July 31, 2005

All Docs, All the Time: DVD Label Docurama Deals Exclusively in Nonfiction

No one in the documentary community can stop talking about what a great time it is to be working in the world of nonfiction. Docs are booming in theaters, on public television and cable and are literally exploding in the home video/DVD market. Docurama is the only label dedicated exclusively to bringing critically acclaimed and cutting-edge documentary films to the home entertainment marketplace. Founded in 1999 by parent company New Video, Docurama has released over 100 award-winning and highly acclaimed documentaries.

In January 2005 Docurama released a White Paper detailing this surge for docs. International Documentary sat down with Ellen Capon, director of marketing for Docurama, to get the full scoop on what happened, what's to come and where this "doxplosion" is going.

 

Is this documentary bubble going to burst or will the interest in docs continue to grow?

Ellen Capon: I don't think it's a bubble. I do think the surge of docs has really risen with films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine and Supersize Me. A lot of the films have been politically oriented, but beyond the political there's really room and excitement for all different kinds of docs. There's a film out right now called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Dir.: Judy Irving) that we are distributing. Films like Winged Migration and Wild Parrots go beyond the political tier to really tackle topics that are of interest to or hit the nerve or heart of whoever is going to the movies. So it's definitely going to continue.

 

How do you make people want to see these movies?

The interesting thing for us is, How do you make a business out of documentaries, and how do we find our audiences? That's really tough.

You have documentary enthusiasts and then you have subject enthusiasts. There are people who will like documentaries regardless of the topic. Then you have people who are going to go see a film because it hits a nerve with them but they might not go see another documentary. So those subject people are the people I'm really interested in for any given film.

Faster (Dir.: Mark Neale; Prod.: Stephen Lim) is a film about the Moto GP, motorcycles racing at top speeds. We've done really well with this title. Probably 75 percent of the people who buy this film aren't documentary lovers. They're people who are just totally into motorcycles. So we have to find that audience. We hired a special distributor that sells DVDs to motorcycle shops. It may not seem immediately like a logical place to sell DVDs, but gearheads are going in to buy their stuff. That's where we should be selling it. Yes, Best Buy is great and Borders is great. But we should really be hitting these people at what we call LPDs--logical points of distribution. It seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of times it's not necessarily what people do.

We want to approach every film like it has a wide-reaching audience; we don't want to ghettoize it into a particular nook. So we have a wide-reaching approach that everyone will like it and everyone should see it, but then let's hit the specific targets that really make sense for this film.

It's important to find the audience because DVD is proliferating and there's so much product out there and a lot of competition to get shelf space. That's why Netflix is really great; they have the approach that they want to take everything and a really broad scope of titles. But at Barnes and Noble or Borders, which are traditionally really great customers of ours, they're really tough. They're going to stock eight billion copies of Lord of the Rings because that makes sense for their business. That's why we increasingly have to find these other outlets--which are, interestingly enough, being made up in part by the onset of these other online competitors to Netflix like Blockbuster.com and WalMart.com.

 

What advice would you give to the independent producers trying to sell their documentary DVDs on their own?

Know what your film is about. Know what about your film is of interest to people. If someone is asking what your film is, don't tell them what it's about; tell them what about it makes someone want to see it. Have a pitch statement, anything to really explain to people what it is, so that it's clear. Oftentimes people tell me about their film for half an hour and I still don't know what it's about. I'm going to be interested in it if I think it's marketable. I'm sure there are a lot of films out there that are really great but if they're not marketable it's going to be really hard to get them seen. You've got to really have a handle on what works about your film.

 

Any other hints?

One of the major things that filmmakers don't think about in the time of production is having good artwork. You really have to think about that from day one. So many films don't have anything and then we have to use screen grabs or buy art. It's not as good and it's quite limiting. An arresting image says as much as a good pitch statement.

 

What length of film is Docurama looking for?

We usually look for stuff that's over 60 minutes because in order to have value associated with the actual product it needs to be longer than 60 minutes. Every once in a while if a film is shorter than that and the filmmaker has a lot of extra material it can work with a lot of extras.

With shorts we're trying it out with Full Frame [the documentary film festival based in Durham, North Carolina]. You have to have a really good brand to be successful with it. We really want to do it. We feel like there are a lot of great shorts out there that really aren't being seen.

 

How are the Full Frame collections going?

Our relationship with Full Frame is really fantastic. It's a challenge. You need to have a unifying brand or theme. Whether it's the Full Frame brand or a film that really anchors the rest of the collection. With the Full Frame Documentary Shorts Collection: Vol. 2, we had Mira Nair's The Laughing Club of India. Her name helped to anchor the series. Logistically it's hard. It's seven films, seven contracts, seven pieces of art. So it's a really monumental task to try and get them out, but it's really great that people have the chance to see them.

 

It is a great format, the short documentary. It's really overlooked.

As we get to more video on demand (VOD) and digital downloading it will become even more popular.

You can see in the White Paper that there isn't necessarily a correlation between theatrical success and success on DVD, but you need to have some major angle for distribution. You can see what's happening with MoveOn.org. They've been really successful and they could probably do well with a short. But you need something like that to really push it out.

 

What other new projects is Docurama getting into?

We have a new relationship with the Sundance Channel. We're putting out The Al Franken Show. It will be a best-of, using the best clips. We're also putting out The First Amendment Project [a series of short films produced by Sundance Channel and Court TV].

 

I didn't realize that Docurama only put out 10 releases the first year.

When I got to Docurama four years ago, it was just me and an assistant getting the titles out. Now we've grown to a staff of four. We're turning out four titles a month, which is a lot. We want to give each and every one of those titles its due. It's a lot of work. But it's really exciting and there's a lot of cool stuff coming down the pike.

We have all these great relationships now with IFC, POV and the Sundance Channel. Our next release with the Sundance Channel is a documentary miniseries called The Staircase [Dir.: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade; Prod.: Denis Poncet; The Staircase aired on the Sundance Channel in April and May.]. It's eight parts. It's a court case about a murder mystery concerning this guy in North Carolina who calls the police at 3:00 a.m. to say that his wife has fallen down the stairs.

 

How do the films come to Docurama? What's the best way to get someone to watch your film?

It's a combination of things. It's our relationships with other acquirers of documentaries. It is our presence at festivals. We are out there looking and asking and trying to go to all the major festivals to see which films have the buzz around them. It's challenging sometimes because we don't have a theatrical arm. We're increasingly working with theatrical distributors like Shadow Distribution (Wild Parrots), Roxy Releasing (Rivers and Tides) and Roadside Attractions (Tying the Knot) so that we can offer filmmakers both theatrical and home video at the same time.

We're out there at film festivals, but we also take submissions and use our connections with our current filmmakers. We have a huge family of filmmakers who are at the top of their game in the documentary world. Our relationships with them will often lead us to other films either by them or by people in the industry. We do accept cold submissions, but it's not the best way. It's better to call us up and talk to us. But we do try to give everything a look.

We're also curious about films before they're done. We typically don't invest in films; we don't offer production or completion funds or anything like that. We're acquiring completed films, but we're really interested in talking to people in later stages of production. We like to be in the know.

 

Upcoming releases from Docurama include Paradise Lost, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Resident Alien and The Staircase.

Sarah Jo Marks is a producer's rep and consultant. www.atriskfilms.com

Tags: