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Fear No Art House! Gaining Theatrical Exhibition for Documentaries

By Elizabeth Blozan

From Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine'

Last year Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine created a lot of waves, one of the biggest of which was that of money; the film became the highest grossing regular format documentary of all time (earning $40 million worldwide). That money wave inspired politically conservative Icon Productions to commit $10 million (more than twice the published cost of Columbine) to Moore's not-so-conservative upcoming project, Farenheit 911.

Did Columbine's profit also set in motion a new wave of excitement over documentaries with theatrical exhibitors?

Not really. Columbine was not only the most profitable documentary of all time; it was the most profitable film of any kind for art house exhibitors last year. Says Michael Williams, director of publicity and promotions for Landmark Theatres, which has 185 screens in 20 US markets, "You don't want to look at Bowling for Columbine as a blueprint for how a documentary film works in the marketplace. You should never think about Bowling for Columbine as the rule. It was a complete exception to the rule."

So what is the rule?

To approach a commercial theatrical release for a documentary (as opposed to a specialty exhibition in venues like museums, universities and festivals), a documentary filmmaker should be clear about how exhibitors evaluate a film—any film—when deciding whether or not to book it. "We approach documentaries like everything else—on a film-by-film basis," says Williams. So that's good news, because it means exhibitors have no bias against documentaries. But it's also bad news because it means a documentary needs to compete with everything else on the commercial art house screens.

How do exhibitors evaluate a film? In the studio market, exhibitors expect massive studio publicity machines to draw people to the theater where the exhibitor then makes money on popcorn. In the art house circuit, the exhibitor counts less on snacks and more on ticket sales. Generally, the weekly box office of a film is split between the exhibitor and the distributor, with the split favoring the distributor during the first few weeks, when it's marketing the film. If the film holds past a couple weeks, that split starts to slide over to favor the exhibitor.

The dollar amount an exhibitor is looking for depends on the screen. A film can be expected to make as little as $5,000 in a week. In some pockets around the US, a local theater owner might have low overhead and a dedicated following. That exhibitor can almost book a film on personal taste. On the other end of the spectrum, an exhibitor with lots of screens has the luxury of elbow room. That exhibitor can risk putting a film with smaller earning potential in a multiplex next to a film earning lots of money, or can book the film onto a screen off the beaten path, hoping the film will build a following. 

This is one reason the Laemmle Theatre chain in Los Angeles has earned a reputation as a friend to the documentary. The chain is not only well entrenched in the LA film community, but with 39 screens (and a booking service reaching out to surrounding counties), Laemmle has screens for "any type and size of film," says President and CEO Bob Laemmle. What further distinguishes the Laemmle theaters is what management describes as nothing less than a civic duty. "We like to make films available to the community," says Laemmle. "We feel we have an obligation to films that otherwise might never see the light of day." One way Laemmle supports documentaries is through a longstanding series screened during low-traffic weekend mornings. The theater books documentaries with or without distributors, and even docs that already might have aired on television. This gives filmmakers a chance to expose their films to distributors and critics and even make a few bucks if they can roust an audience. Both Unprecedented (Richard Perez and Joan Sekler, prods./dirs.) and Riding the Rails (Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, prods./dirs.) filled theaters and drew press attention through these specialty screenings.

But without this type of magnanimous support, the documentary film generally faces three criteria when trying to get booked. The first is one that narrative features don't usually face. Because cable now offers so much documentary programming, an exhibitor needs to be convinced that the doc will transcend the TV stigma and give the public something they can't get on television. "Audiences might think that a film like Capturing the Friedmans won't lose too much if they wait to see it on television," explains Landmark's Williams. "But a film like Winged Migration makes you feel like you're right inside a flock of birds, flying along with them. It's an experience you just can't take home and recreate on video or DVD. It's not like a Discovery Channel nature show. It's a remarkable film and you have to see it in the theater." 

Williams also points out that sometimes docs suffer in the commercial market from that very quality that makes them important—a pinpoint focus on a particular subject, time and place. For a film to draw enough popular attention to be commercially viable, that pinpoint focus needs to offer universal appeal. Williams cites Spellbound (Jeff Blitz, dir.; Sean Welch, prod.), which portrays kids from all walks of life competing in a national spelling bee, as a film in which the subject matter transcends the subject and offers something to a general audience.

The second criterion is the marketing behind the film. The money to market a film almost always comes from the distributor, not the exhibitor. The exhibitor relies on the distributor to turn the eye of the public toward that film. At minimum, exhibitors expect a commercial release in Los Angeles and New York City and a minimum of display advertising. 

Print and electronic media—especially Internet sites—are key vehicles for reaching art house audiences. Reviews play a far more significant role for art house films than they do for studio films, which of course means that no matter how lush your marketing budget, universal pans can leave a film dead in the water. But a filmmaker should never think that "buzz" alone can carry a film commercially, or that the distributors of Spellbound (THINKFilm/HBO Films) and Winged Migration (Sony Pictures Classics), not to mention Columbine (United Artists/Alliance Atlantis), rely on IndieWIRE reviews and personal emails to bring the film to the public. 

Another siren for filmmakers is festival heat, but "Festival audiences are usually made up of industry people and die-hard film fans," says Williams. "They really don't tell us how a film will play commercially." It may feel like just "buzz," but getting the attention of the general public can take as much fortitude as, well, making a documentary. At a recent Writers Guild of America conference on nonfiction film, filmmaker Stacy Peralta described his experience promoting his Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winning Dogtown and Z-Boys as a non-stop media assembly line that went on for months: "I'd just sit on the phone and the publicist would put through one call after another for hours and hours at a time."

Art house films have distinct flavor, so experience with the nuances really adds up and often comes at a price. Promoting a film in a market like Los Angeles can start at $4,000 for basic ad buys and a few press screenings and quickly run up to $50,000 for posters, press kits, lobby materials, broadcast materials, buzz screenings-and the publicists themselves whom are hired to handle these elements. The money a distributor brings to the table has a lot to do with an exhibitor's decision to book a film. Exhibitors know the distributors and know how much they are likely to spend and how well they can work the press. A film coming from a new, untested, distributor (or a self-distributor/filmmaker) faces a serious uphill battle.

The third criterion comes down to taste. Sometimes a film's booking and success depends on how the exhibitor feels about the film and that can enhance the film's presence. An exhibitor will often take more risk with a film it loves. Sometimes this can earn a film extra support, which goes a long way to helping the film survive commercially. An interesting example of this is Landmark's work on Rivers and Tides, Thomas Riedelsheimer's documentary about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. After Landmark saw Rivers and Tides sustain an extended run in San Francisco courtesy of distributor Roxie Releasing, the company booked the doc into the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.

Documentaries often find a home at "calendar" theaters (theaters that schedule films for one- or two-week bookings) like the Nuart because the exhibitor can rely on a built-in patronage by distributing a bi-monthly calendar of screenings; therefore a film can survive without a big advertising budget. Because a venue like the Nuart has a good reputation with the LA press and film-going community, Landmark, Nuart's parent company, can use a calendar booking to push the film out to a wider audience. With Rivers and Tides, Landmark targeted Goldsworthy's local following, then generated interest in the film through print media, radio and Landmark's film club. The efforts resulted in a box office of over $40,000 during the Nuart run and continued success on other screens around the country. All of which have helped the film earn $1.8 million (at press time) in the US alone, remarkable for a film with a very modest distribution budget.

On the other hand, Landmark devoted similar attention to Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans after watching it earn $50,000 in one week at the Angelika Theatre in New York, only to see the film earn $12,000 in its first week in Los Angeles. Hey, it's art, not science.

One important exception to this process is when an exhibitor might be able to predict box office for a film based on a niche audience. Laemmle explains that when Menemsha Films wanted to book Shanghai Ghetto (Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, prods./dirs.), a documentary about Jewish refugees who found a haven in China during World War II, he was prepared to book the film despite Menemsha's limited marketing funds because, "We know how to reach that community." The film had good word-of-mouth and a strong review in the Los Angeles Times, resulting in better-than-predicted box office and a long, steady run. 

When approached by distributors with films of interest to LA's Armenian and Indian communities, however, Laemmle had the distributors rent out (or "four-wall") screens, which put the risk of reaching that niche audience on the distributors, who in turn take their best shot at getting the word out to their strongest audience. In a market like Los Angeles, where such niche films can do quite well for the filmmaker, this strategy helps everybody win.

But according to Laemmle, one criterion stands out above the rest in determining if a documentary can survive the commercial theatrical market: "Make 'em interesting.  Make 'em really, really interesting."


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance entertainment writer and publicist based in Santa Monica, California. She is currently producing a documentary on LA rockabilly culture.