Peter Bowen explains why a debut documentary with a jokey-sounding title was the right fit for a new distributor.
The plot of Alex Lipsitz's first documentary feature Air Guitar Nation sounds like a joke. A smattering of hopeful US air guitarists, with names like Bjorn Turoque and C-Diddy, follow their dreams to put America back on the international stage by competing in the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland, as European devotees rise up to oppose the US invasion.
Even for fans of This Is Spinal Tap, the idea sounds absurd. But to the people at DVD distributor Docurama Films, Air Guitar Nation - especially after it won the 2006 audience award at the South by Southwest film festival - sounded like gold.
Steve Savage, co-president of New Video, Docurama's parent company, says: 'We've waited for the right fit for our theatrical debut, knowing that we wanted to come out of the gate with not only a quality film, but one that would be broadly entertaining. Air Guitar Nation delivers.'
While Docurama has released 150 documentaries on DVD, it soon found a documentary theatrical release was a whole different animal. The film, which had been produced by Magical Elves, the production company behind such hit US reality TV shows as Project Runway and Top Chef, was acquired by Docurama in September 2006 for US theatrical and DVD (with VH1 acquiring a TV window).
Head of programming Liz Ogilvie immediately focused on the details necessary for their first theatrical campaign. Shadow Distribution was contracted to handle the booking logistics, with Docurama concentrating on marketing and distribution.
According to Ogilvie: 'Straight off the bat, we wanted to position Air Guitar Nation as a mainstream rather than a typical documentary, to make sure it read like a comedy.'
In a marketing campaign that ranged from a large ad in The New York Times to a grassroots effort directed at guitar shops, Docurama emphasised the ridiculous over the reality. Next it tapped into the existing air guitar fan base by co-ordinating the release of the film at the end of March, hoping to benefit from a burst of renewed interest when the air guitar championship took place in June.
Despite great reviews and internet buzz, the film's release in 70 markets did not take off. But as the DVD distributor, there was a distinct silver lining to the theatrical dark cloud. The reviews, marketing and public attention raised its profile enough to drastically improve its DVD release.
For Ogilvie: 'Where we might have sold 20,000-30,000 units, we are looking to a benefit of 100,000-plus for it now.'