Skip to main content

Enter the Filmanthropist: The New Metrics for Documentary Success

By IDA Editorial Staff

Ted Leonsis, an Internet pioneer, sports team owner and philanthropist, is the producer of the documentary Nanking

By Ted Leonsis

In the many years I have been an Internet and new media executive, I have come across some incredibly smart, talented, creative minds who have literally changed the world. But few of them could hold a candle to the people I've encountered since I began working with co-directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman on Nanking.

Simply put, I'm bowled over by the caliber of people in this field. And more are moving into it every day, drawn by several trends--lower production costs, increasing opportunities to distribute their films, a desire for self-expression and a passion for telling stories that right wrongs.

Added to that, there is a growing interest in funding and distributing these projects--something I call "Filmanthropy," which uses film as a platform to catalyze social change, activate giving, encourage debate and propel volunteerism.

The most important thing about Filmanthropy is your metrics of success. I spent two years making Nanking--traveled to China, attended five film festivals, worked my behind off and put up significant financial resources to get it made. And to date, there have been minimal revenues. If I looked at this movie like I do my other business investments, I'd never have done it.

What we need are new metrics for success. Filmanthropy is not about box office receipts, but about things like:

  • Audience size and reception--how many people and influencers saw the film?
  • Did the film make a difference?
  • Did it start debate?
  • Did it activate charitable giving?
  • Did people volunteer their time for a cause?
  • Did it right a wrong?
  • Can it break even with the creation of new media revenue streams?

If these are your metrics, then you would produce more of these movies. The problem is that the financial business model for documentaries is badly broken. The way the industry is set up today, everyone in the value chain gets the money...except for the filmmakers.

Let's say you create a documentary that generates $10 million at the box office. That means about a million people saw it, which would make it one of the top 10 documentaries of all time. But before the filmmaker sees a penny, the theater takes approximately half. Then the distributor takes 20 percent of the remainder. On top of that, you have print and advertising and production costs. So in the end, your hit documentary can very easily leave you in the hole.

Then there's what I call "the documentary funnel." There are thousands of filmmakers out there, but just a dozen cable channels, 25 distributors, 500 theater owners and only a few significant film festivals that reach a small group of filmgoers. At the same time, there are a billion people on the Internet. With the broadband Web now widespread, the potential exists to fundamentally change the economics of documentaries.

Think about it: If you could get five million people to watch your documentary for free on the Internet, you can make $1 million through advertising, search and commerce revenues. If you made the film for $500,000, you'd be profitable. You could donate those dollars to charity, or you could fund yet another Filmanthropy project. Since many films are shot on HD, we already have the digital product. We just need to find a way to get it to the many millions of people online, instead of into a couple hundred theaters.

To be sure, the incumbents aren't likely to welcome this change, since they make money off the current business model. But change needs to happen, and the sooner the better.

The future of documentary filmmaking is now. Filmanthropy is real. All we need to do is embrace it.


Ted Leonsis, an Internet pioneer, sports team owner and philanthropist, is the producer of the documentary Nanking.