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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.