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Digital Docs: Can They Save the Theatrical Market?

By Pamela Yoder

Editor’s note: With “Reality Check,” we launch a new column, penned by Steve Rosenbaum, CEO of CameraPlanet, in which he addresses issues about the art, craft and business of documentary making.

When the mighty Cannes Film Festival honors a documentary—Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine—for the first time in 35 years, documentary filmmakers sit up and take notice. When distributor Bingham Ray and United Artists pick up that documentary for a reported $5 million, filmmakers think that docu-nirvana may be approaching. And when a film like The Kid Stays in the Picture bows to solid reviews and reasonable box office, well, it may be time to stop referring to the term “documentary business” as an oxymoron.

But don’t start racking up credit card debt for your next doc feature just yet. Those examples are still very much a rarity.

There is an emerging trend, however, that promises to have just as important an impact on nonfiction filmmakers: A number of serious business enterprises have focused on building new digital delivery systems for independent fiction films and documentaries. These feisty and determined visionaries imagine a time where films can “platform” release in just a handful of markets, then expand gradually as press, buzz and box office drives audiences to the theaters.

The concept of “platform” releasing isn’t new; independent film distributors have been doing it with specialty product for years. What is new is an economic model that puts the cost of distribution in line with more limited box office potential.

Madstone Theatres is a venture that has digital screens open in Ann Arbor, Cleveland, Denver, San Diego, Albuquerque, Cary (North Carolina) and Chandler (Arizona). Madstone’s Digital Distribution Network is using the latest in digital projection technology to show the finest in first-run independent films, current and classic films and alternative enterainment from the worlds of fashion and music.

Tom Gruenberg, president of Madstone Theatres, explains, “In the past, these niches were just too small to make any sense financially, when you consider that a single 35mm film print costs at least $20,000. But now with digital [distribution], we’re reducing both the costs of the print and the cost of the venue. All in all, it allows a small [film] to make money, both for us and for the filmmakers.”

The other player is Emerging Cinemas, a team made up of film veteran Barry Rebo, Ira Deutchman and Giovanni Cozzi. The Emerging team is working with existing venues like museums and community centers to fund and build digital centers with them. Rebo says the plan is to make these centers profitable for both the partners and the filmmakers. Emerging Cinemas expects to have its first venues operating by 2003.

But the surprise player in this digital world may also be the largest. Regal Entertainment is the newly launched public company that owns the assets of Regal, United Artists Theatres and Edwards Theatres. Under the banner Regal CineMedia, the company has already wired more than 4,000 screens in the US (of the more than 6,900 it owns). Kurt Hall, the president of Regal, believes there is a enormous opportunity in bringing digital documentaries and unseen digital features to new audiences. The cost of film prints makes a lot of small projects impossible in the old world of 35mm projection, but Regal could be changing that.

So what does this mean for you, the documentary filmmaker? Well, it could mean a lot, but only if several things begin to change. Niche film marketing doesn’t exist, and like it or not, documentaries are niches. People who want to see a film about Vietnamese adoption issues or a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor certainly number in the ten or hundreds of thousands. Today, an indie film needs to sell tens of thousands of tickets in order to break even. And a good deal of the costs is in prints and advertising.

So, over the next few years, a number of things need to happen. Screens need to become wired for digital distribution. Audiences need to consider going to see topics and films that are not marketed with multi-million dollar budgets. And filmmakers need to become more savvy about the potential of digital projection, as opposed to film.

Finally, it may be possible to create a “documentary business,” in which filmmakers, distributors and theaters all make money. That’s when the real fun starts.

It’s likely to be an era in which small and mid-sized films actually find a way to reach their audiences, and balance costs and audiences. But before you assume that the future of documentaries is going to be digital distribution to theaters, you should jot down the word “Tivo.” But that’s another topic for a future column.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at