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The Theatrical Gamble

By Robert Stone

As a celebrated filmmaker once said, “The difference between watching a film on television and seeing it on a 40-foot movie screen is the difference between observation and inspiration.” Anyone who has seen a documentary on the big screen knows what a powerful and thought-provoking experience it can be.

Unfortunately, most docs never have the opportunity to be seen in this manner, unless filmmakers pay for their own screenings. The reality is that there are just too many documentaries for the ever-shrinking marketplace of theatrical distribution, where advertising and print expenses are high and profits are low. Why even attempt the theatrical route when it would be much easier—and cost-effective—to sell directly to television or home video? In most cases it’s because, at some point, we’ve all seen films in a movie theatre that have somehow changed our lives. So for many, the opportunity to move and inspire others through their work is a gamble worth taking.

International Documentary spoke with some of the top theatrical distributors of documentary films to determine how best to navigate through the dense distribution process.

First Run Features was one of the very first theatrical distributors of documentary films. Started in the late ‘70s, First Run boasts a roster of docs that includes Live Nude Girls Unite! (Julia Query and Vicky Funari), Fighter (Amir Bar-Lev), Sherman's March (Ross McElwee) and Berkeley in the Sixties (Mark Kitchell). “I’m proud to say this company has a wonderful legacy for having paid attention to unique, interesting, and hard-to sell documentaries and gotten them into theatres,” explains vice president Marc Mauceri. “When we’re looking for new films, it’s usually a gut reaction to something that moves or inspires us.”

Cowboy Booking International is a relatively new distributor, led by partners Noah Cowan and John Vanco. Their catalogue contains hundreds of films, including The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Aviva Kempner), Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen), Dear Jesse (Tim Kirkman) and On Hostile Ground (Liz Mermin and Jenny Raskin). Thanks to the digital revolution, more documentaries are being made than ever before, which makes their selection process of new films all the more challenging. “Part of the problem that we face is that there are far more documentaries we actually like than those that are actually capable of being distributed,” notes Cowan. “ I think we are in the golden age of the American documentary, but only a fraction can actually have a theatrical life. The American public has become much more used to seeing documentaries on television. So I think we are looking for films that have a very strong core audience who has an urgency about seeing the material,” he continues. “That’s what attracted us to Hank Greenberg and what equated to its success; its target audience wanted to see it and wanted to see it right away; they didn’t want to wait and see it on television.”

Adds Vanco, “Films we both feel passionately about and think are really powerful in some way are the films that we go after. I really think there are more great documentaries being made than great fiction features, but it’s an uphill struggle to convince audiences that there is something viable about seeing them in theatres. So we are always trying to be creative and figure out ways to have successful situations.”

For Udy Epstein, who founded Seventh Art Releasing in 1994 with partner Jonathan Cordish, specializing in documentaries naturally evolved from a personal love for the medium. “We are filmmakers turned distributors, basically,” he maintains. “That’s our sensibility. And it lends us to support the filmmaker in the final stages using whatever we can provide--in addition to the filmmakers’ means, which are always limited.” Seventh Art’s documentaries include the Oscar®-winning The Long Road Home (Rabbi Marvin Heier, Richard Trank, Mark Jonathan Harris), the Oscar®-nominated Long Night’s Journey Into Day (Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann) and American Pimp (Alan and Albert Hughes). “We made a conscious choice to focus on documentaries,” Epstein says. “We still do some fiction films, but we wanted to shift more to the production of documentaries…and we are looking for real-life stories told passionately and with a unique perspective.”

After attending the festivals, sifting through the plethora of submitted films and selecting a title, the distributor begins the real work of devising unique and effective marketing strategies to raise awareness for the film. As Mauceri explains, “When you acquire a film, you have to think about all the different ways that you’re going to get it out there and show it to the world. You have to figure out how you’re going to get the average person out there to part with eight or nine bucks and two hours of their time to see your film.”

Most distributors work closely with the filmmakers to conceive the right approach. It also helps if the filmmaker brings any associations that already support the project. “If there is a particular community or organization that is linked in some way to the film, we are going to try to utilize alliances with those people in order to generate as large an audience as possible,” explains Vanco. “You have to expand your core audience, and that is the key to making it successful.” With Hank Greenberg, Vanco, Cohen and Kempner (the film’s director) concentrated on making sure every baseball fan and older Jewish family who remembered hearing about Greenberg growing up knew about the film. “That’s why it worked,” adds Vanco. “We partnered with all the synagogues and all the Jewish groups, and we played it in a lot of theaters that had never played a documentary before, because we played it in suburbs where that older Jewish audience lives.”

For Epstein, The Long Road Home epitomized the success of collaborating with a filmmaker’s alliances. The film chronicles the struggle of survivors of the Holocaust to establish a homeland in Israel. Since the film’s producers had already gained support by showing the film to many influential social and religious organizations, positive word-of-mouth was generated, which helped the film not only attract a large audience, but also earn an Academy Award®. “We knew that if we could just get people to see the film, they would love it,” Epstein says. “And we felt that it was very important that a film like this should be seen, even when it doesn’t come from a major studio.”

Even if you are lucky enough to secure a theatrical distributor for your film, you may not want to head to the bank just yet. “Theatrical is considered the hard part of the whole thing,” notes Mauceri. “It’s very labor intensive, very expensive and not at all unusual to incur a loss on your theatrical distribution, even if your film is a hit. Advertising, posters, trailers and film prints all add up and you have to bring in an awful lot of film rental to cover the cost of that.”

Epstein adds, “ I think most documentary filmmakers are not in this business because they think it’s a good investment, but because they want to tell a good story. If they listen to reason, they will probably not do it. In that instance, I think that the documentary community is even more pure than our brothers and sisters in the low-budget fiction community because the stakes are higher.”

Although deals are structured with filmmakers in a variety of ways, most distributors insist on exclusive rights in most, if not all, markets. However, Cowan points out that a well-reviewed theatrical run of a doc can be extremely valuable in procuring the more profitable ancillary markets. “It’s very rare for them to make money in theatrical only,” he says. “You have to plan on losing money in those markets in order to do stuff on video, television and DVD. And although a successful theatrical run won’t necessarily make you rich, it can certainly help attract future financing to make more films.”

For documentarians with dreams of seeing their films in theatres, Vanco’s advice is to try to make films that challenge audiences and show them something they haven’t seen before. Epstein agrees, noting, “There are a lot of docs out there, but the ones that really stand out and work in a theatrical environment are the ones with something new to say.” Mauceri adds, “There will always be unique and wonderful docs that deserve to be seen in theaters widely. Whether it’s Hoop Dreams or Live Nude Girls Unite! or 42 Up, or Crumb or whatever. And I really think that if you make provocative, well-made films that take viewers someplace they haven’t been, you’re going to have people come to a theatre to see them.”


Rob Stone is an award-winning producer/director/writer of several documentaries and specials, which he has produced through his company Vienna Productions.