A quick read of David Ansen's recent "The End of the Documentary Film Market" over at Newsweek is a good summary of the theatrical marketplace for documentary film as it stands here in mid-summer 2008. Too much content for too few screens, distributors closing their doors and small grosses for the films that do manage openings, with the mind-boggling exception of the Ben Stein anti-Darwin film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" taking in a whopping $7.6 million. Despite the usual filmmaker mantra that their film requires a big screen to properly showcase their story, audiences are deciding with their dollars what movies they want to see in theaters and which they don't.
But the doom and gloom is really for the high dollar runs. Michael Moore will likely always turn out top grosses and there will always be breakout hits that capture some moment of zeitgeist. This year, concert films "U23D" and "Shine a Light" are in top box office slots, at about $8 million and $5 million respectively. Success this year might be reserved for films taking fewer risks by showing on a small number of screens, aiming for runs of varying lengths, minimizing advertising expenditures and finding creative ways to turn out audiences. And according to Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, who had a strong opening weekend with James Marsh's "Man On Wire," "One of the real issues right now is that people are resisting issue-oriented docs."
"Overall the audience for non-Hollywood fare is bigger than ever," boldly states Ken Eisen, president of Shadow Distribution. "People are subject to jumping on and off the ship... Life isn't easy for documentary or foreign films at this time, but the door is still open." Shadow's to-date top success is with "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" (#30 on Box Office Mojo's top 100 grossing docs). On their current slate are Shane King and Arne Johnson's "Girls Rock!," which follows the students of a summer rock camp for girls, and Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson's "A Man Named Pearl," the story of self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar.
When asked how he finds a film's an audience these days, Eisen notes, "The way to succeed without throwing money at advertising is with grassroots outreach." For "A Man Named Pearl," that means connecting to garden clubs, art lovers, and spiritualist communities. "We work hand in hand with theaters on the ground, who may not have dealt with the subject matter, but they can help identify the audience in their city."
From the filmmakers' perspective, Arne Johnson pointed out that when the theater was behind their screenings, they saw a marked difference in turnout. "Seattle's SIFF Cinema put so much into our opening there; they brought me there to do workshops with girls who were filmmakers and had musicians playing before the show. It was our best run." He noted that Shadow Distribution was committed to the film, so even though some major cities didn't go as planned, they will still have had a 90-city tour of the film in its March to August run.
One theater known for its strong programming and packed theaters is Austin, Texas' Alamo Drafthouse. "We liked 'Girls Rock!' in every way. We liked the audience it reached," said Lars Nilsen, the Alamo's film booker. "It was a natural fit for us. If we get excited about a movie, we get behind it and try to really support it." The theater's Music Mondays programming provides a regular slot for documentaries focused on music and musicians, and is often sold out.
Nilsen points to the theater's partnership with Austin filmmaker Laura Dunn for the run of her environmental doc "The Unforeseen," about development around Austin's beloved Barton Springs, as a top example of success with their "affinity-based" promotions. The film had local subject matter and a local filmmaker, in addition to support from Robert Redford and a nonprofit community group, Save Our Springs Alliance, to help reach moviegoers. "That film had lots of advantages and local interest, but it was great to have it and help push it as far we could," said Nilsen.
Alex Gibney's "Gonzo: The Life and Times of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" opened on July 4 and is approaching an enviable $1 million in grosses, a strong take for any doc even in uncertain times. Magnolia's Bowles said, "We've been motivating Hunter fans of all stripes--literary groups, political groups, guns stores! [Thompson] was well-liked by the good 'ol boys, and we let them know the film was coming out." While their release strategy made the most of the assets of the film, like Thompson's profile, Gibney's profile and even stunning Ralph Steadman-designed poster art (the original Gonzo artist), Bowles is quick to point out that succeeding theatrically these days relies heavily on the film's subject and the filmmaker's skill. Films without a strong aesthetic and those that are too news-like are not fitting the theatrical bill.
Richard Lorber, president of Koch Lorber Films, sees semi-theatrical engagements, such as the Alamo's Music Mondays screenings, as bridging traditional commercial theatrical runs and direct-to-video. He pointed to the festival circuit "as a sort of phantom release path to get the word out about documentaries." One of Lorber's newest distribution efforts is Alive Mind Media. The specialty company is distributing films in the areas of enlightened consciousness, secular spirituality, and cultural change. Some of the fest favorites they have picked up for DVD distribution include Jennifer Fox's "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman" and Beth Murphy's "Beyond Belief."
Alive Mind and specialty production house Cactus Three are launching Pola Rapaport and Wolfgang Held's "Hair: Let the Sun Shine In" in a special screening with the National Arts Club and in conjunction with the summer run of the "Hair" revival at NYC's Shakespeare in the Park. The film follows rehearsals for the show's 40th anniversary revival with the original author and co-creator James Rado, along with new and archival material that explores the relevance and longevity of the musical, "Start with the market and curate the documentaries to the audience," says Lorber.
Lorber pointed out that Film Forum in New York started doing Q&A podcasts for films playing the theater that are turning out to be the most popular feature on their website. Theaters like Film Forum, The Alamo, SIFF Cinema and the IFC Center (also in NYC), are actively creating community around their programming and working with small distributors who pitch in helping hands, and it is paying off for docs. "I'm encouraged by filmmakers who come to me with a plan for the release process," added Lorber. "The most successful outcomes have been when the filmmaker comes to the theater, answering questions and helping the audience to connect to the film. A commercial distributor can't be a substitute for that."