Back to IndieWire

INTERVIEW: Doc-making “On the Ropes” with Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: Part II, In a Theater

INTERVIEW: Doc-making "On the Ropes" with Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: Part II, In a Theater

INTERVIEW: Doc-making "On the Ropes" with Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: Part II, In a Theater Near You?

by Anthony Kaufman

[Read part I of our conversation with Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein at]

A Special Jury Award winner at Sundance ’99, “On the Ropes,” Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s documentary about three struggling young boxers and their dedicated trainer, is case and point for the challenges and choices in making and releasing non-fiction work in today’s market. Burstein and Morgen met while graduate students at NYU’s film department and decided to embark on a documentary project that would feel as dramatic and plot-driven as any narrative feature. Shot mostly on a Beta SP camera borrowed from NYU, the filmmakers followed their subjects for around 2 years, gaining access to their most intimate moments in and outside the ring. The result is emotional, heartfelt and a big hit with the critics, who have given the movie the necessary quotes it needs to pull in those doc-weary audiences, from Details (“The indie knockout of the year”) to GQ (“absorbing, crisp, fascinating”) to Mr. Ebert himself (“Heartbreaking”).

In this two-part interview coinciding with the film’s release by WinStar Films, Burstein, an experienced editor, and Morgen, director of the prize-winning Oliver North documentary, “Ollie’s Army,” outline some of the issues that face today’s documentary filmmakers. In Part 2, the co-directors offer a detailed account of their struggle for theatrical distribution, from their unique deal negotiations with WinStar Films and the Catch 22’s of selling off ancillary rights in order to finance the film.

indieWIRE: I remember before Sundance hearing that Fox Lorber (now WinStar) picked up your film and then there was this question of some deal where another distributor could come in and give you a better deal. How did that work?

Brett Morgen: When Fox Lorber wanted to buy our film, they were going to give us enough money to finish the film, but they wanted all rights. And we said, “Look, for the money you’re giving us, you can be our foreign sales agent.” It was over $100,000. And we said that’s an advance against foreign sales. But we wanted a theatrical release in the U.S. And this was before we edited the film and we didn’t know what we had. It was really important that we have a theatrical release, but at the same time, we didn’t want to destroy the possibility that we could go elsewhere with it. If we didn’t create an out clause for ourselves, then we would have sold everything for 100 grand, that’s it.

Nanette Burstein: They really wanted all rights, but we were not prepared to give up theatrical [rights]. So they guaranteed theatrical, but they had a list of companies on the contract who could buy them out at a certain price, it was that specific.

Morgen: Here’s how good the deal was: Fox Lorber would have to match any offer that came in to keep the film. In essence, they didn’t own U.S. theatrical. However, at a certain point, I think the number was 150 [thousand], then they had no leverage, they had to give the film up. It’s definitely a scenario that any filmmaker would want to buy in. You get everything. How many filmmakers could go to Sundance, with guaranteed theatrical release, and also be able to go there and sell your film.

Burstein: Problem is, selling to a bigger distributor is so hard, because if you’ve already given away foreign and television, not only do they have to pay a certain amount for your film, but then they have to spend all that money on advertising and promotion. And if they don’t own those other rights, they’re never going to make their money back.

iW: To clarify, in your deal, the new company coming in would also get video, right?

Morgen: They would, but the consensus from the acquisitions people we spoke to, was: let’s say they bought the film for 150-200,000, it’s going to cost them 500,000 to put it out, ultimately, no matter how you look at it. Which means it’s going to have to gross more than a million, and without television to offset some of those costs…

Burstein: The thing is, when they promote the theatrical, they’re also helping the television sale and the foreign.

iW: That’s always the Catch-22 when you start giving away those rights.

Burstein: But the thing is, how else are you going to make it?

iW: You needed that money to finish the film?

Burstein: But we could have done it without it. We had every conceivable offer on the table for the financing of this film. We had a quarter million dollar ITVS grant that we turned down for various reasons, we had private investors wanting to give us enough money to finish the film, we had TLC [The Learning Channel] wanting to come in, we had Fox Lorber wanting to come in. And the one thing that was most important to us was that we had creative control of the project. That was first and foremost, 100% creative control, and that there was a theatrical window. ITVS would not commit to a theatrical window and we would have to turn in a 60-minute version. A couple of investors who we didn’t trust wanted creative control.

Burstein: They come out of the woodwork. All these crazy Wall Street people who now own a film company giving you money. It’s good when you have a lot of situations, but I can see people being easily taken advantage of.

Morgen: Fox Lorber had no creative input on the project. Contractually, they had no creative input, which I think was a blessing. At our first screening, a few people didn’t like the film that much. But at the end of the day, Nanette and I were able to raise all the money to make the film, own the copyright on it, have 100% creative control, and get it out there. Problem is, our deal with Fox Lorber is such that we’ll probably never see any money from the film. I’m trying to wrestle right now with how you make a documentary, you get it to Sundance, you get theatrical, it’s coming out on home video, you’ve sold television, you’re selling all your foreign markets, and we’re still in the hole. We’re not making a dollar for two years or three years worth of work. So I’m trying to figure out what could we have done differently? We sold everything we could. What else could we have done? We knew that it was important more for our careers to get the film out there than it was to try to make a lot of money.

Burstein: I think given that we hadn’t made a really successful film before — and I hadn’t made a film period — that you’re not leveraging much. You’re basically asking for the bottom rate, even if they really like the film. It’s not like your’re Barbara Koppell and you can insist on a certain amount of money.

iW: So the end of the story is that another distributor never came in and the film is coming out theatrically this week via Fox Lorber.

Morgen: We came as close as you can, in many respects. There’s a lot of bullshit, but I know it went pretty far in a lot of companies. We had a lot of champions. What happened was a lot of creative executives saw the film, loved the film, tried to champion the film without thinking of the dollars involved and ultimately whoever does the bottom line said, “No.” They all said, we love the film, but we’re not going to make a dollar on it. Which is true. You can’t argue. When I saw the scenario that they’d have to make 800,000 to break even without television revenue, it was foolish. The one thing we would do differently in the future is we will not sell television, if we’re making a film that we think has theatrical potential.

Burstein: And try to get all private investors.

iW: Just two more questions. Nanette, how’s your boxing career?

Burstein: I started going again after Sundance and then I stopped a few weeks ago because I’m broke and I can’t afford to pay the gym fees. I’m going to start again when we sell our next project. But it’s great. I really love doing it. I would spar and work out all the time. It gets out all my aggressions. Three years, on and off. Depending on my financial situation and my schedule.

iW: Also, I heard you two used to be a couple?

Burstein: That’s why I started boxing. To put him in his place.

Morgen: We broke up before we started editing, right around IFFM ’97.

iW: Will you guys work again?

Morgen: We’re partners for the next 5 years. We’re leaving independent film, we’re going into television.

Burstein: We want to do a series for the networks.

Morgen: We want to bring docu-soaps for the networks. Primetime, ABC, Fox, the series we’re developing now is called “American High.” It’s like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as a documentary series. You have the geek, the jock [and] the cheerleader, [and you] follow them over the course of the year. Unlike “The Real World,” there’ll be no talking head interviews, no Dutch angles. Sort of like “On the Ropes,” shot to look like a dramatic narrative with score, and rock music. It will take place in a small town in Texas, it feels like “American Graffiti” frozen in time.

iW: So are you stuck together forever?

Morgen: Like a two-headed monster. We’re signed together at Endeavor. If we went out to separate agents, what are they going to be sending out? They’re going to be sending out “On the Ropes,” so who gets the gig? It’s the same reel. And then we figured the first one who got a job is off and running. Because you get one, you get another, etc. The hard part is getting that first job. So whoever got left behind would hate the other person and that would be the end of our partnership.

iW: Well, it’s nice to know that you care enough about each other to make that not happen.

Morgen: If someone offered me a job, I’d take it.

Burstein: Me too.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged