William Goldman's salutory comment that in the movie industry "nobody knows anything" has lost none of its freshness. Several delegates at last month's Vancouver International Film Festival Trade Forum, a four-day industry event of seminars and panels, reiterated the maxim. Perhaps it was by way of a casual disclaimer, but also it was clearly out of hard-earned experience.
One of the best examples of Goldman's credo in action came from Jeff Sackman, president of THINKFilm, North American distributor for indie films like The Aristocrats, Born Into Brothels, and Palindromes.
He talked about his exasperation at how poorly Murderball, due out in the UK on 4 November, had done at the North American box office. As a distributor, Sackman said he rarely pre-finances documentaries, in fact Murderball was the first time that THINKFilm put money into a non-fiction project.
The documentary follows a team of quadriplegic athletes in an international, full-contact, wheelchair rugby tournament. Test audiences cheered at the event. It won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Well-known critics like Roger Ebert gave it rave reviews (he apparently said at Sundance they may as well stop the academy award now) and, pointed out Sackman, it was difficult to find a critic who didn't like it.
Sackman said he couldn't have asked for better advance media interest. "It was way beyond anything we thought."
But even with a big advertising push on top of this, hopes that Murderball would be "the one that would catch on" didn't materialise after its release in July '05. It took $1.3 million in its 8 week run.
Having had time to think about why Murderball lost traction, Sackman suggested two possible problems: the title and, speaking with deliberate bluntness, "would people come out to see cripples?" Even then, he admitted, he still doesn't know why it failed to do well, but hopes that it will find an audience for the DVD release.
Sackman had more success with the Aristocrats, the doc that features 102 comedians telling the same filthy joke. Sackman said he paid a seven figure sum for the film, so he wasn't happy when he read on the internet that the filmmakers said that it cost $20,000 to make. He added that because the film was shot on home video the transfer to 35mm was "a nightmare" and cost $100,000 more than expected.
For a while, Sackman was thinking of going for the Howard Stern crowd or creating a storm with the evangelicals. They decided against the latter because the evangelicals have become too media savvy. They had no problem finding controversy. "Film buyers were appalled... that played to our benefit," said Sackman.
When they released the film, unrated, the AMC Theatre chain, who had previously run Inside Deep Throat and the unrated version of the Passion of Christ on its 3,500 plus screens, said it would not run the film. AMC said its decision was based on business reasons, but the press picked it up as a freedom-of-speech story.
In the end, the publicity helped fuel the film to over $6m at the box office. "We maybe lost a few hundred thousand dollars by not being in AMC theatres but we made it up in publicity," he says. As for Howard Stern, Sackman was taken aback that he, and many other talk show hosts, wouldn't book guests from The Aristocrats.
Will it fly?
Sackman was joined by Bill Banning, president of Roxie releasing and the Roxie cinema in San Francisco, which specialises in North American exhibition and rental of arthouse docs like Rivers and Tides, Biggie and Tupac, and Genghis Blues. The two men had a good banter while tackling the subject of what makes a theatrical documentary successful.
"The first thing I look for is does it have birds in it?" said Banning drily. Both Banning and Sackman were incredulous at the soaraway success of The March of the Penguins. The documentary about penguins has taken $75 million at the North American box office alone. Banning rued the day that he passed up The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, about a homeless musician in San Francisco who has a special rapport with parrots, especially since he knew the filmmaker. "We didn't think it would travel well," he quipped.
Nobody knows anything, but both distributors stressed it's a buyers' market for documentary right now: festivals like the Hot Docs festival in Toronto (28 April to 7 May) are getting hundreds of submissions and with HD cameras flying off the shelf there are many more feature-length docs probably in the pipeline. That said, neither distributor said they were looking for a name behind a film, rather how the doc was made. Unless your name is Errol Morris, that is.
Too early to write cinema's epitaph
On the subject of whether digital downloading had a future or online file-swapping was a problem, Sackman didn't see it as "meaningful" yet.
What about the future of cinema, now that big screen, home entertainment systems have started taking off? "The decline of the box office has been overwritten," said Sackman. He acknowledged that DVD has momentum - for the price of two cinema tickets you can pick up the DVD, watch it at home with a bunch of friends, and make your own popcorn. He noted internet DVD rental has taken off. But Sackman believes that 35mm still offers a distinctive look for festivals, and people will always hanker after the social aspect of cinema-going.
For a theatre owner like Banning it's a concern. "I really do worry about why people come out and see a film at the theatre," he said. The technology is turning things on their head now. DVD projection is becoming more common, particularly as the projectors offer sharper and brighter pictures than ever before. Banning pointed out, though, that the Roxie, which introduced its first video projector in 1997 and is now on its "8th or 9th generation" projectors, still uses tape more often for projection.
Delegates to the Trade Forum got a first hand display of how reasonable DVD projection is now with a competition screening of 24 one-minute shorts. All films were submitted by local filmmakers on DVD. The films were screened at the new Vancouver International Film Centre, which has state-of-the-art projection facilities.
For some apparently unavoidable problem (human not technical, it seems) many of the films were screened at the wrong aspect ratio with heads, hands and other parts of the composition being cut off, but the image resolution when blown up on the big screen was surprisingly good. Daylight footage stood up very well. These were all films by "new filmmakers" and the rules stipulated that they use only available light.
For the moment it remains a "buyers' market" for theatrical documentaries. But markets are in a constant state of flux and as a later delegate to the Trade Forum pointed out, as technology opens up new distribution channels, independent filmmakers may find the balance tipping back in their favour.
We always hear that many audiences are not satisfied by the bulk of what's screening at cinemas and changes in distribution will give them more choice. As for predicting what will succeed, nothing's changed: nobody knows.
More coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival