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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, May 2006

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

We've examined distribution in its many forms and permutations before in these pages, and here we are again, with the field having taken on even more dynamic directions, all in the spirit of consolidation, cost- and time-efficiency and empowerment.

User-generated content is de rigeur these days, with everyone from the scrappy young upstarts YouTube and MySpace to meta giants Google and Yahoo helping to put filmmakers in the driver's seat. Cell phone technology has also made inroads in transmitting media. What was talked about with great fervor back in the late 1990s is finally bearing fruit. And it also shifts the theatrical experience dramatically--users are not only generating the content; they're viewing it on their desktops, laptops, iPods and cell phones, and blogging their critiques to an ever-burgeoning virtual viral community.  Steve Rosenbaum takes a look at this evolving frontier.

But that's one track in the distribution universe. Despite the woes at the box office for mainstream narrative features, documentaries continue to thrive in the theaters. Well, some have, anyway, while many have performed modestly, at best, coming and going in a matter of weeks despite glowing reviews and bushels full of festival awards. Distributors--theatrical, broadcast and DVD--are looking at the traditional "windows" model of releasing documentaries and testing out new ways to maximize audiences for all three windows.

Synergy has enabled such cablers as HBO, MTV, Discovery, IFC and, more recently, Court TV and A&E Indie Films, to expand their branding into the theatrical arena and partner with such distributors as Magnolia Pictures, Lionsgate, Wellspring and THINKFilm. DVD rental giant Netflix has also entered the fray, partnering with Emerging Pictures on Michèle Ohayon's Cowboy del Amor. Getting involved in that first window sheds heat and light on the subsequent ones. And then there are media moguls Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, who, through their various companies under the 2929 umbrella, have experimented with collapsing the windows entirely, releasing Steven Soderbergh's Bubble--not a documentary, I know--simultaneously in the theaters, on DVD and on cable. Michael Galinsky talks to representatives from these companies about how distribution has been shifting, and where it might be heading.

What's important in all three windows--and what's often lost in the marketing of the documentary--is the underlying social issue and the intrinsic role that a given documentary can play in inspiring discussion and action. Participant Productions, a for-profit company, and Working Films, a nonprofit organization, have played critical roles in catalyzing the distribution process, without being distributors themselves. Though similar in mission, these entities differ in execution and strategy. Tracie Lewis looks into how both companies are helping documentaries to make a difference. 


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White