It’s a new year, Oscar Campaigning is in full swing and that must mean one thing….Sundance is upon us!

There is no doubt that Sundance is the best launching pad for documentaries in the US if not the world. 10 of the 15 Oscar Shortlisted Docs premiered at Sundance, including the highest grossing doc of the year, 20 Feet from Stardom. Furthermore almost 90% of all docs had some form of domestic distribution secured.

There has been a lot of chatter about the recent New York Times article talking about too many films entering into a shrinking marketplace. I am usually quite the pessimist and cynic, but in this instance it is one of the best things that could have happened for film. THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION.

I REPEAT…

THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION. Looking at the films from last year’s festival, it becomes clear that the options are endless. And many films have combined approaches for their DIY. Netflix is distributing the audience award winner, The Square starting January 17. The film had a small DIY theatrical with the help of Participant Media, but that’s not the end of it. When it debuts on Netflix, it will also be available on GATHR only expanding the film’s reach.

With all this said, every filmmaker should be making distribution plans from the beginning. Put money aside to cover a festival premiere (publicist, lodging, travel, prints, etc) and for the strong possibility of a self financed release. Perhaps you’ll never have to use it. But it is better to be prepared.

Now with my rant out of the way, here’s a look at how the film’s from last year’s festival fared in distribution.

EVERY SINGLE US DOCUMENTARY and DOCUMENTARY PREMIERE selection had some form of domestic distribution, but multiple world doc films have yet to line something up in the States.

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DOCUMENTARY WINNERS

TV DOCS  (HBO, SHOWTIME, CNN):

HBO acquired TV rights to or produced 7 documentaries from last year’s festival.

Gideon’s Army, Life According to Sam (whose subject passed away this week), Manhunt, and Valentine Road all world premiered in the US Documentary Competition. The Crash Reel and Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington screened as documentary premieres and the network acquired world doc entry Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer for $1,000,000.

Not only does the network connect these films with far more viewers than they could reasonably expect in a theatrical release, but these films are also some of the critical favorites. Four of the seven films are on the Oscar shortlist for documentaries and a fifth won an Emmy.

HBO is not the only TV player in town.

Showtime aired History of the Eagles Part One and The World According To Dick Cheney which were both in the Documentary Premieres section. The Eagles Doc was also an Emmy Award Winner.

CNN Films partnered with Magnolia on Blackfish. The film has been seen by over 20,000,000 people worldwide and grossed north of $2,000,000 in the US. It made the Oscar Shortlist and has been cited as a key reason Sea World’s revenue is down over 30% this year. The acquisition was for $1,000,000, split between the network and Magnolia and certainly profitable for the latter. The company also had Pandora’s Promise which grossed $66k theatrically, but got hundreds of thousands more views on the TV screen via the broadcaster.

sundance docs 2013

MUSIC DOCS 

Three of the five highest grossing Sundance docs from last year were about singers/musicians (3 of the top 5 were also sold by Submarine and 4 of the top 5 were distributed by Radius-TWC or Magnolia) Clearly, they are resonating with a larger audience and the top players in documentaries recognize this. What’s truly impressive though is two of these films were day and date releases.

Sound City was a self financed release and dominated iTunes while also grossing over $400,000 in the care of Variance Releasing. While Variance handled the theatrical release of Sound City and Dave Grohl and his team did their own direct distribution through VHXGravitas Ventures handled the traditional VOD release of the film both in North America and internationally, including on iTunes.  The film has grossed north of 7 figures on VOD since Gravitas Ventures launched it almost a year ago. Muscle Shoals has managed just under $700,000 with Magnolia at the helm, but theirs is a traditional distribution situation and the acquisition amount was not stated. Twenty Feet From Stardom also had a traditional release and has grossed just under $5 million and is RADIUS-TWC highest grossing film to date. The film, acquired for just over a $1 million, is also a top performer digitally and has been selling well internationally.

SELF FINANCED IS POPULAR

Over 25% of Sundance 2013 docs pursued some form of self-distribution.

Running From Crazy, Blood Brother, The Square, God Loves Uganda, American Promise, Linsanity, When I Walk, Sound City, Pandora’s Promise and the yet to be released Citizen Koch all went for self financed theatricals.

Linsanity and Citizen Koch both raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter for their theatrical releases.  Linsanity has made $299,408 in cinemas. This more than justifies the DIY campaign and assuming they didn’t pour extra money into the release would net them just over $100,000 before digital and other ancillary are factored in.

The Square, which is the first Netflix Documentary pick up, had a small Oscar Qualifying run that turned into a little bit more and helped the film make the shortlist. It has grossed over $50,000 to date. That threshold was also exceeded by fellow shortlist film God Loves Uganda. Variance is releasing God Loves Uganda and should either film make the final Oscar cut you can expect additional revenue. That said, neither release appears to be profitable on its own. Variance said a few years ago they wouldn’t do a release for under $20,000 and cinemas do take a large chunk of revenues. Add the cost of Oscar Campaigning and the absence of the Netflix deal and God Loves Uganda clearly needs the Oscar nomination to boost its bottom line for digital (It will air on PBS later this year).

Running From Crazy quietly earned $33k, When I Walk did not report totals and Blood Brother has grossed over $50,000, but all through TUGG screenings.  Blood Brother’s total is at once impressive and instantly disappointing. The film won the audience and grand jury awards, but failed to generate major buyer interest. ITVS has TV and Cinedigm has digital rights, but the film has become one of the lower grossing performer’s for a major festival award winner. At the same time, it screened at festivals left and right and, while skipping week long engagements, has screened at churches and small towns around the country. It may ultimately reach $100,000 via TUGG.

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DOCUMENTARY UNDERPERFORMERS

While Sundance continues to push for a lot of political docs, they are far from the best performers at the box office. After Tiller is a great film, but hardly a Friday night date movie. Festival revenue has provided a boost for the Oscilloscope release, but with under $70k in theatrical and a solid push for Oscar (it was not shortlisted) feels like a disappointment.  Similarly award winners The Square and Blood Brother also are far from the top of the pack at the box office.

Meanwhile, over 1/3 of the World Doc films have nothing lined up for the States and Fire in the Blood is the lowest grossing Sundance Doc from last year that reported box office totals. It still has made about $20k and much of it from TUGG.

Other underperformers include Cutie and the Boxer, which was not day and date, and The Summit, which was one of the biggest doc deals at low 7 figures from Sundance Selects, but failed to pass $300k theatrically. Compared to films like Dirty Wars (IFC) which pulled in $371, 245 and Inequality for All (Radius-TWC) grossing $1.1 million, the buy was a bust.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how the narrative films from Sundance 2013 fared in release.

January 15th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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sxsw 2013 film guide

Upon returning from the constantly evolving confab of everything tech and media that is SXSW, I was asked by a friend to describe in one word what attending the festival was like. Without hesitation I uttered, “spam”.  SXSW is a little bit of everything. This is both what continues to make it a viable event and also its Achilles heel.

For those who have never been, here’s are some quick facts on what differentiates the festival from other major fests in the US (Sundance, Tribeca, Telluride, LAFF, etc):

SXSW is a FOR PROFIT.  Filmmakers pay their own way to attend (though badges are comped).

There are no press and industry screenings and there is no formal sales market. You either have a film badge or you don’t and it’s first come first serve. This means you could go to a screening and 20 people are there or the line could wrap around the block.

Not only are films screened, but they have a comedy festival, a music festival, a tech conference and it all overlaps with the film festival. They fill the fest with literally hundreds of panels and discussions on just about every topic you could think of.

What makes the festival work is its completely open atmosphere. People who otherwise might be closed off to a filmmaker are not only accessible but they are often willing to talk. At the SXSW closing party you had shorts filmmakers rubbing shoulders with Brie Larson while local college students conversed with distributors over shots. It was truly a sight to  see.

I have been going to the festival for a few years now and this year’s crop was a real eclectic and fresh bunch of films. The documentary slate was WAY, WAY stronger than the past few years, but there also wasn’t a clear stand out. To my mind, it was also the gayest year on record with no fewer than a dozen docs that prominently feature LGBTQI+ story lines.  Even the non queer films I saw like Unhung Hero were packed with gay men enjoying a virtual tour through a Penis garden in South Korea (literally).

I would also like to personally applaud the filmmakers of those docs for supporting one another. It was great to see how many of the producers/directors showed up to one another’s screenings. This is yet another distinction from the festival standard. Filmmakers at SXSW find the time to go see a few films from other filmmakers (honestly I have no idea how with so much going on, but the point is that they do it).

Which brings me to the one constant theme that I heard from people during the fest. It is just too many things going on at once. Sometimes fewer choices is beneficial. I will attest that creating my schedule for SXSW took me 3x as long than creating my schedule for Sundance. While SXSW had about 25 or so fewer world premieres, they actually screened almost 20 more films in total. They also do not start film screenings till 11:00 AM so you have one less screening slot per day.

But even if there were no films, there is still the tradeshow with hundreds of vendors, mock casting sessions, panels, meet ups, over 3000 bands performing, parties on each corner, sponsored stations, and dozens of brand new startups. In fact, one of the most rewarding things during the festival that I did was go to a meet up of new film oriented companies.

The fest this year extended more premieres into the second half of the festival (when the much larger music festival often results in a mass exodus from the film venues) and it did seem to help. Attendance was clearly up during the second half of the festival. In some cases, films were even able to fill up which I would not have imagined possible judging from previous years

The deals this year have been a bit slower than in year’s past, but expect them to trickle down in the coming months. Interestingly, the two of the three distributors (Drafthouse and Magnolia) that have acquired world premieres from the festival have deep ties to the state of Texas. Drafthouse Films bought the midnight film Cheap Thrills and fellow midnight entry Haunter was acquired by IFC Midnight. Gross out horror comedy Milo was bought Magnet (The genre arm of Magnolia) and indie darling, Joe Swanberg, sold his film Drinking Buddies to Magnolia.

Other films to announce deals at or just before the festival include audience award winning docs The Punk Syndrome (GoDigital) and A Band Called Death (Drafthouse Films). Fellow doc, These Birds Walkwent to Oscilloscope.  Sundance breakout Muscle Shoals was acquired by Magnolia who clearly had a busy festival. It is worth noting that the producers have chosen to donate all profits to two different music organizations.

SXSW has solidified its place as the younger, hipper, indie version to Sundance. The films tend to skew more towards genre fare, there are plenty of comedies, the docs go more human interest than overtly political, and often what the films lack in polish they make up for in gusto. This is the festival that has recognized some of the freshest voices in indie film like the Duplass Brothers, Amy Seimetz, and of course Lena Dunham.

In talking with filmmakers, it is clear a lot more are willing to take matters into their own hands and pursue DIY. There is very little of the big producer ego permeating through the festival and for filmmakers who attend, they can see what will be the norm in the next two-three years by embracing the new tech companies whose presence, while a distraction, is also part of the charm.

I also would like to applaud the festival for staying true to its Austin roots. There were a large amount of Texas based films that made it into the festival. Austin is an indie film pioneer and playing with the big boys of NY/LA. The commitment to championing their own is admirable, but the truth is these films by and large are as good (if not better) than fellow entries from the larger and more typically thought of film hubs.

While SXSW still has work to do in shaking off the image of being the second choice to Sundance, the fact is they are growing at a rapid pace and the quality of films is constantly improving.   Since it takes place after Sundance and Berlin, it will never be able to equal their heights on the sales front, but if distributors were smart, they would intentionally hold out for a SXSW film or two to add to their slate. Especially if they have a good VOD/Digital operation in place.

Finally, I can’t in good conscience finish this post without mentioning that I won $70 in gift cards from Fandango by twice stumping their guru on 80’s film trivia. Thank you Fandango and I look forward to using the gift cards to see more of the films from SXSW as they enter into the theatrical marketplace.

March 23rd, 2013

Posted In: Film Festivals

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