"Big Men" should have been one of the year's biggest documentaries.
Directed by Rachel Boynton (whose "Our Brand is Crisis" was a 2005 nonfiction highlight), executive produced by Brad Pitt, and bolstered by strong reviews (Variety called it "a real-life 'Chinatown'"), the film is both an epic and intimate investigation into the fickle and mercenary ways of global capitalism, six years in the making and spanning of two continents and multiple characters. But as ambitious and well-crafted as the film may be, "Big Men" has been cut down to size by a shifting marketplace.
Though more documentaries are being acquired and released by a multitude of new companies, "Big Men" is not the kind of pop-culture-pegged, straightforwardly marketable documentary that's a hot commodity these days. Its complexity is, of course, what makes the film so strong, but ironically, it's the film’s ambiguities that may have made the doc undesirable for buyers.
As Boynton admits, "As a form, 'Big Men' doesn't fit into an easily categorizeable box — it's not morally black and white, and it's not easily described in a single line,” admitted Boynton. "For a bigger distributor, that's a tougher sell."
Indeed, the film crisscrosses back and forth between Texas oil-men, New York venture capitalists, Guinean politicians and Nigerian militants in its chronicle of the competitive, cutthroat world of oil resources. And all of these "big men" end up appearing far more sympathetic and smaller than they first appear.
As "Big Men" executive producer Dan Cogan explained, "There isn't a clear hero or a clear villain, and the stakes are the size of the world. And that’s what makes the film unbelievably interesting."
But after premiering at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, "Big Men" received distribution offers, but none that satisfied Boynton or her producers. Subsequently, the movie's theatrical release — via Richard Abramowitz's Abramorama — is being entirely backed by the producers. Self-distribution is nothing new, of course, but when it's a film of such high caliber and reputation, one wonders what's happened to the "business" of documentaries.
Boynton considers herself lucky that her first film "Our Brand is Crisis" — about U.S. spin-doctors working in Bolivia’s presidential election — was released by Koch Lorber (now Kino Lorber). "I think I underestimated the power of James Carville to draw people’s attention," she said. "If you have a recognizable star in your film — and I'd put James Carville into that category — you’re going to get it seen by a wider audience."
"Big Men" does have Brad Pitt's name attached, which should count for something. Boynton cold-called Dede Gardner, Pitt's partner at Plan B, and submitted a proposal, which the company accepted. "The fact that we have one of the largest movie stars in the world attached to the film is massively helpful in getting people to notice the film," said Boynton, "but it doesn’t mean you can convince the larger distributors that your film is marketable."
The $1 million budget for "Big Men" has also proved to be a hurdle. Boynton is quick to clarify that number. "For a movie that took over six years to make, and took place around the world — the travel budget alone was insane — that's not much,” she said. But because the costs were so high, Boynton had a responsibility to her investors to turn down most of the offers that came in. "The math just didn’t make sense," she added. "It made more sense for us to launch it ourselves with the chance that it would make something, rather then not making anything at all."
Cogan, who is also the executive director of major doc funder Impact Partners, said that it's always been a challenge to make documentaries at that budget level.