In a recent interview with Post Magazine, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock talks about distribution for his documentaries. Summarized, he said,
“After ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ came out, I got so much press for that movie. We were everywhere when that film was ramping up for its release. I was on ‘Conan’, ‘Colbert’, and ‘Jimmy Kimmel’. Then the film came out on 18 theaters all around the country. 95% of the country couldn’t even see the movie. There’s a guy named Ferris Yaakov, who talks about the cultural decay rate of ideas in our society today. He says, basically, ‘The cultural decay rate of ideas is two weeks.’”
Moral of the story? Movie theaters are not the best way to get your documentary seen.
As the top ten grossing docs reveal, there are exceptions; like if your doc is a sweeping nature epic, about a pop singer, or you are Michael Moore. Obviously, this does not apply to most doc filmmakers.
Most documentaries are independently made, and appeal to a fairly niche audience. One of their strengths is their ability to tell compelling stories about real people right now. But a gaping weakness has been people’s (in)ability to find them. Even in the glory days of Blockbuster it was challenging to find a good selection of documentaries.
So what is best way to get your doc to its demographic? And if they do find it, can they easily share it? In short, what is the best distribution model for this ever-growing genre?
Documentary editor Steve Audette says that a successful doc is not one that makes a lot of money or gets great reviews. A successful documentary is one that gets seen, and seen in its entirety. Therefore, my main focus in this post is how to get a doc seen in an easy and share-able way for your particular demographic.
I’m going to venture out and say there are currently two effective distribution models for docs, and a theater release is not one of them. This is my opinion. So I am open to push back here, and understand that any distribution model requires well thought through marketing.
Model 1 is centered around hosting screenings directed at a specific target audience. This gets your film into the hands of people most passionate about it (so if you’re selling DVDs, do it here!). This method seems especially effective if your film is centered around a particular cause or issue. But it lacks a good way for fans to share it with others, as screenings are often a one-time event in any city.
Model 2 is Video On Demand (VOD), or more simply put – an internet release. This could be to rent on iTunes/Amazon, stream on Netflix, or watch freely on YouTube/Vimeo. VOD is the fastest, easiest way to get your film to the most people. Plus, with social media people can share your film in ways they never could before, as evidenced by Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012″, which received over 100 million views within its first six weeks.
I believe that VOD distribution is the best method for docs, and should be embraced by documentary filmmakers if they want their films to be seen. A theater release isn’t going to hurt your film, but I would argue that it is better at getting it noticed than watched, and is therefore more about marketing.
Spurlock’s most recent film, “Comic-Con”, was just released in eight theaters nation-wide… as well as across the internet to rent or buy instantly. Because of this, it is not only available to more than 5% of the country at release, but much of the world – instantly.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT DOCS IN THEATERS VS ONLINE?
DID I MISS ANOTHER DISTRIBUTION AVENUE THAT YOU HAVE FOUND EFFECTIVE?