Documentary Film Distribution

The media landscape has certainly changed in the last few years. A dramatic example of this is the way non-fiction films are distributed. Ten years ago there were only a few places where independent producers might sell their documentaries. Today there are many more outlets. What are these new opportunities? Describe at least three case studies of non-fiction films that have profited from these new avenues of distribution.

Changes in the media landscape in the past decade or so have vastly increased opportunities for independent documentary filmmakers to secure distribution. The ever-growing number of film festivals and markets have widened the playing field for those seeking the traditional distribution model, while the Internet and grass roots marketing have made the potential for successful self-distribution a reality.
For many years film festivals have played an essential role in the distribution of independent films and more specifically documentary films. It is with the help of these festivals that audiences are exposed to more documentary films. Film festivals in the past have been successful in introducing and distributing foreign films but it wasn’t until the past few years that documentaries have become some of the most talked about and successful films.
A film festival is an established venue that organizes screening and prizes. The festivals main objective is to introduce movies of a certain kind to an audience. Attendees include, but our not limited to, distribution executives, critics, journalists and the general public. With distribution of a film being critical to its success, film festivals have proved to be a great resource for up and coming filmmakers. With specific calls for entries, low entry fees, rules, and publicized results, festivals are a hotbed for independent filmmakers seeking distribution and provide an environment ripe with opportunities. A win of any kind at a festival gives filmmakers the stamp of approval and bragging rights that sometimes lead to wide distribution of the film.
While the world’s first major film festival was held in Venice in 1932, the Edinburgh International Film Festival in Scotland was established in 1947 and is the longest continually running film festival in the world. Other notable festivals are Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca and Toronto.
Toronto is internationally renowned for the Toronto International Film Festival. After beginning in 1976, it is now the major North American film festival and the most widely attended worldwide, while Toronto’s Hot Docs is the leading North American documentary film festival. The largest festival, in terms of the number of features shown, is the Seattle International Film Festival, screening 270 features, and approximately 150 short films.”
During festivals, territorial deal making occurs which offers the potential for more distribution opportunities. If a film is hot, a bidding war will most likely ensue, increasing the demand for the film and filmmaker. Independent distributors who are looking to acquire certain films for their home territory are anxious to buy.
Distributors use film festivals as an opportunity to acquire films, mostly through negative pickup deals, to announce deals to the press and industry and to enter into partnerships, all of which would benefit a documentary film if picked up. Theatrical distributors range from divisions of large studios like Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Paramount classics to stand-alone companies like Newmarket, Strand and Lions Gate.
One of the most recent success stories resulting from a film festival was Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney of Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room. The controversial film tells the story of a taxi driver who dies in custody after being tortured by the American military. The film also examines U.S. torture policy. Although there have been a slew of war docs that have already come out in the past 3 to 4 years, Taxi to the Dark Side has had relative success.
Taxi to the Dark Side won big at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. According to a New York Times article, 34 films that premiered in 2007 received distribution, which was roughly twice as many as the year before. After the win at Tribeca, the movie received theatrical and video distribution from Think Films. After its theatrical success, the film was nominated and won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature during the 2007 Academy Awards. The film did run into a road block when, after purchasing the television distribution rights, Discovery Communications’ Investigation Discovery channel decided it was going to postpone airing in it on television. Some have speculated that this was due to the fact that the Presidential election is approaching. However, with the Oscar win and critical acclaim, HBO Network stepped in and purchased the television distribution rights.
In addition, Taxi to the Dark Side is part of the Why Democracy? series. The series consists of ten documentary films from around the world questioning and examining contemporary democracy. The Why Democracy? series, which took almost four years to make, was launched in November 2004 at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. The series was sold to over 40 broadcasters. As part of the series Taxi to the Dark Side was broadcast in no less than 35 different countries around the world in October of 2007.
As film festivals and distributors continue to provide opportunities for documentary films, and if the audience’s interest and consumption continues to increase, documentary films will maintain a prominent place in the film market and arena. David Straus and Joe Neulight created Withoutabox.com in 2000 to aid filmmakers in applying for film festivals. Instead of filling out multiple applications, all filmmakers need to do is fill out one online form, upload their film’s press kit, and they are then able to submit their work to hundreds of film festivals. Since their company acquired Film Finders and Rightsline, Withoutabox.com now makes it even easier for independent filmmakers to find a distributor or self-distribute. By adding the benefits of Film Finders, the site helps buyers and sellers identify films, where they are playing, and which rights are obtainable. With the features of Rightsline, Straus and Neulight have created an “eBay for films,” by giving independent filmmakers the ability to direct buyers who might want to help promote or distribute their film to their particular sites, as well as helping create a financial transaction between the two parties.
One independent documentary has definitely found success with Withoutabox.com: The Tribe. Independent filmmakers, Chris Mais and Tiffany Shlain created, according to the film’s site “An unorthodox, unauthorized history of the Jewish people and the Barbie doll.” They used Withoutabox to secure placement for the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, at which it received the 2006 Indiewire’s Sundance Critic’s Choice award.
They now use the site’s services to promote upcoming screenings of their film, as well as use the new “Audience” feature, which facilitates a relationship between filmmakers and their fan bases. This feature is used on The Tribe’s own Web site, under its “Share Thoughts” page, where users, be they the press, film professors, Jewish educators, or fans, can rate and review the documentary. Also on the page is a link directing users to “The Tribe Curriculum,” the documentary’s own wiki-style page. The page is where educators, community leaders, and the general public can contribute and share thoughts and ideas about The Tribe with people across the world. With all of these features, independent documentary filmmakers, like Mais and Shlain, can have their films widely penetrate the distribution market, as well as have audiences be involved with their films just as much as their big-budget counterparts.
One documentary filmmaker in particular is known for having been among the first producers to harness the power of the Internet as a distribution tool. Robert Greenwald is a pioneer when it comes to do-it-yourself distribution. In 2003 he promoted his film, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, through his own Web site and through left-wing political outlets such as AlterNet, The Nation Institute, and Moveon.org. He managed to sell 100,000 copies through streaming video online. The film was then picked up for DVD distribution by the Disinformation Company and sold over 120,000 DVDs. By June of 2004, Greenwald had secured cable TV and theatrical distribution deals through the Sundance Channel and Cinema Libre respectively. The film grossed over $80,000 within the first two weeks of limited release, according to Variety, which is impressive considering that theatrical release was not even part of Greenwald’s initial distribution plan.
His goal for his politically-charged documentaries is to get the word out by any means necessary, which is why he once again employed grass-roots marketing to self-distribute Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism in 2004. The film criticizes the Fox News Channel for biased, right-leaning reporting, and Greenwald started out with regional screenings for members of the media. The film was also shown throughout the country at 3,000 house screening parties facilitated by Moveon.org, which had over 2 million members at the time. According to Variety, the organization also placed a full-page ad in the New York Times to promote the film that declared, “The Communists had Pravda (a newspaper run by the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union). Republicans have Fox.”
The Disinformation Company quickly picked up Outfoxed for DVD release and it became number one on Amazon.com’s bestseller list within one week of its release on July 13th, surpassing pre-orders for the widescreen DVD of The Star Wars Trilogy and The Passion of the Christ. Within three weeks, over 100,000 units had been sold. This success led to a theatrical distribution deal with Cinema Libre, which released Outfoxed on August 13th in five theaters in Los Angeles and New York, resulting in over $78,000 in ticket sales that weekend. The film’s theatrical release generated a total gross of $405,900 and is Cinema Libre’s highest-grossing film to date.
Documentaries, by their very nature, usually appeal to a very specific audience and are therefore particularly suited for non-theatrical distribution strategies. Robert Greenwald set himself apart by finding innovative ways to reach his target audience through partnerships with grass-roots organizations that support the message his films promote. Moveon.org would not even have been a potential partner just over a decade ago, since it was not founded until September of 1998, but now the existence of this organization and others like it, as well as outlets such as Netflix, Withoutabox, film festivals such as Tribeca and markets such as MipDoc, have provided distribution options that were previously unheard of. The sky is the limit for independent documentary filmmakers seeking the exposure they need and deserve.

-Contributed by Nadine, Charla, and Billy-

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1 Comment

  1. Hello, of course this article is truly nice and I have learned lot of things from it
    concerning blogging. thanks.


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