As the theatrical documentary boom slows, distributors are looking for more innovative release strategies. Ahead of the UK's BRITDOC festival (July 25-27), Peter Bowen explores the future for feature documentaries.

After a few years of strongly performing feature documentaries, a recent slowdown in the number of breakouts has left many wondering about the genre's future in the theatrical marketplace.

'The highest number of successful documentaries occurred between 2002 and 2005, but that trend began to decline in 2006,' says Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions for Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing Iraq film No End In Sight in the US this month (see forthcoming features sidebar, p18).

Other than An Inconvenient Truth, few recent documentaries have captured the public's attention as much as hits such as Fahrenheit 9/11, March Of The Penguins and Super Size Me. But rather than seeing a complete decline in theatrical documentaries, Quinn posits that 'what is happening is a middle space. Just like with any other type of film, we have raised the bar, and now (documentary film-makers) have to deliver.'

Theatrical may be levelling out, but distributors are still keeping a close eye on projects in the pipeline. According to Julie Goldman of New York-based distributor Cactus Three: 'Documentaries are being tracked in a way they never were before. People are calling to find out what is new.'

Most documentaries playing theatrically have followed a low-key release, rolling out slowly to take advantage of good reviews and word of mouth. At the same time, some distributors with higher-profile docs have applied the same marketing muscle as for any major motion picture.

However, Jess Search, chief executive of the UK's Britdoc, believes 'most documentary film-makers are looking for non-theatrical new models of distribution, which keep the costs of fulfilment and marketing low'. For many, that means generating some type of theatrical or specialised release to push DVD sales or TV marketing.

For years, two of the most prominent television broadcasters for documentaries in the US - PBS and HBO - have had an ambivalent attitude towards theatrical release. PBS has discouraged or forbidden theatrical release prior to a television premiere, while HBO has approached each film on a case-by-case basis.

But new broadcasters, such as A&E IndieFilms, the documentary arm of A&E Networks, have readily embraced partnering with distributors to raise audience awareness.

Molly Thompson, head of A&E IndieFilms, sees enormous potential in not only allowing a documentary to have a theatrical window before playing on the channel, but in getting involved in all levels of distribution. 'In 2004, when Super Size Me showed up at Sundance, we became intrigued by the new audiences for documentaries,' she says.

Looking for films that 'cross over to an audience looking for entertainment', A&E IndieFilms decided that 'since we have to wait so long for the television window, we should participate in the theatrical and DVD'.

As such, A&E has been involved at some stage in production on such documentaries as Murderball, Jesus Camp and the forthcoming My Kid Could Paint That, all of which had theatrical releases before their television premiere.

Cultural currency
For other companies such as Red Envelope Entertainment, the recently formed distribution arm of Netflix, one of the main aims of releasing a film theatrically is to boost its cultural currency.

As such, a limited or even specialised release can serve its goal as much as a traditional arthouse roll-out. To market Red Envelope's newly acquired music documentary Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, head of acquisitions Liesl Copland engineered a 'hybrid release (of) grassroots outreach and a series of screenings built around the band's tour' which, Copland says, 'is essentially a promo tour in anticipation of the release on Netflix and traditional DVD'.

Such targeted theatrical releases are also being aided by technological advances. As Cactus Three's Goldman points out, 'by having your film just projected digitally, you can avoid paying the cost for a film blow-up for exhibition.

For some film-makers that makes it economically feasible to get a booking for their film in a small number of theatres.' A point in case is Darkon, a documentary that chronicles the lives of ordinary people who become weekend warriors through fantasy role-playing games. The film, in addition to being promoted though the AOL True Stories programme, will make a short, digitally projected tour of the college circuit before DVD release.

But while some documentaries make waves in small theatrical releases, others are attracting big Hollywood names. Many recent and forthcoming works have powerful names behind them, either in directing or producing roles.

A number of A-list film-makers have taken to the genre, including Spike Lee with When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts, Sydney Pollack with Sketches Of Frank Gehry and Martin Scorsese with his Rolling Stones biopic Shine A Light.

At the same time, Hollywood stars are standing up for their politics by producing timely non-fiction work. While Brad Pitt executive produced the 2006 documentary God Grew Tired Of Us: The Story Of Lost Boys Of Sudan, two of his friends are pushing documentaries of their own this year, including Leonardo DiCaprio's 11th Hour, which looks at the state of the global environment, and the Don Cheadle-produced Darfur film An Indifferent World.

TitleYear W'wide gross
Fahrenheit 9/112004$222.4m
March Of The Penguins2005$127m
Bowling For Columbine2002$58m
An Inconvenient Truth2006$49m
Winged Migration2001$32.3m
Madonna: Truth Or Dare1991$29m
Super Size Me2004$28.6m
Touching The Void2004$13.8m
Aliens Of The Deep2005$12.7m
Hoop Dreams1994$11.8m