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Docs Have Their Day on DVD

By Sarah Jo Marks

From 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown' (Allan Slutsky and Sandy Passman, prods.; Paul Justman, dir.)

DVD sales are setting records above and beyond any set by VHS sales or even rentals. How does this phenomenon affect documentary film? As of yet, it's unclear if it has. According to the Video Business 2003 Mid-Year Report, only one nonfiction title made the Top 25 for highest sales—Jackass the Movie (yes, it is nonfiction). At press time Bowling for Columbine is about to be released and is sure to shake up the DVD sales charts. In the meantime International Documentary interviewed several prominent DVD distributors about the art and business of marketing documentaries in an age when docs seem to be having their day.

Distribution is much different than it once was; there are new and successful ways to promote documentaries. Larry Meistrich, chief executive officer of Film Movement and one-time chief executive officer and founder of the now defunct independent film studio Shooting Gallery, is optimistic about the possibilities. "The whole purpose of Film Movement is connecting underserved audiences with deserving films, whether they be feature or documentary or short films," says Meistrich. "We don't really like to ghettoize anything so that features are one thing and documentaries are another; 90 minutes is 90 minutes, if it's entertaining or thought-provoking or funny."

Meistrich's idea—to bring high-quality, festival-type films to suburbs across America via the ever-popular DVD—is working, with members in 1,238 towns and cities (Film Movement also launched in Canada in September). For about $16 a month you can become a member and receive a handpicked DVD in your mailbox each month. The only other way to see these films is to live in one of the six cities that screen the Film Movement titles in theaters (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston), or you can buy them individually on DVD for $29.95 at the Film Movement website ( These special titles, including the critically acclaimed documentaries The Party's Over (Donovan Leitch and Rebecca Chaiklin, prods./dirs.) and OT: Our Town (Scott Kennedy, prod./dir.) will not be available through any rental outlets.

"If you want to participate, you come to us and our filmmakers," Meistrich maintains. "My problem with going into those other windows of distribution is that films like OT: Our Town or The Party's Over don't get any profile. You're just a title on a shelf among hundreds of other titles. We really want these to be singled out as special. We've also put our filmmakers on a different financial deal, so everybody's on a true, dollar-one gross; when people do subscribe or buy individual titles or go to the theater they're directly supporting the filmmakers. You can't really do that at Blockbuster."

While Meistrich avoids most of the traditional distribution outlets to reach the end users, Richard Lorber explores as many as he can. During his 20-year tenure as head of Fox Lorber (now Wellspring) and its successor, Winstar TV & Video and Winstar Cinema, Lorber built a worldwide business that is widely recognized as the leading independent US distributor of foreign films, art house classics and cultural documentaries. In February 2003, Lorber and Michael Koch launched Koch Lorber Films (, a new DVD label dedicated to the best in recent and classic world cinema, independent documentaries, music and the performing arts. Koch Lorber's first releases include the 1997 Academy Award-winning doc The Long Way Home (Rabbi Marvin Heir and Richard Trank, prods.; Mark Jonathan Harris, dir./wtr.), and The Ballad of Bering Strait (Nina Gilden Seavey, dir.).

"The reality is, there's an increasing demand to see documentaries now," Lorber observes. "The art of storytelling in the documentary medium has improved; the availability of digital equipment has given many filmmakers a chance to work inexpensively; and there has been an expansion of awareness of nonfiction television through some of the less distinguished forms of reality TV.

"The DVD has made that accessible," he maintains. "Not to say it wasn't possible with VHS, but the DVD format really lends itself to documentary because it allows you to access certain parts of the film, allows additional material to be added and allows you to complete the picture beyond the frame through the extras, the commentary and links to the Web. All in all, a lot of forces are coming together to make this a proficuous time for the documentary."

At Koch Lorber the idea is to pick up important, artful and classic films for release on DVD and exploit every distribution venue possible, combining grassroots marketing with targeted marketing to reach the largest possible audience. Of course, there are the challenges of retail outlets. "The retail marketplace is still a very unforgiving gatekeeper," Lorber admits. "Major retail channels are looking at inches of shelf space and how to maximize revenues based upon numbers of sales in turn. Obviously, the Internet has expanded the opportunities because [it] does one thing particularly well: it allows you to reach geographically diverse audiences among affinity interests efficiently, without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on mail order campaigns. For the very first time people with certain interests have been able to connect with films and programs that peak their interests."

While Film Movement distinguishes itself with its limited theatrical and "DVD of the Month Club" hybrid, and Koch Lorber is exploring new ways to exploit traditional home DVD markets, some companies, like Artisan Entertainment (which has since been acquired by Lionsgate), have divisions for both theatrical and home distribution. Hosea Belcher, Artisan Home Entertainment's senior vice president for marketing, affirms that regardless of the theatrical success of the docs that Artisan releases, including Standing in the Shadows of Motown(Allan Slutsky and Sandy Passman, prods.; Paul Justman, dir.), Amandla! (Lee Hirsch, prod./dir.; Sherry Simpson-Dean, prod.) and Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, dir.; Ry Cooder, prod.), the marketing strategy for the DVD releases is similar.

"The key to marketing documentaries [on DVD] is to treat them as non-documentaries," Belcher maintains. "In terms of sales volume, to use the word 'documentary' is almost the kiss of death. In terms of the rest of the marketing campaign, we make sure that the actual product is superior. So with Motown, Amandla! and Step into Liquid [Dana Brown, dir.], we put on a lot of special features and make sure that it's technically the best with 16x9, Dolby, 5.1 and 2.0. We give it the works, then we support it in terms of advertising, radio and consumer promotional partners."

Artisan plays up strong reviews from its theatrical releases to help promote their DVD releases. "It is a selling point to say that it did have some theatrical distribution and awareness in key markets," Belcher notes. "Even if people didn't get a chance to see it in the theaters, you hope that the theatrical marketing campaign had some impact, that [people] were aware of it. It's all about the market, positioning and repositioning our titles and focusing on the target—in some cases broadening it, in some cases really honing in on the core."

The world of renting DVDs is also changing. For $19.95 a month you can rent as many titles as you can watch (and return) from Netflix, the world's largest online DVD movie rental service, offering more than one million members access to over 15,000 titles. "It occurred to us that with attending film festivals you always leave the festival generally talking and buzzing about the documentary" says Ted Sarandos, Netflix's vice president of content acquisition. "And it's the least likely to get a distributor and the least likely to be seen outside of the festival circuit, unless it airs once on PBS or occasionally on HBO. It's a terribly underserved market.

"With the advent of DVD, it's clearly how people prefer to watch movies—perhaps even over seeing them in the theater," Sarandos continues. "The first thing we did was try to figure out what was broken about the distribution model and why even very high-profile documentaries have trouble finding distribution."

Netflix looks for documentaries to enhance its rapidly expanding library; the company acquires 300-400 titles (including fiction) per month. With its unique Web technology (, it can combine what customers rent with an online rating system and create a targeted marketing experience. "We figured out very quickly and easily who within our 1.2 million subscribers are documentary lovers," Sarandos explains. "We've been able to promote awareness of a film through e-mail tools or through the automated merchandising system. We could actually have a very high take rate when we show a documentary film, even if somebody has never heard of it."

With that in mind, Sarandos decided to find a few documentaries that were not available on DVD and put them out with a non-exclusive licensing agreement. That way, if a film rents well and is reviewed well by Netflix customers, the filmmaker could use that success to help secure further distribution. And it's working. After performing well on Netflix, George Ratliff's Hell House was recently picked up by Plexifilm, which released an enhanced DVD of the film for full retail distribution.

Netflix is also working directly with home video distributor Docurama to identify films that are probably smaller than Docurama would normally pursue. "We make the commitment up front that we're taking a fixed amount of units, which basically covers their hard costs of getting into the title," Sarandos explains. "Then in the later window they take it out to market and the real revenue stream comes from that. We have enabled them to pick up smaller films like Rudyland [Matthew Carnahan and John Philp, prods./dirs.] and See How They Run. [Emily Morse and Kelly Duane, prods./dirs.]"

One unlikely DVD distributor is Chris Gore, the irreverent founder of Film Threat magazine and author of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, who was prompted to take this path in reaction to the state of independent film distribution. "It occurred to me that if Kevin Smith's Clerks played a film festival in 2003, it would not get distribution," Gore maintains. "Mainly because it's a 16mm, black-and-white movie with no stars. That thought was astounding to me. I was tired of seeing great indie movies made by emerging filmmakers simply languish in the market without distribution. There are literally thousands of these 'cine-orphans,' movies without distribution."

Following Film Threat's successful distribution venture of about 50 VHS titles in the early '90s, Gore decided it was time to get some more films out there. Film Threat has a few titles currently available on its website (, including Dennis Przywara's Starwoids, and plans to release a Film Threat Docs That Rock box set in 2004.

Gore has his own take on the state of documentary marketing: "Documentaries are marketed like vegetables, like they're good for you. That doesn't make me want to eat my vegetables! You have to pick up great titles and sell it like it's porn!" Gore hopes to release 15-20 documentaries a year.

Film Threat partners with its filmmakers in a co-op situation. "It's basically self-distribution with a marketing partner," Gore says. "We don't actually acquire the rights to the movies. We partner with the filmmakers to sell as many copies of their film as we can via the outlet that we have, which is this massive audience. We're not just selling individual movies. We're selling our library of movies based on our brand-name recognition. Because we have an audience of 300,000 fans who check out the Film Threat website every week, these are people whose tastes tend to run a little more broad than mainstream. They look for things that are different."

Clearly everyone has his or her own opinion as to why DVDs are selling so well. The good news is, thanks to the DVD and numerous distributors that are all working hard to get quality material out there, more and more documentaries are becoming available. You can join a club, buy at, follow theatrical ad campaigns, rent online and think out of the box to watch the films you really want to watch. The stuff is out there; just find it. And if these marketers are doing their jobs, the films will find you.


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