Many successful documentaries come with readymade marketing hooks. Consider such shorthand references: the “Roger Ebert” doc; the “Sea World Orca” doc; the “Back-up singers” doc; or even the “Cave paintings” doc. With such easy identifiers, word-of-mouth can spread effortlessly and quickly among friends and across the Internet. But what about nonfiction films whose topic can’t be narrowly defined to a few words?
Jesse Moss’s acclaimed documentary “The Overnighters,” for example, which opens in New York on October 10, is many things: a story of an economic boomtown during the recession; a story of energy and the environment; a story of racial and class divisions in a small community; a story of a pastor wrestling with his faith and his mission.
So what do you call it? The “fracking-laborers-Lutheran-minister” doc? Not so catchy.
“I knew I had an interesting way into this story about what was happening in North Dakota,” said Moss, referring to the film’s setting, which has seen an influx of men looking for work in the area’s burgeoning natural gas industry. “But personally, I had trouble wrestling with the stew of things going on in the film.”
Such complexity makes for engaging viewing — the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and voted the #2 documentary in Indiewire’s Sundance Critics Poll (after “Life Itself”). But in a marketplace that often rewards simplicity and directness over the complex and multifaceted, Moss and his distributor Drafthouse Films must tread carefully, making sure to engage viewers rather than alienating them.
When making the film, Moss faced similar hurdles. Though he received some small grants from the Catapult Film Fund and the Sundance Institute during production and some money from Impact Partners to finish the film after it got into Sundance, Moss financed much of the film himself. “I had many rejections,” he admits.
“A lot of funding support comes from nonprofit funders who want films that very clearly align with their advocacy agendas,” Moss said. “But this film wasn’t conceived in that way.”
Though “The Overnighters” explicitly deals with fracking in North Dakota, it can’t be defined strictly in that way. Moss always felt the film was about the “labor side of the equation,” he said. “I felt like it filled a void in the conversation: Who is this new migratory working class? And do these people find what they’re looking for?”
While this issue only represents one level of the film, it’s the one that has stuck — and continues to be front-and-center in Drafthouse’s marketing campaign: “A modern-day ‘Grapes of Wrath’” is how the company is describing the movie in trailers and other promotional materials. The distributor is also donating 10% of the film’s box office proceeds to fight against homelessness — as if it needed another issue to tackle.
None of these attempts to contextualize the film, however, can prepare viewers for its central protagonist and his surprising journey. While the movie does focus on many of the disenfranchised men — a.k.a. “Overnighters” — who come from around the country to work in the town of Williston, North Dakota, the movie ultimately concerns a Lutheran pastor named Jay Reinke, whose church has become a safe haven for those seeking employment in the region.
“It’s not a political film,” Moss added. “It’s about human beings…I think that helps it.”
There’s also the issue of the plot twists that occur in the latter half of the film, which throws “The Overnighters” into even more complicated and thorny territory. Drafthouse and Moss have decided to keep quiet on this subject as to prevent “spoilers.”
“There aren’t secrets in the film, per se,” said Drafthouse marketing and distribution executive Sumyi Khong Antonson. “But there are surprising revelations, and those add to the dimension of the film. It’s one of the great things about the movie…Nothing is simplistic; people aren’t bad or good; and they’re just trying to make the right decisions. And we want our audiences to experience that in theaters.”
Moss said he admires Drafthouse for taking the high road and letting viewers take the same observational journey he experienced while filming. But he’s not sure divulging the film’s revelations would adequately help prepare the viewer, anyway.
“It’s a question we faced when cutting the film,” he said. “How do you prepare — or can you ever prepare — the audience for the surprising twists and turns of the story? I think the answer is no, not totally.”
Like Drafthouse’s release of the 2013 documentary triumph, “The Act of Killing,” the company will roll out “The Overnighters” slowly and exclusively in theaters, first in New York, then to other major cities throughout the fall.
It’s a rare release strategy for an indie film nowadays. But “The Act of Killing,” which played in theaters for over seven months and ended up in over 75 markets, shows that critical acclaim, word-of-mouth (and an Oscar nomination) can still bring audiences out to see a powerful, complex and challenging documentary in movie theaters. Whether the approach works again remains to be seen.