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The Accidental Doc Distributor: Surprising Success Leads to a Taste for Nonfiction Films

By IDA Editorial Staff

By Mark Urman

My first successful documentary was an accident.

At Sundance 2000, I was lured to a screening by a publicist proffering gift bags full of makeup for my wife and daughter. Having trudged through the snow to collect the booty, I was then too embarrassed to leave without watching some of the movie. "Let me give it a few minutes," I told myself. The film, which I hadn't at all planned to see, was The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's beatification of the late Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. I left with bags of lip gloss and false eyelashes and, because I thought the film was the most enjoyable I'd seen at the festival, I left with it too. Much to my surprise, I had acquired a documentary!

Once I got Tammy Faye back home, there were other surprises. My staff and I discovered that we had a big "star" whom we could book on national talk shows, and we had a pair of imaginative filmmakers whose sense of showmanship was equal to anyone's in Hollywood. The film got a lot of press and critical plaudits and, when it opened, it actually did well at the box office. (Editor's note: The Eyes of Tammy Faye was released theatrically through Lions Gate Films.) Even though documentaries and I have had a checkered past, this was looking like the start of a beautiful friendship.

At Sundance just one year earlier, I screened a few documentaries, though no gift bags were offered. One film that caught my eye was made by someone who could legitimately be called a "name" director. The film in question was the latest work by Errol Morris, whose Thin Blue Line I had seen and admired, and whose Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control had enjoyed rapturous reviews and long theatrical runs. I remember as I watched the film, Mr. Death, feeling certain that I was in the presence of a true artist. I had become an Errol Morris fan--just as I had done with "real" directors who made "real" movies--and Errol himself reinforced that aura of the "auteur" by summoning me to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet with him before he'd sell me his film. I thought Mr. Death was great, and the critics agreed, but it bombed at the box office, and I was naturally reluctant to pick up another documentary. I remember declining invitations, saying, "If I go, I'll love it, I'll buy it and I'll lose money." Then, I set eyes on Tammy Faye a year later and things changed. 

At the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2002, a colleague of mine talked me into trying again. This time the film was Spellbound and, though it had generated good buzz at three prior festivals, it was something I had managed to miss until then. Its director, Jeffrey Blitz, had no pedigree and, worse still, it was about something so bland and specific that no one could possibly be interested. Yet, there I was, watching a group of 14-year-olds compete in a spelling bee--and loving it! I bought it, and this time it was an enormous critical and commercial success, and went on to earn our young company, THINKFilm, its first Oscar nomination. Clearly, things were moving in the right direction!

Shortly after its spring 2003 release, Spellbound entered the ranks of the top-ten grossing documentaries of all time. That same year three other documentaries--Bowling for Columbine, Winged Migration and Capturing the Friedmans--all achieved the same distinction, and all were Oscar-nominated.  For us, Spellbound was a milestone from which there would be no turning back. Clearly, this was something we would want to do again and again. More importantly, for our audiences--tens of thousands of people who were seeing a documentary in a theater for the very first time--there was also no turning back, and they would want to do this again and again. 

Since then, the box office records for documentaries have been broken countless times, with double-digit million-dollar grosses becoming commonplace.  There has even been a doc--Fahrenheit 9/11--that has broken the $100 million  mark, something that was unimaginable when I acquired Tammy Faye with such trepidation just a few years earlier. Whether drawn by spelling bees or birds, by cursing comics, terpsichorean teens, or political pundits of one persuasion or other, nearly everyone has seen--and enjoyed--at least one documentary in the past five years. If one is looking for a film that is critically acclaimed, topical, talked about or written about, a documentary would be hard to miss. 

This year, THINKFilm didn't arrive in Sundance just to look for new documentaries, although we did buy two; we also presented two in competition, films that we got involved with from the earliest stages, after seeing mere minutes of footage. Having developed a taste for narrative nonfiction films, and no small degree of expertise in their marketing and distribution, we now aggressively pursue docs and frequently help get them made. Since Spellbound, three more of our films, including one we fully financed, earned us Oscar nominations, and one of them, Born into Brothels, nabbed the statuette.

Of the 80-odd films we have released since 2002, 35 of them have been documentaries--an astonishing 42 percent--and we have maintained a level of nearly 40 percent for both 2006 and 2007. This is not something we do by design. We are looking for the best films at the best price, ones with the strongest marketing hooks and the largest number of potential promotional partners or concerned constituencies. We like films with actors, sets and costumes, and often do very well with them, but time after time the films that meet our criteria and exceed our expectations are the docs. They come in all shapes and sizes--classically built and innovative, academic and personal, issue-oriented and purely entertaining, with gift bags and without. Needless to say, we see far more than we could ever handle, and the upside and the downside is that, now that documentaries are as numerous as other kinds of independent films, they can also be as bad.

So, for me and most independent distributors I know, docs have become a steady part of our film buying, filmmaking and film-going diet, and today, the distinction is no longer "documentary" versus "drama." Now, the distinction is good or bad, commercial or limited, sellable or small, a pursuit or a pass. It's either a movie we want or a movie we don't. 

My first successful documentary may have been an accident, but each one since--and, thankfully, there have been several--was planned. May there be many, many, more!


Mark Urman is Head of US Theatrical at THINKFilm.