With two Oscars under his belt for Man On Wire and Searching For Sugar Man, Simon Chinn has, in his own words, had a “good run” at producing theatrical feature documentaries for his London-based production company Red Box Films.
But now Chinn is branching out with the launch of a new company, Lightbox, focusing on creating high quality non fiction content for a variety of different platforms, which he will run together with his cousin - the Emmy Award winning, US-based documentary producer Jonathan Chinn.
The first project to come out of the new LA and London-based outfit will be a documentary series about the Digital Revolution for Xbox Entertainment, which will air later this year.
Production is underway on the first film in the series, which is being directed by Zak Penn and focuses on the urban legend surrounding the Atari Corporation’s decision to bury millions of cartridges of its disastrous ET the Video Game in the New Mexico desert in order to save the company from ruin.
Other projects in development include a “high end series of documentary thrillers” for CNN Films as well as an innovative documentary idea drawn in social media, which the pair are about to sign a deal with a major US network on.
Meanwhile, Simon Chinn is still busy working on his slate of feature docs, including his latest project, Legend Of Shorty, about a Mexican drugs lord, which launched at SXSW last week.
Why did you decide to set up LightBox?
SC: We grew up together and were always regarded as the black sheep of our families because we were the “creatives”. We always talked in broad terms about working together one day. Then after the success of Sugar Man and other feature docs, it struck us that this might be a good opportunity to use that to build a company, albeit a company that does something a bit different.
JC: We wanted to test the market with new ideas. The documentary series 30X30 was a reference point – a strand of films that are curated, director driven, that bridge the gap between the feature doc world and TV world.
Why the multi-platform angle?
SC: Increasingly TV is a very interesting place, where the best movie talent wants to work. We thought, why should that not be the case with non fiction too?
We were also keenly aware of the explosion of new buyers in the US, not just in TV but all sorts of really interesting and increasingly powerful digital platform and online companies that are getting into the content business. They are not hide bound by the same formulas and paradigms that a lot of TV broadcasters are.
How did the XBox commission for your digital revolution series come about?
JC: I had a contact there. We walked in with a very clear vision of what we wanted these stories to be and it made sense to them. They are not ratings driven, they already have around 70 million subscribers, so they are in an interesting position to do interesting stuff. I don’t think they were looking for it, but they responded really positively.
SC: They are not dry and techy, they are great human narratives. We found some amazing stories that are very exciting in their narrative scope and filmmaking possibilities.
Why are companies like Netflix and Xbox increasingly keen to commission documentaries?
JC:. When your business model is subscription based and not ratings driven, it allows you to appeal to slightly more niche audiences. Their currency is more buzz, exposure and maintaining and increasing subscriptions. Our feeling is, that’s probably where things are headed. The days of ratings and advertising in a traditional way are coming to an end.
What will define a Lightbox project?
We want to run the gamit between high end docs that feel in every respect other than their length like feature docs, and more formatted stuff. All of our projects will, we hope, be united by the fact that they have a really distinctive, creative approach that has drawn in our collective body of work.
Will you continue to work on theatrical documentaries?
SC: The two things are not mutually exclusive. I’ve always been very realistic about theatrical docs, there are only a handful of docs every year that do business theatrically. I’m not that interested in doing docs for theatrical release unless I think they can really work theatrically and fill cinemas.
I’ve had a good run. If that’s going to remain the case I need to remain very selective, and do two or three docs a year but that doesn’t make for a particularly scalable business. We are not ashamed to say that the goal with Lightbox is to create something that is much more scalable, but not at the expense of quality.
Any plans to move into fiction content?
SC: Part of our ambition that we will end up doing scripted stuff, probably based on factual material.. Our focus is non fiction for now, but we have ambitions to broaden ourselves.
Was 20 Feet From Stardom a worth winner of the Documentary Oscar this year?
JC: I was rooting for it. It’s a very accessible film. People from all walks of life can enjoy it. I’m sure there are plenty of die hard documentarians who think it wasn’t quite the right choice for best doc of year, but as a company that is trying to bridge the gap between non fiction TV and feature docs, I think it’s actually quite encouraging.
SC. For the second year in a row the biggest box office success was rewarded. Maybe it will make documentary film makers more ambitious for broader appeal in their work. It doesn’t necessarily need to lead to a diminishing of quality.