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 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, 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 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 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, 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’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. 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-

PBS “The Donner Party”

                         The Donner Party


Structure: The structure is chronological, starting with the preparation and departure to the arrival of the survivors in California.  The documentary uses three main devices for telling the story. These are a narrator, historians, and readings of primary sources. The visual elements include old maps, photographs and shots of the wilderness.  The primary sources are mostly letters or diaries written by the members of the party.


            The main argument of the documentary is the tendency of Americans during this time of westward expansion to pursue the dream of prosperity often disregarding common sense.  Manifest destiny became a race, with many overextending themselves and taking shortcuts.  The Donner party decided to take a shortcut against the advice of others who had been there and suffered the consequences of cutting corners.


            The supporting points are generally made by historians who have written a book on the Donner party.  These are examples of how this group of immigrants made several fatal decisions during the course of the journey in their rush to California.


            The film begins with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville with a quote that supports the main argument, that Americans chase prosperity with great intensity until death eventually halts them in their tracks.

            We start with a description of the beginning of the westward expansion which began in the 1840s.  Motivated by disease in the east and the promise of prosperity in the west, more than half a million people started along the trails to California. Among these were the Donner party who above all others retains a grisly legendary status.  This is followed by a segment supporting the main point.  Interviews clips with two historians speculate as to the motivations that lead to the party’s downfall, ambition and greed among them.

            We now turn to Lansford Hastings who will be one of the main characters in the narrative. He made the maps the that the Donner party follows, despite the fact that Hastings had never been on his own trail and was completely ignorant of the inherent dangers it contained.  He sees prosperity for himself in “aiding” the immigrants in their journeys.  There are also reactions to Hastings from historians who see him as highly driven but also very irresponsible.

            The next segment is the introduction of the Donner party.  Despite already having achieved prosperity in Illinois the Donner and Reed families decide to go west for the land rush in California.  James Reed is the originator of the trip and the description also includes that of the extravagant two story wagon of the Reed family.  This is supported by primary source quotes.  The narrator advances the story to independence, Missouri where the party resupplies and Lansford Hastings decides to see what his trail looks like.  The trail coming out of independence is very hard for the Donner party with mud, rain and the first death, Sarah Keyes.  Alternating between the narrator and primary source quotes, the party reaches the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

            Here the Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Here we have the second sequence supporting the main argument. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”

            Summer finds the Donner party heading to Fort Bridger where Hastings has promised to personally lead wagon trains through his shortcut. When the party arrives, however, Hastings has already left with another group.  James Reed reasons that the shortcut will save hundreds of miles and so they will be able to make the trip in only seven weeks. They elect George Donner as the captain of the wagon train and take Hastings cutoff where the traveling is smooth for about a week until they reach an impasse. Hastings has left and note and later advises them to find a different route through the mountains.

            With James Reed at the lead, the party leaves the trail and goes into the mostly uncharted wilderness.  This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California.  This was the point of no return.

            It took a month to get across the first mountains and to the shore of the Great Salt Lake and it was supposed to take a week to go this distance.  Still following the notes left by Hastings the party slowly went on until they reach the salt plains. Another member dies of consumption.  Contemporary historians call the attempt to cross the salt desert, “foolishness”. Hastings had underestimated the distance across by about half and without enough supplies oxen became heat crazy and many were lost, which meant the abandoning of several wagons.  The misery of the situation is described by primary sources.  Hastings arrives in California but the Donner party still has a long way to go.

            Fall finds the party with tempers wearing thin and James Reed kills John Snyder and is banished.  The Reed family continues with no sign of the patriarch.  The Donner party finally reaches the beginning of the sierras and receives some supplies as well as two Indian guides.  Just a few days away from crossing the mountain pass, it starts to snow and the settlers are completely stuck on the shores of the lake.  James Reed survives until Sutter’s fort and finds that his family is stuck in the snow covered mountains.  He is unable to raise a rescue party because everyone is fighting the Mexicans in California.

            The settlers build a winter camp and much of the information from this point is from the diary of Irishman Patrick Breen.  The snow continues and the pioneers watch for a relief effort and eat their livestock.  The snow becomes hopelessly deep, animals are lost and a third member of the party dies of malnutrition.  “The Forlorn Hope” describes fifteen men and women who decided to make another effort at escape.  Five people died quickly and the remaining ten committed the first act of cannibalism.  Several people had died back at the lake but six members of the forlorn hope made it out of the mountains and were fed.

            With the war in California over, two rescue teams were assembled with James Reed leading the second.  The first relief party reached the lake in mid February and found most people dead or dying.  Leaving a few supplies with the people remaining at the lake, the first party heads back and encounters James Reed on the way. The second relief party finds the camp alive only by eating the flesh of the dead.  The third relief party found only seven people left alive and the fourth and final rescue effort found one man alive, delirious and surrounded by human bones stripped of meat.  About half of the Donner party survived and most of them went on to lead normal lives in California.  When gold was discovered the rush to the west became a flood and what is now known as the Donner Pass became a tourist attraction.  It had taken one year for the Donner party to travel from Illinois to California in search of prosperity.
















This is the first sequence that supports the main point, a historian commenting on Hastings view of the American dream, “It’s all mixed up with the romance and the so-called ‘heroism’ of the westward migration and the big American dream. The American dream has some nightmares attached to it and this is one of the ways the American dream could go. The American dream probably resulted in for most of the people who followed it like a marsh light in disaster.”


This is the second segment that supports the main argument. The Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”


This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California. 


Unzipped (1994)

The journey starts with a depressed fashion designer whose last show did not go over well but he is plunging forward with the next one. Judging from the cover and synopsis of Unzipped, it might be a film only suited to high fashion aficionados. Fashion and modeling no doubt attract a small devout following but do not seem to have such a general appeal. The film worked very well, however, in that the subject was engaging and interesting and the clothing was a motivating undercurrent. One of the main reasons the way Mizrahi is shown works is because he is not exactly what is expected. We have a stereotypical image of a male fashion designer and he would fit the mold perfectly but only at first. As the film progresses, we see him as a dedicated artist and not as a prissy prima donna. Despite the effeminate mannerisms and frilly surroundings, it becomes clear that this is hard work and he has a very difficult job to do. This realization generates an amount of respect for him because he doesn’t cry or break down and bemoan the circumstances. He works through problems that would drive me to violence and that is quite admirable.

            While some of the shakier handheld segments cry out for Dramamine, the film has a lot of interesting and innovative techniques. One technique that works well was the idea of the character narrating his actions. Having a voice over while we watch Mizrahi silently go about his designing works much better than watching and hearing him talk at the same time.  It is also very amusing to see how the models give the camera a dirty look when it is turned on them.

Some of the more interesting scenes and the ones that make Mizrahi genuinely likeable are the intimate ones that only came about because of the closeness between the director and Mizrahi. Scenes like dinner in a small Paris café give us a much more personal connection. One scene where he is sitting in bed watching Nanook is emblematic of how he was portrayed overall. He hasn’t gotten out of bed but seems perfectly comfortable there, smoking and taking notes on the hundred year old documentary Nanook of the North. That film eventually inspired the guiding design principle behind the show.

            This documentary tackles a subject that usually appeals to a very specific audience and makes it accessible for a more general audience.  The style of visual storytelling is certainly a large factor in making the film compelling but the real success comes in the character development. We see a disparate designer the day after a failed show and after going through thousands of cigarettes and fabric swatches, he emerges triumphant with a new, unique style and a successful show as well.





Nanook of the North (1922)

For the most part I found this documentary to be very interesting. There were parts where I was bored by the pace and the blankness of the snow. The thing I liked best was the contrast between what the Eskimos looked like when walking around and the closer shots. In much of the film, they look like wooly cavemen who are scratching out a miserable existence with Stone Age tools. When we get a close up of Nanook and his family, however the whole feeling changes. I stopped thinking that they would be much happier if they had a house and a fireplace and saw that they were content and certainly didn’t look like they were terribly unhappy with their lives.  One thing I kept thinking was how valuable the film is as a way to look into the past, much farther back than 1913.  It seems to me that we could have been looking at our distant ancestors during the ice age and it gave me a real respect for people who survive only by hunting in sub-zero temperatures.


Leila Khaled: Hijacker (2006)

Leila Khaled: Hijacker is a documentary that looks at the life of one of the most infamous Palestinian activists and examines the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter.  While this semantic debate is a strong undercurrent throughout the film, the main emphasis is on two women separated by a generation and upbringing. The filmmaker Lina Makboul is a significant on-screen character who finds her teenage idol and tries to get her to open up. The film follows this timeline in the present as well as tracing the activities of Leila Khalid almost four decades ago. These alternating narratives compliment each other very well mainly because of the rapport between the two women created by belief in a common cause. Makboul is also a Palestinian but unlike Khaled, she grew up in a very different place in a very different time.

The film follows Khaled through her two hijackings, arrest, and release into exile. Archival footage is used very effectively to give viewers the historical context that is often absent from popular knowledge. Interviews with the victims of the hijackings include pilots and passengers and do not seem to bring up particularly painful memories.  The Israeli pilot is certainly more hostile towards Khaled but both passengers and pilots seem to have put the incidents far in the past and outside of the current political climate. Indeed, much of the positive coverage of Khaled seems to be dependant on the fact that no one was hurt as a result of her actions.

Present day Leila Khalid is shown as a wife and mother who, while still active in protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, leads a normal life albeit in exile. Interviews with Khaled are very personal, often including the director in conversation. Beyond supporting a free and independent Palestine and condemning the attacks of 9/11, Khalid does not venture her political views as much as we would like to hear. It is clear that she supports the right of people to defend themselves violently if necessary and that she believes herself to be a freedom fighter and not a terrorist. However, what she might support to get her homeland back remains off the record. History is written by the victors to be sure, but a terrorist is someone who uses the threat of violence against civilians in an effort to accomplish a goal.  Leila Khalid was a terrorist but that category also has to include Nelson Mandela and the Israeli government

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire (2004)

One would not think that the story of an elderly Canadian man could also be a profound and emotional telling of the Rwandan genocide. Media coverage (pointedly after the fact) of the genocide and the conditions that led to it has been abundant but in Shake Hands with the Devil, we are presented with a totally unique victim of the atrocities. Romeo Dallaire is an injured soul and the film takes us on a journey to see the devils that tore apart a country and the mind of a UN general.

The mass killings, rotting bodies, and demonic men with machetes tell a gruesome and horrible tale that turns the stomach and hurts the mind. The genocide evokes emotions such as sadness and confusion. Anger, however, is the emotion most strongly connected with the UN, the catholic church, and the world community at large. Dallaire expresses his frustration and anger at the UN for abandoning the country despite having relevant information, the church for not trying to prevent genocide, and the world for simply ignoring the situation. Former General Dallaire gives a speech on the tenth anniversary of the genocide where he bluntly tells survivors that what happened happened because the world does not care about a small African nation with no resources. The token western representatives present do not seem pleased.

Ultimately the story is about one man who watched a disaster unfold with his hands tied and was changed to the point where alcoholism and suicide were his natural escapes.  Ten years later, as the former general tours the country; we can see the nightmares in his eyes. His pain is vivid at times as he recalls the paradise he entered and the hell he left. At other times we can see that healing has taken place such as during a reunion with his soldiers. He is excited to meet survivors whose very existence lifts Dallaire’s spirit because he can share some of the pain with someone. We see that he is trying to accept his role and as hard as that must be, he has taken a huge step by returning to the scene. The general is able to laugh and smile even when recalling overwhelming situations and seems to have finally made some peace with the rolling green hills of Rwanda.