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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, August-September 2003

By Michael Donaldson

Dear IDA Members:

The International Documentary Association has many objectives, but none is more important than encouraging the theatrical exhibition of documentary films. In no way, however, does this statement detract from the importance—indeed, the pre-eminence—of television financing for documentaries. It is just that the appetite of television for all manner of nonfiction programming is well documented, so to speak.

The first and foremost focus of our efforts to spotlight theatrical exhibition takes place this month with the InFACT Theatrical Documentary Showcase in Los Angeles. The primary purpose of the program is to demonstrate unequivocally the draw of a documentary in a theatrical setting. A special effort is being made to ensure that potential buyers are fully informed of the schedule for the series. Participating in the InFact Showcase also begins the process towards qualifying for Oscar consideration. This year, to complete that process, the series will play in commercial venues in at least four other cities. If a filmmaker does not obtain traditional distribution through this process, he or she will be well along the way to self-distribution.

Self-distribution traditionally has been the most likely form of distribution available to the documentary filmmaker. Fortunately, that is changing. The last 12 months have seen more docs in more theaters than in any 12-month period to date. At press time, for example, the indieWIRE Box Office Table showed a total of 13 documentaries screening in over 200 theaters across the country. Four of those documentaries appeared in the top 10 in terms of per-screen average: Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground (Shadow Distribution), Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans (Magnolia Pictures), Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration (Sony Pictures Classics) and Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch's Spellbound (ThinkFilm), the latter of which screened at the precursor to InFACT, last year's DOCtober. 

Two people are spearheading the effort to encourage theatrical exhibition. Board member Nancy Willen is chairing a committee that is working with every committee of the IDA to maximize the emphasis on theatrical distribution, no matter what the activity. Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine), who emceed last year's Awards Gala, vowed at that event to contact theater owners and lobby for the dedication of one screen in each multiplex to the documentary form. He continues to push with that effort.

The reason that theatrical distribution is important is because it raises the visibility of documentaries and confirms that a story well told is a story well told—and if a story is  true, it's even more interesting. For your part, go to the theater to see a documentary when you see one advertised in your local paper. It helps the cause, and you will have a good time.



Michael C. Donaldson
IDA Board President