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I'll Take Manhattan: New York City is Doc Central for Distributors--You Gotta Problem with That?

By Andrea Van Hook

Is New York City really the center of independent documentary filmmaking, or does it just seem that way?

Short answer: it is. Sorry, to those of you (myself included) who are Angelenos.

If you're interested in co-producing, financing and distributing independent documentary films, most independent film distribution companies, big and small, studio-financed or actually independent, are based in New York City. And unlike the studios, where heads of distribution can change over a weekend, many of these companies, like New Yorker Films, Sony Pictures Classics and First Run Features, have had remarkably stable management for years. "Any independent film company that has lasted has been minimally bicoastal, if not completely headquartered in New York," says Mark Urman, vice president of THINKFilm.

So what is it about New York?" New York is where the most prestigious theaters in the country are," says Dan Talbot, founder of New Yorker Films, a company that has called New York its home since 1965. "These meaningful theaters generally are the platforms for films that are opening, and exhibitors around the country watch what happens here and make decisions based on that." Talbot also owns Lincoln Plaza Theaters, one of those cinemas that exhibitors and critics watch. "Many films were very successful as a result of their launch at the Lincoln Plaza ," says Talbot. "One of those was My Architect, which New Yorker Films distributed."

It's no secret that successful theatrical independent films depend on critics and good reviews. Since New York is arguably the media center of the country, that's where many of the important critics are based. New York also has a long history of being much more supportive of art house films than Los Angeles, with prestigious venues such as Film Forum, Angelika Film Center, MoMA and the New York Film Festival. And, after all, New York (well, nearby New Jersey, actually) is where the film industry began in this country.

"New York is the cultural capital of the country, if not the continent, if not the world," says Urman. "It's just more fertile for ideas, creativity and creating a sense of community. Since film is a collaborative medium, those people who want to make film independently can form a bond and, in that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland way, get together and put on a show." Vanessa Arteaga, senior programming and production executive at Wellspring, believes that the concentration of theater in New York has played a major role. "In New York , we have inherently a theater culture," she says. "My sense is that the independent film culture has thrived more in New York than LA as a result of immediate access to the theater world."

There's also another major difference: Los Angeles is dominated by one industry--or two, if you count the music industry--while New York most definitely is not. "In Los Angeles , there's so many people who want to connect," explains Urman. "There's a lot of pruning that takes place the further east you goby the time you get to New York, all of that filmmaking kudzu is hacked away, and you only have the strong and productive branches left."

But if you are now packing your bags to move to the big city in order to do documentaries, hold on. "Our filmmakers are spread out all over the country and the world," says Marc Mauceri, vice president of First Run Features. "New York might have the biggest number of filmmakers that we represent, but Los Angeles is actually pretty close--also the Bay Area, Boston and other cities." Urman has had filmmakers based in Paris, Brazil, Budapest and Los Angeles. Besides filmmakers, there are many distributors in other cities. "With all the new means of communications, you can be anywhere," says Talbot. "You can distribute films from Alaska."

Thanks to films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me and March of the Penguins, theatrical documentaries are hotter than ever--and big money is now being made. How is the business changing, and is focus shifting away from New York as the decision-making center? "To watch a studio get involved in a film like Fahrenheit 9/11, and actually have the juice to get it to gross over $100 million was amazing," says Mauceri. "That has forever changed the landscape of documentary film distribution." The success of documentaries and nonfiction film during the summer of 2005, usually the studio blockbuster season, has not gone unnoticed. "Now there are fiction films that fold after a week or so," says Talbot. "That's a big difference. Documentaries have become very popular with audiences."

It's a change that's happening all over the world. "We've found that we've been able to do significant business, big money, on international sales for both Murderball and Aristocrats," says Urman. "France now has a very viable theatrical market with big box-office hits, and there's more and more in the UK . I think people are surprised at how the audience overseas for documentaries is expanding." The rise of the DVD has also helped. "There's a much bigger market for DVD sales, and there are also many more options for documentaries to be sold to television," says Mauceri.

The fact that there is money to be made in documentaries has significantly impacted the independent distributors. First and foremost, there's much more competition. "It seems like every time you turn around, there's a new distribution company announcing a slate of films," says Mauceri. "Smaller, specialty films like documentaries get a good buzz at Sundance and then you read in the trades that they sold for millions of dollars; that wasn't happening too much ten years ago." The rise of studio specialty divisions, and independent film companies that grow into studios, has been controversial in the community. "There are now different tiers of independent filmmaking, and it's like, which one is more authentic?" says Arteaga. The interaction between distributor and filmmaker has also changed. "Filmmakers now have sales agents," says Talbot. "They prowl around all the festivals, they use auction techniques, and they try to stick their fingers into the distributor's pocket. However, this allows filmmakers to make more money, which they need to make more films."

But big money does not necessarily translate into big success. "Every week, there's some film, acquired for a lot of money and with a ton of hype, that fails, while smaller films just do sensationally," says Mauceri. "I love that. There's still room for skillful intuition, good guessing and applied wisdom." Urman firmly believes that the interest in independent film and documentaries is just making films better. "When filmmakers know that their films can exist in the culture over the course of six months or a year, and that there can be many lives for the movie, including broadcast and DVD, they're going to speak with more subtlety," says Urman. "They bite off more from the onset, they get more ambitious, in part because they have more money at their disposal."

But will all of this change the historical emphasis on New York City ? Not a chance. Everyone agrees that most serious art house distributors will remain based in New York, because certain things are not changing--the deep entrenchment of independent filmmaking in New York, the location of the critics, the theaters and a huge audience that supports and adores independent documentaries.

Another thing that will not change is a passionate interest by independent film distributors in documentaries that reflect on the human experience. THINKFilm is releasing Protocols of Zion, made by award-winning filmmaker Marc Levin, about anti-Semitism. "But instead of being a cool, detached, researched, informational, old-style documentary, it's Mr. Marc Levin on camera, schlepping around New York, asking people if they've heard of this anti-Semitic book and why they hate Jews," says Urman. "The film is alarming, and important, and completely personal."

New this fall from First Run Features is One Bright Shining Moment, from writer/director/producer Stephen Vittoria, about George McGovern's bold and grassroots 1972 presidential campaign. New Yorker Films is releasing After Innocence, directed by Jessica Sanders, which follows wrongfully convicted men freed by DNA evidence after decades in prison, as they struggle to transition back into society. "I don't know of any other film that deals with this subject yet," says Talbot. "These men deal with the variety of feelings of having been incarcerated for years." Talbot is also contributing to a book for the 20th anniversary of Shoah, the landmark documentary released in 1985 about the Holocaust. "Over 10 million people saw that film on PBS," says Talbot. "It's one of the achievements of my career."

The next Wellspring release is Unknown White Male in February 2006, directed by Rupert Murray. This documentary is the true story of Doug Bruce, who woke up on Coney Island with no memory of any day of his entire life.


Andrea Van Hook is a freelance writer who has worked in the film and television industry for over 15 years, at independent production companies and cable networks.


More Players in the Neighborhood

In addition to the aforementioned theatrical distributors, a host of others, large and small, abound in The Big Apple.

Sony Pictures Classics (, cited above, was founded in 1992 as an autonomous entity of LA-based Sony Pictures Entertainment. Its presidents, Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, have worked together since the early 1980s, previously at Orion Classics and United Artists Classics. Among the documentaries in the Sony catalogue include Errol Morris' The Fog of War and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control; Stacy Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants; Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration; Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's The Celluloid Closet; and Terry Zwigoff's Crumb. Coming out in 2006 are two award-winning films from the '05 Sundance Film Festival: Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight (January) and Jeff Feuerzeig's The Devil and Daniel Johnston (March).

Magnolia Pictures ( is a subsidiary of 2929 Entertainment, a conglomerate founded by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner that includes Landmark Theatres, Rysher Entertainment, 2929 Productions and HDNet Films. Magnolia was launched in 2001 by Eamonn Bowles and Bill Banowsky and has distributed such docs as Capturing the Friedmans (Eugene Jarecki, dir./prod.; Marc Smerling, prod.), Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, dir.; Rosadel Varela, Hani Salama, prods.), Bukowski: Born into This (John Dullaghan, dir./prod.), Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Robert Stone, dir./prod.), and most recently, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, dir./prod., Jason Kliot, Susan Motamed, prods.).

Zeitgeist Films (, founded in 1988 by Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo, is a relatively small company, but a feisty one. Its biggest box office success to date has been The Corporation (Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, dirs.; Joel Bakan, wtr.), while other noteworthy docs in its collection include Kirby Dick's Chain Camera and, with Amy Ziering Kofman, Derrida; Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I; Ulrike Koch's The Saltmen of Tibet; Nettie Wild's A Place Called Chiapas and Jim Shedden's Brakhage. Coming this fall are Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's Ballets Russes and Astra Taylor's iek!

Palm Pictures ( distinguishes itself as a hybrid of film and music divisions and is also the parent company of RES Media Group, which publishes RES magazine and produces RESfest. Chris Blackwell, the legendary music impresario whose Island Records label nurtured the careers of such artists as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Tom Waits and The Cranberries, founded Palm Pictures in 1998. Among its more celebrated docs include Doug Pray's Scratch, Ondi Timoner's DIG!, Mark Moormann's Tom Dowd & the Language of Music and Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace. Coming up in December: Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt, from Margaret Brown.

--Thomas White