Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn has two films on this year’s documentary Oscar shortlist. He talks to Wendy Mitchell about Searching For Sugar Man, The Imposter and what¹s next on his ambitious slate.

Producer Simon Chinn’s first theatrical documentary, Man On Wire, won an Oscar in 2008. His second, Project Nim, opened Sundance in 2011. Now his two latest productions, Searching For Sugar Man and The Imposter, are on the shortlist for a documentary Oscar nomination.

“I want to be ambitious with documentaries, and make documentaries that people want to see and that compete on the same level as fiction films. Sugar Man, Imposter and Man On Wire in terms of box office have shown it’spossible,” Chinn says.

Man On Wire made more than $5m globally, Searching For Sugar Man has made almost $3m in the US so far, while The Imposter has made $1.8m in the UK this year.

“Getting people to go watch a documentary is a real challenge, but it’s a challenge I relish,” Chinn says. “The best documentaries deliver the same things fictional films do - a means of telling stories, delivering narrative and character and emotion.”

Chinn’s productions share some similarities. “I have tended to be drawn to stories that are to some extent historical footnotes,” he says. “I am not someone who is going to be drawn to films that agitate for change in the world. I’m much more interested in character and narrative and complexity in storytelling.”

Those “footnotes in history” include Man On Wire’s Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974; Searching For Sugar Man’s Rodriguez, the talented Detroit singer who was ‘rediscovered’ after years of obscurity; and The Imposter’s Frédéric Bourdin, the Frenchman who has assumed 500 false identities, including one of a missing Texas boy.

From TV to film

Chinn worked in TV before moving on to theatrical films with his London-based production company, Red Box Films. He worked on TV documentaries in Serbia, Albania, Zimbabwe and Iraq, but then his need to devote himself to family life in the UK “coincided with me realising this ambition I had for documentaries had outgrown the ability to do those things on television. Television docs were becoming less challenging, less ambitious, more formulaic.”

The genesis for Man On Wire came in 2005, when Chinn heard Petit interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs and thought his story would make a great theatrical documentary. To direct, he recruited James Marsh, who had also worked in TV and made waves with his debut feature, Wisconsin Death Trip. “It was a great first project for us to work on together. There was a sense we were in the bunker together, facing the common enemy,” Chinn says.

Man On Wire was supported by Nick Fraser at BBC Storyville, the UK Film Council and US-based Discovery Films.

The film went on to become a huge hit and scooped the best documentary feature Oscar after winning over audiences with its unique take on history. “It was about a moment in time, about achieving the impossible. And it was also a memorial to those buildings… it’s a story that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts,” Chinn reflects.

Pressure was high for the follow-up; the pair reunited to work on Project Nim, about a chimpanzee raised as a human in an experiment in the 1970s.

The film was not a box-office hit, but it did sell to 25 territories and recouped for its investors, Chinn notes. “In hindsight, the very people I thought would come for that film - the animal lovers - were the very people that stayed away. It’s very emotional. It’s a film I’m very proud of.”

Finding Sugar Man

There is emotion of a different sort in Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man, which was notably the first film sold during Sundance 2012.

The feelgood story is about South African fans trying to find their unlikely musical hero, 1970s singer Rodriguez, and what happens when he is rediscovered after decades of obscurity.

The film started when Stockholm-based Bendjelloul was scouting interesting ideas for six-minute shorts for Swedish television. He started making the feature on his own. “I saw it at rough cut. It was unpolished but definitely had all the potential,” Chinn remembers.

Rodriguez is now selling albums and touring, thanks to audiences discovering him via the film. Chinn says: “It is incredibly gratifying. He’s receiving royalty cheques now that he was deprived of for 30 years.”

Searching For Sugar Man’s big box-office draw in the US is credit to the work of everyone at Sony Pictures Classics, Chinn says. “They understood it in a way that another distributor might not have. It was going to require some tenacity and some backing, letting some word of mouth to build.”

Chinn’s other hit this year has been Bart Layton’s The Imposter, a true-life thriller about a Texas family dealing with a person claiming to be their long-lost missing son and brother.

“That was a project that was originated by the two partners at Raw [Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis],” Chinn says. “They had this extremely compelling five-minute promo. It sold itself. Those guys are very smart and clever, and you felt they were absolutely ready to make the transition [from TV to film]. They had a bold vision for how they wanted to make the film.” Chinn and John Battsek of Passion Pictures came on as executive producers.

The film is not a straightforward telling, reflecting the themes of truth and belief in the story itself. There are dramatic re-enactments included among talking-head interviews, including with Bourdin himself - “He inveigles the audience in his scheme. It’s delicious and despicable at the same time.”

The Imposter, which won two BIFAs, was released in the UK by Revolver and Picturehouse to very impressive results. “With Revolver and Picturehouse, you couldn’t get a better team for this film,” Chinn says. “David Shear at Revolver said to me at our first meeting, ‘This film is going to do better than Man On Wire.’

“He was absolutely right. And that was the ambition, he understood it and so did the rest of the team, including Sara Frain at Picturehouse.”

What’s next

Chinn’s other project for 2012 was James Bond documentary Everything Or Nothing, directed by Stevan Riley (Fire In Babylon) and made with MGM and Columbia.

That project was the latest produced by Chinn for Red Box with Battsek for Passion. The two companies set up an alliance in 2008 to work together. “We are constantly discussing projects and working on things,” says Chinn.

“The relationship with Passion and John is incredibly fruitful and works very well. There’s a relationship of trust and freedom that I hope works for both of us.”

The pair are now talking to Riley about another project. Their other current productions include Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince, based on the book Son Of Hamas, about Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a Hamas founder who became an informant for Israel’s Shin Bet. “It is a film about his relationship with his handler, which is a relationship of real poignancy and trust, and out of this relationship came Israel’s most valuable intelligence asset.”

The Green Prince, which is a co-production between Red Box, Passion and Schirman’s A-List Films, is in production now for delivery in the second half of 2013.

Chinn also has a TV drama mini-series with Marsh to direct, which is a co-production between Red Box and Company Pictures for Sky Atlantic, as well as theatrical documentaries in the works with writer/presenter Louis Theroux and director Angus Macqueen.

Even though he plans to branch out into some fiction projects, Chinn says: “I will never turn my back on documentaries. I love them.”