While the millions of dollars spent by big Hollywood studios to dish up films like 2012 and Avatar guarantees them at least a fighting chance to make profits in the multiplexes, independent films—especially documentaries—often have an impossible time making money in the theatrical venue. This problem has been a perennial topic in independent film conferences because outside of the vertically integrated studio system, independent films most often rely on smaller—and increasingly struggling—independent distributors to get their films in theaters. And given the “new media” environment, this has been an increasingly hopeless expectation, as these distributors (with a few exceptions) demand all DVD and TV rights for a film with little or no advance, thus leaving the filmmaker with the hope that distributors will adequately invest the resources to roll out the film in theaters, something that rarely happens.
Given the options, some filmmakers have opted for a self-distribution method, thereby cutting out the middleman. This can be successful especially if there is a built-in audience to go after (Valentino: the Last Emperor, about the Italian fashion guru, and Aviva Kempner’s film Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg come to mind, both of which have broken the $1 million theatrical mark). But this is a labor-intensive effort and often requires slogging through months of city to city tours by filmmaker and individually booking theaters as they go. And it costs money and is risky as well. As a result, it’s no surprise that high-tech eye candy that can be marketed worldwide consistently shows up in the theaters.
But recently an innovative theatrical platform has started to get noticed—the simulcast “live event” model. In the era of Netflix, home theaters and digital PC delivery of film, the live event might offer some hope for the future of independent documentary in theaters. This model largely depends on the topic as well as on how an “event” can be created out of it in order to get bodies into the theater. The Age of Stupid, a quasi-documentary about global environmental demise, premiered on hundreds of screens internationally over two days last September and created buzz, red carpets and media coverage, although it is unclear if it was a financial success. And, recently Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater has been promoted as a holiday “event” in theaters around the country, capitalizing on the popularity of the Fox News-branded darling of the Right.
Another recent incarnation of the “live event” model is Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors without Borders, an intense yet intimate film about the realities of field operations of the famous Paris-based humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). On December 14th, it was screened simultaneously in 440 theaters around the country, including at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The screening was followed by a simulcast panel discussion hosted by Elizabeth Vargas of ABC and consisting of doctors in the film and journalists including Sebastian Junger.
Unlike The Age of Stupid, which Greenpeace and MoveOn helped promote, Living in Emergency might be one of the first tests of a truly independent documentary going up in a wide simulcast event. The doc is a straight portrait of doctors thrown into some of the worst conditions in the world. There are no talking heads giving the history of the organization and no uplifting happy endings, and it was made with complete independence from MSF editorial control. The film portrays the frustrations of operating in places such as African war zones, and it also shows how the group’s missions get mired down in organizational problems; ultimately, it leaves viewers with an understanding that MSF certainly helps save lives, but that it’s hardly the answer to the near-apocalyptic conditions the organization works in. “It is not a message-driven film or a call to action, it is just a story about characters in intense environments,” say Naisola Grimwood, a producer of the film, “So hopefully the audience gets a sense of what life in the field is like for MSF doctors and they leave the cinema with an unburdened sense of interest in the humanitarian arena.”
While it’s a harder-sell to see this event model working for a quirky art film, for documentaries that engage subjects that elicit discussion and debate, especially when there is a built-in network to spread the word, this one-off model could grow as a viable option for filmmakers. “This model can only really be effective if the subject is something that raises lots of questions and can lead to an interesting discussion,” says Grimwood. She explains that this is “because the documentary is not the event, it is only part of an event—a kind of portal into an interesting subject.” She adds that the medical community has helped increase grassroots awareness of the film enormously, reacting favorably to its honest portrayal of tough medical work, burnout and stress. The good word-of-mouth undoubtedly helped the buzz leading up to the national event.
Still, the idea of creating an event is hardly cheap and risk-free, especially when one has to coordinate hundreds of theaters around the country. Companies specializing in this kind of promotion—and who have a network of digital-projection theaters—have to be hired and there’s still the great challenge of cutting through the increased cacophony of media choices. Creating an event around documentaries is certainly not the only thing that will get audiences into the theater, especially at a point in media history when you can watch a film in the palm of your hand. But let’s hope that there are still plenty of moviegoers who want to be enlightened, rather than simply dazzled by special effects.