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'Discovery Docs' to Receive Theatrical and Cable Distribution Through New Joint Venture

By Tom White

CameraPlanet, the New York City-based producer and distributor, and Discovery Communications, Inc., the cable giant located in Silver Springs, Maryland, announced a new joint venture in a press teleconference in March that would encourage theatrical exhibition of a slate of documentaries prior to their being showcased on Discovery Channel. The partnership, tentatively entitled "Discovery Docs," will involve projects that would be distributed theatrically first through CameraPlanet.

Discovery and CameraPlanet will work with some of most prominent filmmakers in the documentary field, including Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams), Barbara Kopple (American Dream), Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (, Michael Apted (the Up series) and Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture). Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks, USA, dubbed the group "the dream team," and indicated that while Discovery would be co-producing their films, "It's in their hands. This is not going to be something like the typical television situation where someone calls us and asks us to edit their scripts. We said with the entire group, ‘We want to pursue your vision.' We want to be in synch in terms of the territories they want to go after, but once we greenlight these projects, they will be off doing their pictures on their own."

Although Discovery hadn't greenlit any projects at the time of the teleconference, the filmmakers in attendance all had ideas of what they wanted to pursue. Gilbert, who helped assemble the team, is working on Lost Boys of Sudan, which follows a group of young Sudanese men who are forced out of their country, to resettlement camps in Kenya, then on to residency in the United States. Kopple wants to work on what she called "the Hoop Dreams of hockey," about a group of young hockey players called the Enforcers. Apted is working with Gilbert on a project about former Illinois Governor George Ryan, and is looking for an American partner for his Up series. Burstein is hoping to make a film about Libyan leader Mohamar Qadaffi.

 CameraPlanet's co-presidents, Steve Carlis and Steve Rosenbaum, plan to distribute the films theatrically to at least five US cities. The CameraPlanet executives indicated at the teleconference that they were in the process of exploring alliances and partnerships and that the first films from the "Discovery Docs" slate could hit the theaters by as early as January 2004, with a six-month window from theatrical run to cable premiere.

"We can't help but be passionate about the fact that the stories that [the filmmakers] want to tell are the stories that audiences are desperately anxious to have access to," Rosenbaum explained at the conference.

Campbell didn't put a dollar figure on the budgets for these films, nor did he put a cap on the number of docs per year that Discovery would produce "We said, ‘Let's do as many as we can,'" he offered. "We want to make sure that each film gets special attention, whether we do one a year or five a year, however many we think makes sense. Whatever the film dictates [in terms of budgets] to maximize the reach and vision of the filmmakers, we will support that." As far as the length of the film? "We'll do what's right for the film."

"What we're really about is telling great stories and making the kinds of films that people would want to see on television––and also the kinds of films that people would want to go to a theater to see," Gilbert noted at the conference.

"There's more of a hunger and desire for audiences to go to a movie theater and see a documentary film," Burstein added. "Nonfiction can be both enlightening and entertaining."

While the "dream team" of documentarians would create the initial crop of Discovery Docs, the executives from the partnership were open to other filmmakers from the community bringing their ideas to the table. In addition, the participating filmmakers discussed the importance of mentoring emerging filmmakers and bringing them into the fold. "I wouldn't be sitting here as a filmmaker if I didn't have Barbara Kopple and Michael Apted as my mentors," Gilbert noted.  "There's a whole community of filmmakers," Kopple maintained. "Nothing would make me happier than to see the process come alive. We all want each other to succeed."

Disclosure: Steve Rosenbaum writes the Reality Check column for ID.


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.