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They No Longer Do Windows: For Forward-Thinking Distributors, It's a New Day-and-Date

By Michael Galinsky

From Unknown White Male, which is airing on Court TV later this year. Court TV has been partnering with Wellspring Media, the theatrical distributor of the film, in a co-branding arrangement. Courtesy of Court TV

For many filmmakers, the driving force behind their work is telling the most compelling and emotionally complex story in the simplest way possible. In a perfect world, enough funding would come through to keep the work moving, but not so much that the team gets lazy. Then, after years of work, the finished film is brilliant, and it gets into a top-tier film festival, where there's a feeding frenzy for the right to distribute it. The filmmakers face a difficult choice of whether to take the most money or go with the company that has the best vision for the film. Three months later, riding the wave of publicity from the fest screenings and bidding wars, the film opens theatrically to packed houses in 10 cities simultaneously. It runs for months, slowing down just long enough to build up steam for the big TV premiere and subsequent DVD release...

Filmmakers can dream...Can't they? They can, but in general not too many docs make a big financially viable theatrical splash.

On the documentary listserv Doculink, a member recently wanted to know if anyone had information about what kind of documentaries made the most money. On the surface the question sounded a bit crass and commercial. But as he pointed out, he wasn't interested in getting into the documentary field to make a killing; he wanted to find out if he was going to be able to support himself and his family if he decided to take the plunge. 

Frankly, the documentary world--and the filmmaking world in general--is in the early stages of a hurricane. While production and distribution systems are in flux, the advent of low-cost production techniques, new distribution routes such as DVD/Netflix, Internet/cable and Internet-based Video on Demand (VOD), and a flood of product have created an increasingly fragmented marketplace that is in the throes of radical change.

While people are consuming more media than ever and the amount of product increases at an exponential pace, the problem isn't only about production and distribution; it's getting people to pay attention to your film. Robert Bahar, one of the founders and moderators of Doculink, points out, "The means of distribution isn't the problem; the marketing is the problem. We're entering a world in which different kinds and forms of media are competing for our attention. With all that product out there, how do you find someone interested in what you've created and then get them to pay for it?"

In the past 15 years, a fairly standard distribution route for higher-profile films (not necessarily documentaries) was a theatrical release followed by television and video as a further means of getting revenue from a film. In this model, films made money in the theater and took in further revenue from TV and video. With the advent of DVD, that model began to shift significantly. Now, in many if not most cases, the theatrical release is little more than marketing for the DVD. With documentaries it is also a means to raise the profile of a film enough to push for a better TV sale, which is often the main source of revenue for a documentary film.

As the bar for entry in terms of production has gotten lower, the amount of product flowing into the pipelines has increased dramatically. This means that broadcasters, distributors and consumers can be much pickier--and increasingly overwhelmed by what's out there. While the number of documentary films (and filmmakers) has increased dramatically, it's not so clear that a mainstream audience for a wide range of docs has grown. In addition, there are clearly more outlets for "reality" television, but there aren't that many new spots for one-off documentaries on TV. 

The few breakout films get a ton of press and sometimes even a big audience, but the vast majority of documentaries that hit theaters--even those that get outstanding press, don't do big numbers at the box office. Where does that leave the filmmakers and the distributors, all of whom need revenue in order to survive?

Many of us in the documentary world live in a fish bowl when it comes to our sense of how well known certain films are. We go to festivals and see a few films doing well on the circuit, racking up audience awards and great reviews. The reality is, outside this fairly closed society, many of those films go largely unknown, even many of those that show up in theaters, or get a big TV premiere or come out on DVD. With all the noise that's out there, it's a wonder that any film breaks out without an enormous marketing budget.

One company is facing these realities head-on. HDNet, which was started by Internet billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, recognizes that the windows (theatrical, television, video) that in the past were ways of driving further revenue have become added expenses in this increasingly crowded and accelerated media world. Cuban and Wagner decided to overhaul the windows model entirely. The partners bought Magnolia Pictures, the theatrical/DVD distributor, and Landmark Theatres, the exhibitor chain, and then launched HDNet, a high-definition cable channel, to screen and market their films. In January, the conglomerate released its first film on all three platforms at once. That film, Bubble (not a doc), didn't break any records. As such it probably won't cause a stampede towards a no-window approach. At the same time, a Pandora's box has been opened and the whole industry is watching.  

 "[We did it] because it was the right business move for our vertically integrated business and it matches consumer demand patterns," Cuban explains. When pressed on whether or not he thinks the rest of the industry will follow suit, he responds, "I don't know. We are doing it because it's right for us. Everyone has to make his own decisions." Clearly, Cuban looks at the big picture, then follows his gut. As such, he doesn't have simple guidelines for the kind of projects with which his company will be working. "There isn't a common element or elements," he maintains. "We look for opportunities we think are interesting"

Established TV cable outlets like A&E and Court TV are also looking for interesting opportunities by working with films on theatrical releases. These outlets will also be messing around with the windows by experimenting with "day-and-date" releases on some of their high profile films--"day-and-date" meaning that the film will be in the theater and on TV simultaneously in order to highlight the television premiere while alerting people to the fact that the film is in theaters.

According to Molly Thompson, director of programming at A&E IndieFilms, the network's feature doc division, "We want to become known as the destination for provocative, entertaining movies that just happen to be nonfiction." A&E IndieFilms' first foray into theatrical docs was the Academy Award-nominated Murderball. "We helped co-finance the film by putting up the TV money, based on the famous two-minute trailer; at the same time THINKFilm closed its theatrical deal. The filmmakers really needed the money to finish the film for Sundance; this was several months before the Park City madness that we got in." A&E IndieFilms is also starting to get involved with films at the very beginning or production. "We're much more excited about supporting films from the beginning, as opposed to doing a TV license deal," says Thompson. "We feel we can give a select few, truly deserving films a real leg-up early on."

While A&E IndieFilms isn't interested in taking on all of the responsibilities of a theatrical distributor, it sees real benefits to being involved from a marketing standpoint. "We are beginning to structure deals in a way that we get branding for the theatrical run so we don't totally lose out on the press that accompanies a theatrical release," Thompson points out. When asked about the changes taking place in the distribution and marketing arenas, she replies, "What I think is interesting is how the movie business changes when you don't have to ship out 35mm prints all over the country, when you just need a digital print. Someone is going to come along and teach us all a new way of doing business but, as always, it will be driven by a great movie."

Mark Fichandler, vice president of documentary development and international co-production at Court TV, explains that his company has similar goals in terms of partnering with theatrical distributors in order to get a marketing bang out of theatrical releases. It plans on dealing with approximately four films per year and is looking for those films that can "make some noise, compliment their brand and basically rise above the clutter." Court TV acquired its first title at Sundance last year and launched its initiative at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. "At Sundance a year ago, we acquired the rights to Unknown White Male," Fichandler recalls. "Wellspring took the theatrical rights and we have been working with them on co-branded screening events. It's kind of an experiment for us. It's been great in the press for us so far. How much of an impact it has remains to be seen. It certainly raises the profile of the project, and it has a great impact on the network and the brand."

According to Fichandler, Court TV is looking for films that "connect to our brand in a broad way--films that have to do with justice or investigation, things of that nature."  The company plans to both develop and acquire films. For example, it is currently working with producer Marc Levin on a film about former US Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman's 30-year quest to untangle the story behind the US government's involvement in bringing Nazi scientists to America.

Fichandler is excited about the possibilities of using the theatrical experience to expand the Court TV brand. "Clearly the collapsing of windows is interesting," he admits. "From my perspective, these films are not The Lord of the Rings, where one is going to cannibalize the other. These are smaller projects in which the buzz created from the theatrical helps the other formats. Grizzly Man is a good example. The broadcast happened while it was still in theaters, making it a much noisier project. The reality is that these smaller films can't sustain marketing for each window. If you can collapse that to some degree, it can help."

One of the reasons that TV channels are interested in theatrical runs for some of their breakout films is that the press world is still structured around theatrical releases.  The best and most respected writers write about films that are at festivals and in the theaters. In addition, major papers like The New York Times will review every film that opens in New York on a full theatrical basis. These reviews are vitally important to raising awareness of a film. A great percentage of The New York Times' readers live outside of the city, but they read the reviews, then add the favorably reviewed films to their Netflix queues.

Ted Sarandos, vice president of acquisitions at Netflix, understands this reality and is doing something about it. "Theatrically releasing films is a concession to the current reality that major market reviews help accelerate small films into the culture," he asserts. "Those critics write about films in theaters, even those showing on a single screen in their markets." For that reason, Netflix is jumping into theatrical releasing in a big way. "We are doing a full-fledged PR campaign to support the release of Cowboy del Amor in theaters and on DVD. This push includes media relations, events, a stunt in LA and outreach to Netflix customers."

I'm a filmmaker, but I'm also a distributor. As both I have seen the enormous effect that Netflix has had on the independent film world and distribution. When we released Horns and  Halos back in 2003, Netflix was getting bigger but didn't have a huge effect on what people would go to see in the theaters. Eight months later, when the film came out on DVD, Netflix bought nearly a quarter of the initial run. This was an absolutely positive net effect on indie film.

Netflix's dominance has arguably kept people away from the theater for films that they are less sure about; they can always get it on Netflix. Sarandos doesn't really see it this way. "Utilizing proprietary technology, Netflix is able to provide maximum visibility for little known films while giving filmmakers a platform to expose less commercial projects to a broader audience," he explains. "The Netflix original content initiative creates a national distribution channel for films and entertainment programming that is otherwise not available to broad audiences. Everyone wins--the customer, the filmmaker and Netflix.

Neflix is also facing the future head on. Acutely aware of the changing media landscape, it is investing serious resources in developing technology for a download service. "The company is called for a reason, not DVDs-by-Mail," Sarandos asserts.

In addition to all of these new initiatives, Without a Box jumped into the fray during Sundance, announcing a system to help filmmakers self-distribute. With iPods, Google Video, Video on Demand and an awareness within the press community that there are outstanding films that don't get big theatrical releases, things will change even more. 

Despite substantial press about it, HDNet's multi-window experiment with Bubble didn't yield encouraging results. Very few people went to see it in the theater, but the company they shipped 100,000 DVDs. Nonetheless, Cuban and Wagner have a full slate of simultaneous releases planned. The downside of this experiment is that the theatrical release was little more than marketing for the DVD. If audiences don't show up, it seems difficult to envision theatrical distribution remaining a viable force into the future

The playing field is no doubt changing, and it's probably going to end up looking a lot more like a circus than a football game.


Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker, distributor and father based in Brooklyn NY.