Before the opening night gala screening of Werner Herzog’s new film Into the Abyss today at the DOC NYC festival, a panel of film distributors took time to speak about the state of documentary distribution, both in the traditional television and theatrical markets as well as some newer untested models. While convincing mainstream audiences to see theatrically-released documentaries continues to be a struggle, the panelists—representing Magnolia Pictures, Zeitgeist Films, Sundance Selects and Cinema Guild—all agreed that theatrical distribution is still very strong and alive today. Bill Cunningham New York, for example, continues its unprecedented, lengthy run at the IFC Center, boosting its box office receipts beyond 1.5 million. Herzog’s previous documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, has grossed beyond 5 million. Thanks to its 3D presentation, larger chain theaters were supportive of the film and willing to give it a spot next to the Justin Bieber documentary released at the same time.
The panelists saw that ticket sales are possible even in smaller markets, but that some may take a push to sell: it’s all about managing expectations. While only peanuts for a Hollywood blockbuster, $500,000 in box office sales is considered a success for a documentary. The trick, they said, is findings films you’re passionate about and knowing the audience you’re looking for. Films like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work or social issue documentaries like Food, Inc., in many cases, have an advantage because of the built-in audience composed of fans or active and concerned citizens. Without a neatly-defined target audience, a documentary could have difficulty gaining traction during a theatrical release, but the panelists emphasized that success is still possible.
Increasingly, documentarians and their distributors are taking advantage of digital release strategies and video on demand (VOD), technologies that seem uniquely positioned to aid documentary films. While Hollywood still experiments, and largely fails, with new digital business models (take the recent Tower Heist example), documentaries thrive in the format. In some cases, films are available on VOD prior to their theatrical release date. The tactic may make some audiences interested in seeing the film early, but could alienate theater owners. As always, “it’s a trade off,” said one panelist. While technology continues to suggest alternative business models, the old methods and factors of documentary distribution still apply today. New online viewing platforms “come and go every day,” it seems, but, despite the doom and gloom pundits may have you believe people remain willing to pay to see documentaries in the theater. That is, of course, as the panelists noted, if the film is good.