FESTIVALS: Shooting and Releasing Docs at SXSW
by Shelley Gabert
(indieWIRE/ 03.15.01) — While documentaries have never gone away, mass audiences have often ignored them. But that wasn’t the case at the recently concluded South By Southwest Film Festival.
Always a rich outlet for documentary filmmakers and buyers, this year’s SXSW Film Festival offered 10 documentaries in competition, including “Pedal,” focusing on bike messengers in New York City, another called “Karaoke Fever,” and 17 regional or US premieres. The festival also featured a Penelope Spheeris Retrospective, including screenings of “The Decline of Western Civilization I-III” and “We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll.”
In addition to the strong showing of films, the four-day SXSW Film Conference featured many panels on documentary filmmaking chaired by often award winning heavyweight documentary filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, Alan Berliner, Chuck Workman, Penelope Spheeris and Chris Smith.
“There is a documentary explosion going on right now,” said Ron Mann, director of “Grass,” which screened at last year’s SXSW Film Festival. “It’s fueled by the DV revolution and it’s happening on an international scale.”
On Sunday, Mann, along with Pennebaker, Berliner and Workman chaired a panel on Shooting Documentaries. Both Pennebaker and Berliner had documentaries screening at SXSW, “Down from the Mountain” and “The Sweetest Sound,” respectively, and Workman’s “A House On A Hill” was part of the narrative features competition.
“Something we used to tell people quietly out of the corner of our mouth, is now a career for many people,” said Pennebaker, who shot, directed and edited classics docs such as “Don’t Look Back” and “The War Room.” He, along with Workman, who won an Academy Award for his short film, “Precious Images,” and also directed “The Source,” came from a time when being a documentary filmmaker didn’t necessarily carry a lot of prestige, and certainly wasn’t part of most college syllabuses.
“I was shocked to learn that in several graduate schools across the country, they spend entire semesters on just coming up with the idea for a documentary,” said Berliner, who received his MFA in Art and then went on to make “Nobody’s Business,” “Intimate Stranger” and “The Family Album.” “These schools are teaching students what makes a good idea, whether it’s sellable, worthy, sexy. In a way that’s audacious, but it’s also troubling,” Berliner said.
But perhaps that focus on commercial appeal is due to the bleak reality that most documentaries don’t find distribution, either theatrically or on television or cable outlets. Mann noted that there were 400 documentaries that weren’t part of the program at this year’s Amsterdam Film Festival, meaning they didn’t have a distributor.
“They don’t teach distribution in film school,” said Udy Epstein, president of Seventh Art Releasing in Los Angeles.
Immediately following the panel on shooting documentaries, Epstein along with Greg Rhem, original programming manager for HBO; David Koh, head of acquisitions and production for Palm Pictures and sputnik7.com; Elizabeth Peters, director of AIVF, a national association providing support for independent producers; and Karen Bernstein, head of a documentary company in Austin and formerly a producer for the PBS series “American Masters,” offered a crash course in distribution. “I fear this will be a panel of negativity,” said Bernstein.
They all agreed that finding distribution is harder than ever, certainly for those documentaries gaining a theatrical release. “Grass,” along with “American Pimp,” “The Ballad of Rambling Jack” and others screened last year at SXSW were released theatrically last year, but they were the exception, not the norm.
“Even the Hughes Brothers‘ ‘American Pimp’ didn’t sustain a theatrical release on its own. And this was made by critically acclaimed filmmakers with a track record,” Epstein said.
“It’s a matter of being realistic and adult. We get approximately 1,500 submissions a year and out of those we take on five to 10, that’s less than one-half percent. Most documentaries, even after DVD, video, Internet will not bring back the money it costs to make them,” Epstein said.
For Peters, distribution is often an issue that many documentary filmmakers leave until the end, after they have shot the documentary. “Documentary filmmakers need to think of the end at the beginning,” she said. “There’s an audience for any film, but not always a market.”
Sometimes to create a market, filmmakers must utilize grassroots community outreach methods to get the word out. Screenings at art museums or other local venues in conjunction with fundraisers or local organizational tie-ins are all ways that filmmakers can create that buzz. “But you must milk out all of these options,” Peters said.
“And she means by hand, there is no machine for that,” Epstein added. “The filmmaker must have a goal, do they want their documentary to be on TV, win an Academy Award or go the festival circuit,” he said.
Rhem doesn’t believe that all docs need to be released theatrically. HBO has several outlets for documentaries, including the “American Undercover” series and the “Reel Life” series on Cinemax. In some cases, a documentary that has been released theatrically helps create buzz, but in other cases, it takes away from the reviews and write-ups for the premiere, according to the cable rep. Film festivals certainly are one route for many filmmakers to create buzz for their film, but filmmakers must be aware that participation in festivals can also hurt their chances with some distribution outlets.
“Where you would think all publicity is good publicity, that’s not the case with PBS. All publicity that surrounds their program premiere is good publicity, where film festivals are often viewed as a threat to building an audience,” Bernstein said
“Sometimes it’s the worst thing you can do to be in a film festival,” said Epstein. “Once it’s over, you’ve got the Monday morning blues, and you still don’t have a distributor. Film festivals can be fun and they can be very productive, but you need to consider your end goal. Is it to have free drinks and snacks at 5:00 p.m. or to sell your film?”
The entire panelist urged attendees to develop relationships with a distributor early on in their project. Even though much of the work for HBO and PBS is produced in-house by filmmakers who they have developed longstanding relationships with, they are always on the lookout for the next big thing. Submitting to them means doing your homework about the particular network or venue, finding the right contact person and making sure the technical elements are in place.
“It’s rare for HBO to give out funds from the beginning. Generally, they will see a completed or almost completed work and provide completion funding,” Rhem said.
And counter to many filmmaker’s understanding, PBS funds only approximately 19 percent of a project, with the rest coming from other sources. “I spent a lot of my time developing relationships with foreign distributors and catering to them,” Bernstein said.
“Finding a partner in the United Kingdom, France or Germany will make your project much more attractive to a U.S. distributor,” said Koh.
Trailers generally don’t work well as a selling vehicle, according to the panelists, because it doesn’t really show what a filmmaker can do. Most would rather look at a nearly completed documentary, and they urged filmmakers to make a 60-minute version, as well as feature length. They also noted that submissions that include still photography are looked at more favorably.
In the end, they all agreed that good content is what they are looking for. But even if Rhem, who will be seeing many documentaries at SXSW, finds something he wants, he’s booked up until 2003.