A quick glance at the box office numbers for documentaries released this year shows Michael Moore's "Sicko" as the top doc, but at $24.5 million, the take is significantly lower than recent hits "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "March of the Penguins" at $120 million and $77 million. You have to scroll pretty far down Box Office Mojo's top 100 list of docs to find the next 2007 entry, "No End in Sight," Charles Ferguson's critical debut about U.S. policy around the Iraq war, at $1.4 million in the #55 slot. Says veteran doc maker Doug Block, producer of this year's Berlinale Teddy winner "A Walk Into the Sea," "As far as feature docs are concerned, all signs are pointing to it being a very grim time for theatrical distribution."
One example is Amir Bar-Lev's "My Kid Could Paint That," an exploration into the world of abstract art through the story of a four-year old painting prodigy, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It was acquired at the fest by Sony Pictures Classics for $2 million. Called by critic Stu VanAirsdale "a brilliantly paced mystery tale" and "one of the best documentaries of the year" by Richard Roeper, the film had a lot of industry buzz going into the festival, owing to its early television deal with A&E Indie Films. Despite the film's nearly universally positive reviews, the box office at year-end hovers around $200,000 - well below expectations indicated by the Sundance buzz.
"Into Great Silence" by Philip Groening, a nearly three-hour meditation on the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, on the other side of the coin, seems an unlikely box office hit, but this year, at $800,000, it is one of the top grossing docs. Released by Zeitgeist, Nancy Gerstman, co-president of the company, said, "Zeitgeist's model has always been to give our films the widest theatrical release possible, and that means working very hard to make our films appealing to exhibitors by delivering audiences." She goes on to say that niche marketing is the backbone of finding and delivering the audience; a sentiment echoed nearly unanimously this year.
Two documentaries were nominated for Gotham Awards in the "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You," "Mississippi Chicken" by John Fiege and "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa" by Randy Stulberg and Jeremy Stulberg. "Off the Grid" premiered originally at Slamdance in January and "Mississippi Chicken" premiered in March at the Miami International Film Festival and both are, nearly a year later, in the process of inking deals. Fiege reports that they are in negotiations for release of the film but haven't yet finalized a deal to report.
Both teams credit steady festival exposure over the year eventually leading to finding homes for their films. For Fiege and producer Victor Moyers, the Gotham Awards experience helped connect them to New York executives, "New York is its own world, with films being produced specifically to exist in the New York marketplace, and IFP has created the perfect event [the Gothams] for facilitating introductions to that world," said Moyers, whose company, Reversal Films, has offices in Austin and New York.
Stulberg relates a slightly bumpier road for "Off the Grid." He said, "The turning point for us came when Silverdocs listed the film as one of the 'green' films at the festival." Because distributors couldn't identify a marketing angle for the film, they went back in and added five additional minutes of footage that explored the "environmental aspect of living off the grid." This provided enough of a marketing hook for the film to be picked up by Sundance Channel for "The Green," the channel's environmental programming strand. Details on a DVD deal with a small theatrical run for the film are forthcoming.
Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment, a producer's representative who specializes in feature documentary, said, "It's been kind of a bad year for docs, not by virtue of quality but by virtue of expectations." He sees the theatrical marketplace moving toward issue-driven, informational films like "No End in Sight" and away from the "quirky, character-driven fare" of a few years back. He also notes that video-on-demand, DVD and television remain healthy markets for documentary.
Block, a prolific blogger and Internet marketer for his work, notes, "The Internet isn't the great panacea, yet that doesn't mean that all roads aren't leading there. It's still a great option for selling your DVDs, especially if you have a niche or special interest subject..." Gerstman goes on, "Each year becomes both more challenging and more exciting: more challenging because so many more films are entering the marketplace; more exciting because new markets are emerging, slowly." She shared that "Into Great Silence" has sold an impressive 30,000 DVDs to date. "I don't believe that DVD is going to disappear as quickly as some people predict and the sales on our DVDs are very robust right now."
The end of the year brings a new year. A new slate of world premieres at the Sundance Film Festival. Braun brings three films to the Documentary Competition, "Flow: For Love of Water" by Irena Salina, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" by Marina Zenovich, and "Secrecy" by Peter Galison and Rob Moss. "The biggest message I would send is everything is cyclical and just when things start to seem like they're bad, something good happens. I don't think filmmakers should amend their goals, dreams, interests to fit the marketplace but be cognizant of the current marketplace."