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Capturing that Elusive Theatrical Screening: Three Films Rise to the Challenge

By Miri Hess

In a time of declining opportunities and rewards for theatrical distribution of documentaries, underscored by economic malaise and the greater cost efficiency and potential of online do-it-yourself scenarios, there is still something to be said about the communal and cinematic experience of showcasing documentaries on the big screen. Film festivals remain a vital means for visibility, networking and filmmaker-audience connection, but if films have trouble even being accepted into festivals or filmmakers want to see their work reach full potential after the festival circuit run, distribution can be challenging. But the potential is out there to yoke the power of the Internet to the primacy of the theatrical screening, and many filmmakers are determined to take it upon themselves to bring their core message to national and international audiences through innovative distribution methods. One-day-only theatrical events; Internet marketing; exhibition for niche audiences: These are a few of the strategies that filmmakers have developed to keep their films on the big screen before appreciative audiences.

Jon Dunham, a Telly Award-winning, Los Angeles-based filmmaker and an avid marathon runner, and Mark Jonathan Harris, a three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker, took Dunham's second feature film, Spirit of the Marathon, through a one-time-only distribution model. Thanks to Fathom, a division of National CineMedia, the film, also co-produced by marathoner Gwendolen Twist, was distributed as one of the company's event films. Fathom (, known for bringing live concerts, opera, original programming and sports to the big screen, owns 14,500 digital screens in over 1,200 theaters across the country.

Spirit of the Marathon is the first feature documentary to focus exclusively on the trials and tribulations of the 26.2-mile running event. The self-financed film takes place on four continents and in five countries, giving voice to six inspiring stories of runners training for the Chicago Marathon. The film stars elite runners such as Dick Beardsley, who holds the fifth fastest marathon time in America; world record holder Paula Radcliffe; Boston and New York City Marathons winner Bill Rodgers; and 1980s world record holder Grete Waitz.

Dunham initially had a difficult time reaching the film's apparent audience. He took the film to several major distributors, all of whom rejected it. "We knew there was an audience for this film, if only we could get to them," Dunham reflects. But he had faith that the story would appeal to runners and non-runners alike, and it did; Spirit of the Marathon sold out 500 theaters nationwide for a one-night-only event on January 24, 2008, and had a sold-out encore event a month later. The events grossed over $1 million. "We're not talking art house cinemas," Dunham explains. "This serves as a fascinating model for what other indie doc filmmakers want to do."

Image Entertainment represents the US DVD distribution, and the filmmakers have retained the rights to sell from their own website through Neoflix. The film has enjoyed a vibrant life in Australia, Europe and Japan. As film production continued, sponsors such as LaSalle Bank, now owned by Bank of America, and private investors came on board. LaSalle Bank was a sponsor of the Chicago Marathon, and the investors were ecstatic-"making more money from this movie than from the stock market," jokes Dunham.

Like Spirit of the Marathon, Yiddish Theater: A Love Story, from director Dan Katzir and producers Ravit Markus and Yael Katzir, has also succeeded in reaching its core audience. The film tells the story of Zypora Spaisman, who kept alive the oldest running Yiddish theater in America. Spaisman, in her 90s, was a Holocaust survivor who exuded her passion for acting and the 10th century language. The story takes place in New York, over a conflict between age and youth, as well as between contemporary and historical times. Will this Yiddish theater survive, amid a declining audience?

Thanks to Katzir, history repeats itself. The filmmakers initially even had difficulty getting their film accepted into Jewish film festivals because of the perception of the Yiddish subject matter as an outdated language. But the film had an amazing 18-week theatrical run, unheard of for a documentary, but all the more impressive in that the filmmakers have been self-distributing the film, using their website ( as well as MySpace, LinkedIn and Meetup to secure their audiences. Katzir even gave the film its title, so it would come up when users typed in "Yiddish Theater" in their search engines. (At press time, the film was listed third on Google.) It was through MySpace that a theater in New York City contacted the filmmakers and booked the film for a theatrical run in the East Village. The audience was already aware of the film from Internet networks and user groups. "Non-Jewish actors living in the East Village watch the film because they find it very inspirational," Katzir explains.

With the positive attitude of "you never know who will help you," the Yiddish Theater: A Love Story model relied on the fact that a majority of the world are not filmmakers; people want to be in touch with filmmakers and help them out. A doctor even e-mailed notice of the film to his client list of a few hundred people.

The faith filmmakers have in their audience plays a key role in getting their films seen, whether using the Internet to reach a variety of interest groups or to reach more specific demographics, such as in the case of Pakistani-American filmmaker Senain Keshgi and Indian-American filmmaker Geeta V. Patel, with their film Project Kashmir.

The film is about the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir territory in the northwest region of India. India believes that Kashmir is a part of India, while Pakistan claims the region to be a disputed territory, whose official status can only be determined by the Kashmiri people. Keshgi and Patel are also subjects in their film, exploring the relationship between two friends from opposite sides of the conflict and visiting a region where the violence has been its highest in almost 20 years.

The film premiered at the 2008 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and received an outreach grant from The Fledgling Fund, a funding entity seeking "to improve the lives of vulnerable individuals, families and communities by supporting innovative media projects and community-based organizations that target entrenched social problems," according to its website.

The distribution goals for Project Kashmir include screening in Bollywood cinemas across the nation and reaching audiences at a community level. "Our intent is to reach audiences who already have an understanding of the conflict through exhibition at temples and mosques," Keshgi explains. In reaching the South Asian community, the political relevance and issue-oriented topic is already in place.

Like the Yiddish Theater: A Love Story team's use of the Internet to aid in their distribution, Keshgi and Patel are partnering with MTV online, which will show clips from Project Kashmi, thereby reaching an international audience.

The theatrical distribution industry may be decline, but the exhibition spaces are still out there, and the old-school route of self-distribution is being retooled in innovative ways. With the right blend of ingenuity and perseverance, filmmakers can connect with their audiences, harnessing the Web 2.0 dynamic to deliver their films the old fashioned way: to the theaters.