The Deal on Doc-Distribution: A Candid Conversation with
Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus of Sundance Winner, "The Farm"
by Anthony Kaufman
They won Sundance. They won San Francisco. They won Santa Barbara.
They won DoubleTake. Jonathon Stack and Liz Garbus received major
awards at each of these festivals for their even-handed and
inspirational look at the inmates of Louisiana’s Angola prison aka “The
Farm.” But rather than find themselves with the backing of a major or
even minor distributor, Stack and Garbus decided to go on their own with
self-distribution. After landing at New York City’s Film Forum for a
two week run beginning today, the doc team will take the film not to
indie exhibition houses across the country, but schools, prisons, and
other specific target audiences. Their decision to take this path is
not a simple one and the complexities involved with video, television
and theatrical rights would make any filmmaker’s head spin.
Stack and Garbus spoke to indieWIRE about the intricacies of
distributing docs, specifically the Catch-22’s that many doc-makers find
themselves trapped in. Between possessive front-end broadcasters,
video-hungry theatrical distributors and Academy Award eligibility, the
work of these filmmakers has only just begun.
indieWIRE: Tell me about the self-distribution odyssey that you’ve now
embarked on. I hope that you can speak frankly about the choices and
decisions you’ve made?
Jonathon Stack: You have to look at the marketplace for documentaries
and understand the way they are funded, and the way they need to be
handled and rolled out. You’re going to a place like Sundance and it’s
very different for a feature film, it’s like your birthplace. For a
documentary, it’s more like a culmination, in the sense that it’s the
highest recommendation you’ll get.
A good many of the films that were there this year have already had
distribution in some way via their funding. Because the nature of the
way documentary gets funded is through distribution. There were some
independent filmmakers, but the reality is — if you’re a producer and
you’re in the business of surviving and earning a living making
documentaries — just to put it in crude mathematical numbers here — if
I go to the Discovery Channel with an idea and I look them in the eye
and I sound inspired — in theory, for the worldwide rights, I could get
$300,000. But if I go there and I’ve got the film shot in the can and I
say I got this thing, would you be interested in looking at the
footage? Maybe I’d get a $120,000. Let’s just say I finished the film
and I go there with a finished product and I just want to license the
rights. Maybe I’ll get $50,000.
Liz Garbus: Like at the end of Sundance. . . If you’re one of those
successful Sundance films and you don’t have a distribution deal, you’re
big hope is to sell to Cinemax or P.O.V. — you’re getting around a
$100,000 for that. Whereas if you sell to HBO on the front end, there
budgets range from $500,000 – $800,000.
Stack: So what happens is. . . your final place for a documentary,
ultimately, of any significant money, is television. In between that is
a theatrical release, of whatever level you can get if you’re lucky. So
we’re in a position where we went to Sundance, won the award, everything
should be telling you — if a documentary film should make a theatrical
release, this should be one of those that can do it, that can break
through. You’d think so, right? . . . The truth was that a lot of
people were interested. Everybody called to see the film. We were like
flavor of the month.
iW: And this was people from as big as . . .
Stack and Garbus: Miramax.
Garbus: Stratosphere, 7th Art and everybody in between. Fox Lorber,
October. . .
Stack: Everybody saw it and everybody liked it. But you know what the
bottom line was — if they ever looked into it, if we had actually got
into the nitty gritty of what compromised rights I had already to deal
with in terms of having presold territories and markets, they never
would have put any money into a theatrical release, because — I learned
the word while I was in this process called — cross-collateralization,
which means they’re going to invest in a theatrical run with an
understand that the recoupment possibilties for a documentary in the
theatrical market is small, but what they’re hoping to do is raise the
value for the TV market and raise the value for the home video rates, so
it has something that has real legs. So what happens is, why would
anybody put money into the theatrical release of a film, to raise the
value for something that they don’t own?
Garbus: It came down to the home video deal essentially — that was
basically what was standing between us and going with a distributor.
Stack: They probably would have been okay with just broadcast, but you
have to keep in mind, all the TV rights were sold already and that’s a
big chunk of money.
Garbus: That’s a big chunk of money, however, everybody knew that going
in. And A & E was working with us very favorably — they were holding
off the broadcast.
iW: And that’s who had rights, who helped finance the film initially?
Garbus: Yes. They came in right at the beginning and they had broadcast
and they also had non-exclusive home video. But in the end, their home
video distribution arm is a very powerful, effective arm. And for any
theatrical distributor to compete with A & E over video was just
suicidal. So what’s their financial gain there? Is it theatrical?
Come on, let’s get serious. You get great reviews. Variety says, “Hoop
Dreams” blah, blah, blah, but they’re still not making money. So
they’re going to make money in home video. And so, from the beginning,
the deal we had made with A & E precluded theatrical distribution,
because it was a documentary.
Stack: There is a learning curve in all this. We’ve been doing this for
awhile, but things keep changing. I had gotten the non-exclusive
rights, which turned out to be fortunate in many ways, because they
wanted all video rights. So we held back on something — we said, if
you can do it, we can do it.
Garbus: Thinking we might want educational rights.
Stack: Whatever. For political reasons, more than any kind of great
financial thing. It was kind of interesting, because a lot of times
they’re really not going to do very much with video. In this case,
having won at Sundance, A & E all of sudden had more interest in the
video rights, because it was now something that they did care to hold on
to. And they put in extra money, paid for a print and they helped with
things that they normally wouldn’t do. And so we had those rights, and
as we tried to get things going [with distributors], getting past that
first level of interest to clinching a deal, little by little we sort of
realized that’s not necessarily going to happen and that’s okay. Now
how are we going to do something else. We had several goals in mind.
One, let’s do what we got to do to make it Academy elligible. . .
iW: What do you have to do?
Garbus: To play at a theater in NY county or LA county for two
consecutive weeks prior to broadcast. We did it.
Stack: It’s one thing to be eligble, it’s another thing to be
nominated. So, clearly, being eligble is not enough. So we had to
come up with a strategy and the strategy works on multiple levels. One
is, we have to, at least, be in NY or LA and we’re going to need to be
at a significant place and gratefully, Film Forum accepts the film,
takes it. They’re a beautiful platform for independent documentary
filmmaking. Let’s be honest — probably the only one of any
significance in New York, maybe in all of America.
Garbus: And extremely savvy about promoting the film. They’re just
Stack: We really don’t have the money to get it for two days in the
Music Box in Chicago where you have to invest money in buying ads, and
this and that. So, not really being distributors in that way, and
having limited resources, we made a decision. Let’s pull whatever
resources we have, let’s focus on areas where distributors wouldn’t
normally go. I believe that ultimately if we’ve covered our bases in
reaching the LA and NY audiences, which you need to reach, and then the
rest of it, is what kind of media gaze do you get? Build up attention,
so it has a greater possibility of an Academy nomination. Let’s go an
alternative route — we’re out there deeply committed to getting our
film to the places where they don’t normally get, and build a bigger
audience that way.
So we went out to a place called the Puffin Foundation, a progressive
foundation in New Jersey, and the guy saw the film and impressed by it
and asked, “What can I do?” And I said, you know, “it’s so labor
intensive” to do this grassroots distribution. “Can you just give us a
fulltime staff person, just to do the calls, to do the mailings, to keep
on top of it?” You make a film, you care deeply about it, but you’re
broke. You can’t give it as much attention as you want. You can’t even
answer every letter that people write. And it’s really nice, now I have
somebody who makes sure those little things. . . having this person in
place, we’re starting to create these little grassroots endeavors. Now
having put this piece together and finding grassrooots sorts of places
so that it can happen in, it can be church groups, it can be schools, it
can be departments of educations or it can go big or it can go very
small with individuals who are involved with prison issues. Then I
think, you put these two pieces together, person working, go find some
corporate sponsorship, go find some individual organizations. . .
iW: How has seeking corporate sponsorship for this second stage been
Stack: Part of doing grassroots work in some ways is you plant seeds. I
see this career and this work, the political part of it, it’s a long
term thing. So I can’t tell you and I don’t necessarily care, that if I
go into the door and they speak to me, and they say, “this isn’t quite
right for us” — I don’t walk away disappointed, because I believe we’re
building relationships two, three, four projects down the road, so I
have no negative feelings. So if you ask me how it’s going, I think
it’s going great.
I’m keeping it focused to a few real things. For obvious reasons, it
seems to me that the energy is being really focused on Lousiana,
obviously, the film is from Louisiana, and that’s meant that there’s
just been an unbelievably positive response to the film there. But more
than positive, an important response, a pro-active response, and because
of that, I’ve realized that’s where our work needs to be focused.
That’s where we need to put our energies. So now I’m thinking, focus on
Louisiana, get it into every high school in Lousiana, and insure that
there’s a viewing when it airs on September 8th and 9th and that it will
really spark something in that State where we’ve planted enough seeds.