Independent films and filmmakers are the new paradigm, a bona fide revolution. As studios over the last two decades have begun to act more and more like independents rather than the other way around, film funding has evolved also. Over the last seven years, the extraordinary success of such low-budget indie films as The Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Napoleon Dynamite has brought an increasing number of “average citizens”into film funding. In addition, a score of billionaires have entered the fray, sponsoring features both fictional and non-fictional. As documentary films have entered the mainstream, so has the art of funding them. Prior to the start of the 21st century, there weren’t enough theatrical docs that had earned significant revenues to make the discussion interesting. During the 1980s and ’90s, there was a smattering of documentary box office triumphs. The success of Roger and Me in 1989 began the reemergence of the nonfiction film as a credible theatrical release. After a few successful films in the intervening years, 1994’s Hoop Dreams attracted a lot of attention by accumulating North American box office receipts of $7.8 million on a budget of $800,000. The same year, Crumb reached a total of $3 million on a budget of $300,000. In 1997, a Best Documentary Oscar nominee, Buena Vista Social Club, scored almost $7 million at the box office and spun off a best-selling soundtrack album. Nielsen Media Research has estimated that 85% of U.S. television households watch documentaries. Apparently much of this audience was no longer willing to wait for television rollouts and began going in larger numbers to see them in movie theaters first. At the same time, documentaries, influenced by Ken Burns and others bringing more creativity to the format, made films that would draw a movie theater audience. In addition, analysts feel that reality television has given viewers a taste for true-life stories, and thus helped the growth of the theatrical audience. As attendance figures for those crucial first weekends grew, distributors had the marketing ammunition to increase the attendance for succeeding screenings. The resulting box office revenues helped drive the value of docs to the video/DVD buyers and television programmers. Critics and analysts proclaimed 2004 “the year of the documentary.”At first many thought that the success of the films was tied to the turbulent elections of 2000 and 2004 —that perhaps Michael Moore was an anomaly as a documentarian and had managed to find a quirky loophole for making theatrical hits with Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, and that succeeding political docs had snuck in through the same opening. However, when non-political films, such as Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom and the no-budget Super Size Me, also became successful, it became clear that docs of varying genres could compete with fiction features. Then in 2005 came March of the Penguins. Made for $3 million by the original French company and revised by Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Films with an English narration and Hollywood-type musical score for another $4 million, the film earned an estimated $224 million worldwide. Peter Bart, editor-in-chief of Variety, gives it credit, along with Brokeback Mountain, for convincing the studios that “there’s gold in what used to be called art movies.”Now nonfiction films are made for and sold through every outlet that we know today —theatrical, television, direct-to-DVD, direct-to-foreign —and will be for the new technologies. Docs come in long form and short form. They are shown at every festival in the world. Filmmakers in every country make documentaries in every language. They cover every topic and genre. With their growing potential to bring back profits to private investors, feature documentaries have reached another plateau. There is now enough information to create traditional business plans for them. The target markets for documentaries are the same as those for fiction films, save one group. Documentary audiences themselves are the first target audience. Every documentary has a subject, be it political, economic, inspirational, historic, sports-related, etc. These market segments often can be quantified or at least described. Unlike those financed by networks, docs financed with equity have their distribution streams open. As these films reach the festivals, distributors —both indie and studio —can bid for them, creating higher sales figures and the all-important “buzz factor.”With emerging technologies, more sales paths are likely to open up for nonfiction films. While users may not want to watch Superman Returns in ten-minute blocks on their cell phones or iPods while waiting in line at the bank, they may have a different attitude toward documentaries. Purveyors of content and equipment see the viability of the format on these platforms. It is too early to tell the value of nonfiction content in digital downloads, nor are the navigation systems mature yet, nor do we know what payouts are likely. Whatever retailing outlets become financially viable, however, the funders will be there along with the filmmakers to reap the rewards.


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