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by Eugene Hernandez
June 23, 2008 5:16 AM
8 Comments
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Alex Gibney v. ThinkFilm: Claiming Botched "Taxi" Release, Oscar Winning Filmmaker Seeking $1 Millio

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is seeking more than $1 million in damages from ThinkFilm, distributor of his recent Oscar-winning film, "Taxi to the Dark Side." Late last week X-Ray Productions, producers of Gibney's film, charged that ThinkFilm fradulently hid the fact that it could not properly release the film in theaters, in a complaint filed with the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), the organization agreed upon by both sides to arbitrate any dispute. Responding to Gibney's claims and the request for arbitration, ThinkFilm president Mark Urman this weekend defended his company and its work on the film and sharply criticized Gibney.

"ThinkFilm did not disclose to us that the company did not have the financial ability to properly release the picture," Gibney told indieWIRE via email this weekend, in the wake of recent reports of a financial crisis at ThinkFilm (see related indieWIRE article). A copy of X-Ray's complaint to the IFTA, reviewed by indieWIRE, seeks $1 million in damages, payment of legal fees, a termination of its agreement with ThinkFilm, and a return of the film's distribution rights.

Charging that ThinkFilm didnt have the financial resources to properly exploit Gibney's film, the X-Ray complaint contends that ThinkFilm buried the film after its Oscar win and, "jeopardized the success of the film by failing to abide by the terms of contracts it entered into with public relations firms and advisors and failed to pay such firms for work done and expenses incurred." The complaint charges "fraud and intentional and willful breaches of its marketing obligations under the distribution agreement."

The documentation acknowledges that ThinkFilm did pay contractual minimum guarantees on May 5th of this year, although behind schedule as dictated in the agreement with X-Ray.

"How ironic that a man who professes to care so much about the people who worked hard on his film would then inflict such insult and injury upon the blameless and tireless THINKFilm staff," an angry Mark Urman from ThinkFilm countered to indieWIRE this weekend. "And, how disappointing that a man who professes to be all about the cause, is now all about the money."

"For the record," Urman continued, "Even though he got everything he and his investors had coming to them, Mr. Gibney is seeking more money for himself, not for vendors who have yet to be paid. Meanwhile, THINK is completely in the red on this film."

The story of an Afghan cab driver murdered while in American custody, "Taxi to the Dark Side" explores the U.S. government's detention and torture of prisoners during the ongoing war on terror. It debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival where it won the festival's award for best documentary. ThinkFilm closed a deal for the film on May 30th of last year, in a pact brokered by Cinetic Media, according to the signed distribution contract obtained by indieWIRE. In addition to the $150,000 minimum guarantee for selling the North American distribution rights to ThinkFilm for a twenty year period, the filmmakers earned a $50,000 bonus for winning the Academy Award this year.

While Gibney and the producers had hoped for a Fall '07 theatrical release of "Taxi to the Dark Side," the film was contractually obligated to distribution in at least 15 markets (including New York and Los Angeles) no later than February 15, 2008. "Taxi" opened in U.S. theaters on January 18, 2008, earning nearly $11,000 in two theaters on its opening weekend. It has made about $275,000 during the theatrical release.

"The entire commercial plan for the picture - as Mark discussed with his publicists (whom ThinkFilm still has not paid) - was to shoot to win the Oscar and then capitalize," Gibney told indieWIRE by email this weekend. "It is impossible to capitalize if you can't order prints because the lab hasn't been paid, and if the website is taken down because that bill wasn't paid, if there is no advertising and no announcements."

Particularly upsetting to Urman was the fact that Gibney came after ThinkFilm even though he worked to allow the filmmaker to strike a new TV deal when Discovery backed out of its plans to air the provocative documentary during this year's U.S. presidential election cycle. "In February, THINK willingly sacrificed an entire revenue stream on 'Taxi' just so Mr. Gibney could sell his film to HBO after it was dropped by its original broadcaster," Urman reiterated.

As the dispute between the acclaimed documentary filmmaker and the cash-strapped distributor goes public, industry insiders will no doubt debate whether the poor theatrical performance of "Taxi to the Dark Side" was due to the mismanagement and lack of funding for the release by ThinkFilm, or a reflection of the ongoing struggle to release war-themed work in U.S. theaters.

The distribution agreement for "Taxi to the Dark Side" required that good faith efforts be made to get the film in theaters before Sony Pictures Classics' release of Errol Morris' "Standard Operating Procedure," which premiered in February at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, debuting in U.S. theaters on April 25th of this year.

Morris's "Standard Operating Procedure" has earned less in theaters than "Taxi to the Dark Side," so far. While it debuted with slightly bigger numbers during its opening weekend -- more than $14,000 in two theaters -- it reached a widest release of 21 theaters and has made nearly $204,000 through this weekend.

"We believed in Alex's film, we invested and incurred debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, so that he could win an Oscar. He did not thank us on Oscar night and he certainly shows no gratitude today," Urman said this weekend. "His film was resoundingly uncommercial and yet we supported it and got it into the history books. How sad that victory was not enough for Mr. Gibney."

"I know that filmmakers always complain that they aren't fairly treated," Gibney told indieWIRE, "But this is beyond any subjective judgement."

"THINKFilm has done more for documentaries than anybody, probably to our detriment," Urman continued, "Audiences may have abandoned the genre, but I never expected this particular filmmaker, who benefitted so much from our expertise, to be even more fickle than those audiences."

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8 Comments

  • diane310 | July 17, 2008 8:04 AMReply

    I have dealt with ThinkFilm in the past on several occasions. Mark Urman is a crook and a conman. He is also a bold-faced liar. I have no doubt that they botched the release of Mr. Gibney's film. Shame on Mark Urman!

  • pacony | June 25, 2008 5:11 AMReply

    The theatrical distribution model for docs is a dead end, those standard "indie" distributors are floundering (Picture House, ThinkFilm - who's next?). Come to New Day Films, the only filmmaker-owned coop distribution company for the, and take control of your distribution: http://www.newday.com

  • isold | June 24, 2008 12:53 PMReply

    I would also be extremely frustrated if I had spent years working on documentary and by the time it finally released, the f**cking website for it is down !! That is just simply ridiculous. And to have trouble ordering prints due to debt of the distributor, is just unacceptable. I don´t care how much ThinkFilm has done (supposedly) for documentaries, it is just not OK to take an Oscar-Winning film and f*ck up the release in such a way.

  • seafar | June 24, 2008 10:13 AMReply

    Audiences haven't "abandoned the genre." They're abandoning a system of exhibition and distribution that is experiencing rapid obsolescence. And, just to be geeky....documentary isn't, technically, a "genre." Its a form.

  • seafar | June 24, 2008 10:11 AMReply

    Audiences haven't "abandoned the genre." They're abandoning a system of exhibition and distribution that is experiencing rapid obsolescence. And, just to be geeky....documentary isn't, technically, a "genre." Its a form.

  • seafar | June 24, 2008 10:03 AMReply

    Audiences haven't "abandoned the genre," they've abandoned a system of exhibition and distribution (and production) that is experiencing rapid obsolescence.

  • documentarydiva | June 24, 2008 6:11 AMReply

    Always many sides to the story of distributor/filmmaker relationship. Alex made a great film of a kind very hard to show in theatres. THINK undoubtedly spent enormous amounts of money promoting the film for an OSCAR nomination, but no amount of PR and campaigning can win that honor. The AMPAS system works unto itself in the documentary category, and advertising and promotion for the nomination is not terribly important, especially once a film qualifies. My sense, as an outsider to this, is that both parties probably tried to do their best to promote and to make money for the film and for their companies. Making that happen for 99% of documentaries is almost impossible, and the ill-will created by that reality over the decades can fill volumes. What strikes me as so very sad is that one of the US' best documentary filmmakers and one of the few companies willing to take on documentaries are at loggerheads in such a public and destructive fashion. The lawyers win.

  • goldfish | June 23, 2008 7:40 AMReply

    I mean geez guys. This is like the umpteenth article going after think and its problems. Do you really need to keep kicking them while they are down? They got screwed by Bergstein I think everybody knows that. Furthermore I have to agree with Urman's statements about the support they gave Taxi. I mean it