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Doc Distribution: Six Case Studies On What’s Working

Doc Distribution: Six Case Studies On What's Working

Earlier this week at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival six distribution experts came together to discuss what’s working in this morphing world of doc distribution: Scilla Anderson, CEO and Co-Founder of IndieFlix; Matt Dentler, head of programming at Cinetic Rights Management; Peter Jager, Managaing Director of AUTLOOK Filmsales GmbH; Aida LiPera, Manger of Acquisitions and Film Festivals for Visit Films; Andrew Mer, VP of Content Partnerships for SnagFilms; and Robin Smith, President of KinoSmith.

Each presented a “case study” of a film that they were involved with that successfully achieved distribution. The idea of success – and the manner in which it was achieved – ranged substantially from film to film.indieWIRE was taking notes at the panel – moderated Sandra Whipham of London Fields Pictures – and here’s a rundown of each case:

Case One: “BANANAS!*”

Film: Fredrik Gertten’s film details lawyer Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez, who on behalf of twelve Nicaraguan banana workers takes on Dole Food in a ground-breaking legal battle for their use of a banned pesticide that was known by the company to cause sterility.

Distributor: Jager described AUTLOOK as a “classic sales company” that is full-service in that they do TV sales, whole rights deals, and festivals. AUTLOOK focuses soley on documentaries, and take on about 20 per year.

The Deal: Jager said that initially they told the film’s producers that it was not meant for theatrical release. “It had great festival focus, and great TV focus, and we’ll see what about VOD,” Jager recalled saying. But then controversy ignited. Dole threatened the LA Film Festival and sued the filmmaker upon the film’s world premiere at the 2009 edition of the fest. This attention made Jager rethink his strategy, and he started thinking theatrical.

“With this controversy,” Jager explained, “I had to check things out with theatrical and whole rights distributors.”

Jager also saw major film festivals take interest in the film, such as Berlin and IDFA, which helped spark interest from distributors. Deals are still ongoing, but AUTLOOK has sold the film to Oscilloscope in US, as well as Canada, the UK and numerous other territories.

Case Two: “Collapse”

Film: Directed by Chris Smith, the film explores the theories, writings and life story of controversial author Michael Ruppert. Smith interviewed him over the course of fourteen hours in an interrogation like setting in an abandoned warehouse basement meat locker near downtown Los Angeles, which was narrowed into the 82 minute film.

Distributor: Film Buff, which Dentler calls “the consumer branding for Cinetic Rights Management,” is a digital/VOD distribution company that releases primarily feature length films. It’s a sister company to Cinetic Rights Media.

The Deal: “Going into [last year’s] TIFF we already thought that maybe we should do something unconventional with this film,” Dentler said. “And Chris knew this was not your typical commercial documentary. He knew we had to do something unique.”

The film premiered at TIFF to considerable acclaim, and by November, the director had hired David Schultz in the US and worked with KinoSmith’s Robin Smith in Canada to release the film theatrically. Meanwhile, Cinetic Rights Management ended up acquiring the film for digital distribution itself and decided to release day-and-date on VOD to maximize publicity.

“At the end of the day, it’s a small documentary that a lot of big exhibitors have no interest whatsoever in taking,” Dentler said. “So if we can get the right press and right critics behind it, and make sure people know that it’s available on their cable systems around North America at the same time, then hopefully we can get more eyeballs to the screen.”

After the VOD and theatrical window ended, they sold the film to a broadcaster, and managed a DVD output deal through a company they discovered called MPI. But because it was an output deal, they were able to retain the digital rights. So even though the DVD isn’t set for release until June, they made the film exclusively available on iTunes in March to combat illegal downloads.

“The fact that we were able to slice up all these revenue streams and take control of these rights,” Dentler said, “was really important and that’s what I urge documentary filmmakers to think about.”

Case Three: “The Least of These”

Film: Clark and Jesse Lyda’s doc sheds light on the Hutto Detention Facility in Taylor, TX where asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and their young children are being detained.

Distributor: SnagFilms – an online distribution company for docs (that just happens to additionally own indieWIRE). Launched in July 2008, they now have 1,350 titles from what Mer described as a wide array of partners, from broadcasters to individual filmmakers to distributors.

The Deal: The film came to Snag from a liaison at the American Civil Liberties Union, and they immediately were interested in helping the issues it presented get out into the public.

“The issue with these detention centers – especially this center in Texas – was that when people dug beneath the surface, these places were basically prisons,” Mer said.

There was a lawsuit related to the issue with a congressional oversight, giving Snag a finite amount of time to help keep the issue in front of congress and “have a call for action from the public and especially lawmakers.”

“A way to really get that out into the landscape was online,” Mer said. So they arranged to have the film co-world premiere on Snag Films and at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival. The film has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, and hundreds of organizations circulated it to their members and embedded the film widget on their own sites. Within five months of the film’s release on SnagFilms, the Obama Administration completely revised national family detention policies and closed the Hutto facility. The New York Times front page story on these actions credited The Least of These for having publicized the issue.

“It goes to the heart of what we do at SnagFilms,” Mer said. “Which is to use the power of film to affect social change and galvinize opinion and encourage exchanged ideas.”

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A scene form “Up The Yangtze.”

Case Four: “Up The Yangtze”

Film: Directed by Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang, the film focuses on people affected by the building of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze river in Hubei, China.

Distributor: Kinosmith, a full-service Canadian distributor which does traditional distribution deals, service deals, and marketing consultation. Smith said the company is also “triggering projects at the development/treatment stage and taking them all the way through production and distribution.”

The Deal: Smith had just left his job at another company and was contemplating starting his own when the “Yangtze” filmmakers came to him and showed him the film.

“I fell in love with the movie immediately and was shocked and horrified that every distributor had turned it down,” Smith said. “To their credit, though – and I can’t believe I’m defending my competitors – is that part of the problem with feature length documentaries in Canada is usually a broadcaster has to come on board early and as a result the broadcast rights disappear.”

Since traditionally in Canada broadcast sales generate 50-60% of the revenue, this posed a problem. But Smith felt the film was so theatrical that he took it on. He sat down with the filmmakers and they formed a partnership wherein Smith did not in essence acquire the rights, but was hired to get the film out into the marketplace. They got some funding from Canadian arts organizations, put in some of their own money, and started the film out in Toronto, then Montreal, and then Vancouver. As a result of the “enormous business” they found in those cites, they decided to spend more money and roll the film out further. In the end, the film grossed over $650,000 in Canada – the third highest grossing doc in the country’s history.

“It was a really refreshing scenario where there was multiple partners with multiple different assets and interests in the film,” Smith said. “It seemed, for once, everyone was working for the same cause.”

Case Five: “Inside Iraq: The Inside Stories”

Film: Filmmaker Mike Shiley makes a press pass at Kinkos, rents a bulletproof vest and cashes in airline miles to fly to Iraq to make a film about what really goes on there.

Distributor: IndieFlix is a multi-platform, independent film distribution company. They deliver DVD and pay-per-view stream from their website, as well bringing their content to third partner platforms. Anderson said they believe filmmakers should keep their rights and that they work very closely with them.

The Deal: Shiley decided to take the film out on his own, going to small towns and sharing his story and the film – which often resulted in the film being carried over.

This began in 2006, and Shiley would sell DVDs in the lobby. He teamed with IndieFlix to get the DVDs delivered and to get the film available online. The result? After four years of intensely hard work on Shiley and IndieFlix’s ends, the film has cleared $1.2 million.

“He made getting this film out there his full-time job,” Anderson said. “He’s out there in every small town. He especially likes islands where they only have one theater. And he’ll also do community screenings… It does take a lot of work but if you’re willing to do that, you can actually monetize it, market it and get people to see it.”

Case Six: “Picture Me: A Model’s Diary”

Film: Ole Schell presents a visual diary of his partner Sara Ziff’s rise to international acclaim as a model. The film exposes the modelling industry’s culture of sleaze, exploitation and sexual abuse.

Distributor: Visit Films is a sales agent with about 40 films on their slate, including four or five documentaries that they carefully select. LiPera said all their films are “modestly produced and independent.”

The Deal: The film premiered at the GenArt Film Festival in New York last year, and the festival’s director suggested Visit Films check it out.

“Films like ‘Valentino’ and ‘The September Issue,’ that deal with fashion, were really big hits,” LiPera said. “We thought, okay, this is something that could work. So we got on board to do international sales for the film.”

One tactic Visit used to sell the film was getting on board with a design company in London to make a really eye-catching poster that they used to try and sell the film.

“A lot of times, a lot of distributors in certain territories are not buying the film necessarily based on the film,” LiPera said. “They’re buying it based on the idea.”

They then brought the film to selected markets like Toronto, EFM and MIP, being careful not to waste money or time on markets that didn’t suit it. It went on to sell in many major territories like the UK (to Channel 4), which helped bring exposure that got a lot of smaller territories to take interest as well.

Peter Knegt is indieWIRE’s Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

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