ’20 Feet From Stardom.’ We all want that kind of big hit. We all dream that some big distributor will come in and take it off our hands and put out big ads and make it Oscar-worthy.”

Below, Block outlines why theatrical distribution is no longer essential for independent films:

There Are So Many Movies Competing for The Same Audiences.

Remember the Manohla Dargis article in The New York Times (about there being too many movies released theatrically)? I think that was very accurate. She was being tongue in cheek as a critic, but for filmmakers, we don’t like the glut of films in the marketplace any more than the critics do. They don’t like to review 25 films a week and we don’t like that when we open, there are 25 films competing with us in the marketplace. For documentaries, which generally don’t have much of a marketing budget, it’s very difficult to get attention. We’ll get our New York Times review, but many times, it’s a little capsule review and often times, all it does is tell you what the film is about. It’s frustrating and it’s depressing. There’s nothing more depressing than having been at a lot of festivals where you get packed screenings and then you open theatrically and there are 30 people at the theater.

Critics Aren’t As Influential.

I’m not sure critics have as much as weight as they used to. Social media has gotten to the point where it’s more of a water cooler effect, the totality of the reaction, as opposed to the one big review. I took as an example my last two films — I had two fantastic reviews by A.O. Scott, the lead critic of The New York Times. For ’51 Birch Street,” it set in motion an enormous theatrical release… But we had an equally great review for “The Kids Grow Up” and it had no impact whatsoever. Of course, there are exceptions — certain documentaries have a little more backing from distributors and they can parlay reviews into a bigger release. Critics just aren’t as critical anymore. 

Film Festivals Provide Great Audiences.

Festivals were our theatrical run. And for a documentary, you’re never going to get better audiences than at festivals. For us, the idea was let’s parlay a strong and impactful and compressed festival run and then move on to where people can see it.

Theatrical Doesn’t Have The Same Cachet.

When I mentioned that the “112 Weddings” was going to be on HBO, that really impresses people. Being in theaters does not impress most people. Because it doesn’t relate to their moviegoing experience. Being on HBO totally equates to their moviegoing experience. They equate HBO to quality and prestige and they have access to it right away. 

A Few More Thoughts.

A career making films is really rare and getting rarer — unfortunately, for every film that hits like “20 Feet From Stardom” or “Man on Wire,” there are 25 or 50 or 100 documentaries that get a theater, open in New York, get a thumbnail review in The New York Times and come and go in a week. And they’re spending God knows how much money and time and effort doing this. It’s really tough going. Not all those films have a TV deal to fall back on. I would never tell a filmmaker not to do theatrical. There are so many considerations to take into account.

Every filmmaker has to do a lot of thinking about what their goals are and what’s realistic and what would work best for them. If I were a first-time filmmaker, I might have a very different attitude about theatrical. If I had a really urgent social issue film as a director, being up for an Oscar might mean more. We all weigh the different factors and make our own decision. But it’s important to not fall into this pipe dream that we’re going to get into Sundance, have a frantic bidding war and have distribution taken off our hands. It’s not realistic.

“112 Weddings” premieres on HBO tonight at 9pm ET.

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Think Again

I don't know who Doug Block was talking to, but it's not my experience that "being in theaters does not impress most people." It sure as hell does. Anyone knows it's more prestigious to be in theaters than to got straight to VOD.

The entertainment industry is run on a class system, and if you don't think so, just take a gander at the seating chart for the Golden Globes, SAG or any other awards show. Movies stars are seated close to the stage, and TV stars further back, and the writers, etc., in the balcony. People who "premiere" on HBO are with the TV people, not the movie stars.

And this "Because it doesn't relate to their moviegoing experience," made me laugh. Being on HBO totally equates to sitting in your underwear watching TV, not "going to the movies." It's still a deal to get dressed, go to the theater, and see something on the big screen. And if he thinks it isn't, he's fooling himself.

Bright Blue Gorilla

My husband Michael Glover (writer, director) and I (producer) were just talking about how VOD is the new cinema for indie filmmakers and also how important it is for filmmakers to think outside of the box, not only how they make and fund movies but how they distribute as well. We shot our film Go with Le Flo in Berlin, with cast & crew from 20 different countries (It's a romantic comedy in German & French). We work as an artist collective. All locations, everything was donated, it's really art for art's sake. We're also a band called Bright Blue Gorilla so we take our films on the road, touring art house cinemas, doing concerts and screenings. We've been traveling the world since 1990 and decided not to wait around L.A. to be discovered. Not only is it inspiring watching your films with an audience but it's the best way for a filmmaker to learn and grow. Since we come from a live performing background we really value the live experience. I think this article is great and I really encourage filmmakers to experiment, not revert to automatic pilot and to not be afraid to ask for help. Go with Le Flo is now with Eurocinema (Cable and VOD in the USA) and will have it's worldwide release this August. Time to hit the road and tour Europe!

Susan Roth

Just because you don't have a distributor, does not mean you can get PR help. I help documentary filmmakers with small films with no distributor that either play in one city at a time in theaters or are just online and still get them major media coverage by pursuing coverage with reporters who cover issues, not necessarily film. News shows such as "Morning Joe," often interview documentary filmmakers with films only playing online.

Chris Horton

Thanks for this Doug. I think docs are narratives are totally different. For docs, many filmmakers embrace educational / non-theatrical channels with vigor and realize this is their "theatrical". (that and festival screenings). I'm not a filmmaker, so my arguments against the documentary qualifying process are based from odds/reason rather than emotion. Unless you have a big budget, crowd pleasing doc (think SUGARMAN and 20 FEET), you're not going to win based on the current voting format. Getting nominated is barely easier. Getting "shortlisted" is practically meaningless. Filmmakers spend so much $$$ to play a week long run in NYC AND LA, with four commercial showings a day the vast majority are to empty seats.

Doc filmmakers should consider an Academy nomination/win a happy byproduct of a good distribution strategy, rather than a means to an end.


way to much need in this decision making, here is my point I have my own studio and release/book my own films in theaters, I had to work for that first crowd but we filled the theater! and they love the film, if your a filmmaker who Expects people to just come out with out you doing anything …be glad you got 30 people that is what your really worth for real! it takes work to release a film, and if your film is a kiss ass type film most people will not like it because the market place is full of LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME!!! SEE MY FILM SEE MY FILM
I GOT THINKS YOU LIKE IN THEM! my films are well like and the audience is growing because I got a different type of format my own and I don't care what the audience say one way or the films and studio are not the traditional studio fare, not even made the same way… not every body likes them this I had to learn …but I don't change anything because of that I stay true to me to my art my internet art films like I don't waste time trying to build up a no name star with headliner titles STARRING??that no body knows anyway? let their acting build them up if their good it will leave a mark on the audience their are many little things that push my films in a category that will tell you its not a major studio film but an RG studio film


There's no need to justify your decision not to demand theatrical release in your situation. "Who needs theatrical distribution" suggests way too broad a proposition and I think the acknowledgment that every situation is different and not everyone has a deal with HBO comes too late. It is certainly the case that filmmakers should not view theatrical as the be-all, end-all, and pursuing Oscar qualification likely isn't worth all that much unless you have the money/backing to mount an Oscar campaign. But spending on a limited theatrical release (and getting that NYT review) might – might – be a key component to the VOD/streaming placement and marketing strategy. Rather than saying "who needs theatrical," a better summary might be, "be flexible about theatrical."

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