Screen examines new distribution opportunities for documentaries.

With traditional theatrical exposure. becoming more difficult to get, the DVD market shrinking and demand from TV outlets in many territories declining, documentary film-makers and sellers are in need of alternative distribution options. And with the help of new technologies and innovative thinking they appear to be finding them.

Some of the new options are variations on traditional distribution mechanisms. In the US, for example, proactive film-makers such as the teams behind festival prize-winners Pray The Devil Back To Hell and Bag It are giving their films what distribution strategist Peter Broderick calls “semi-theatrical” releases — special-event screenings at hundreds of venues across the country booked by the film-makers themselves.

The strategy gives the documentaries the same kind of promotional platform a traditional — and much more expensive — theatrical release gives to bigger movies. “It’s about building up that critical measure of awareness,” says Broderick, president of Paradigm Consulting.

Other film-makers, Broderick reports, are maximising DVD revenues by licensing to traditional disc distributors for only selected markets around the world and handling sales to remaining territories through their own websites.

The internet is also helping to expand the potential of the educational and institutional market, always an important outlet for documentary film handlers, particularly in the US.

Tom Perlmutter, government film commissioner and chairperson of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), cites the success of the board’s online screening room, created, he says, as “a real screening room experience, not just a website”. Though there were concerns the free screening room might undercut the board’s traditional educational business. “It did nothing of the sort,” says Perlmutter, “in fact, it reinforced it.”

Digital sales outlets

Moving further into the new media world, some documentary producers and distributors have been able to get exposure for their work through digital sales outlets such as iTunes, and on wireless devices such as iPhones and iPads.

The NFB, for one, has already launched iPhone and iPad apps which make more than 2,000 of the organisation’s animated and documentary films available for free streaming. Now the board is preparing to launch a transactional service which will build on the exposure gained through the free offerings.

“My premise was that we had to go free to build brand value and establish our connection with the audience,” says Perlmutter.
Perhaps the most interesting but contentious opportunities for documentary-makers lie in the burgeoning online VoD market, where business models are still developing.

In the UK, for example, online distributor VODO is offering documentaries on a ‘free- to-share’ basis through a coalition of file- sharing partners including The Pirate Bay, TorrentFreak and IsoHunt. “The idea of harnessing pirates and having them as yourmarketing department is very intriguing,” comments strategist Broderick.

Some documentary players see valuable revenue and exposure possibilities in US- based advertising-supported streaming services such as Hulu, the Hollywood studio-owned site that is now offering more independent and documentary films, and SnagFilms, the streaming site that currently specialises in docs (though an expansion into narrative features is in the works).

Other documentary handlers, however, prefer to deal with traditional outlets offering advances rather than ad-supported services which work on a revenue-sharing basis.

Anais Clanet, general manager of Wide House, the documentary branch of Paris-based sales company Wide Management, says because her company is still mostly dealing with traditional distribution outlets, “we decided not to work on a revenue-sharing basis at all. It’s very interesting, but if I license some rights to them then I cannot work in a classic way any more.”

The weighing of new options against old is likely to be a regular exercise for film-makers and sellers as the documentary distribution business continues to evolve.

Peter Broderick suggests that as revenue from digital sources overtakes revenue from analogue sources, documentary film-makers will need to adopt what he calls “hybrid distribution” models to maintain overall revenue levels, handling some activities themselves and making deals with third-party distributors to handle others.

In the longer run, Broderick suggests, “it’s not necessarily that revenues are going to be smaller, but folks are going to have to be smarter and more strategic to maximise them.”