Documentaries seek distribution


With a glut of theatrical documentaries flooding the market at a time when specialty distributors are either cutting back or disappearing altogether, the question heading into the Toronto International Film Festival is whether distributors will open their checkbooks for the nonfiction genre.

"It will be a difficult market to sell for theatrical release," predicts Jeff Sackman, former head of ThinkFilm, a major documentary buyer in recent years. "There's fewer buyers, and even documentaries with boxoffice potential are unlikely to get the distributors' blood up."

Nevertheless, Toronto will be screening a number of high-profile docus, including Larry Charles' "Religulous," an irreverent look at organized religion with comedian Bill Maher; "Picasso & Braque go to the Movies," a look at the intersection of art and cinema narrated by Martin Scorsese; and U.S. filmmaker Dan Stone's "At the Edge of the World," a profile of Canadian eco-warrior Paul Watson's battle with Japanese whaling vessels near Antarctica.

Thom Powers, Toronto's docu programmer, says 14 of the 26 documentaries booked this year are from the U.S. market, which underscores the increasing equity financing and other private investment flowing into American nonfiction films.

"There's much activity around that's giving filmmakers bigger budgets, and allowing more production out of the U.S. than anywhere else," Powers says.

But nonfiction filmmakers are beginning to feel a hangover after a brief era in which docus were all the rage, with eager distributors.

"As a filmmaker, it's disheartening to see that there was this excitement that people had in seeing docus, and that distributors then purchased docus, and too often at too high a price," says New York-based filmmaker Matthew Kaufman, who brings to Toronto the Magnolia release "American Swing," his film about the 1970s swingers club Plato's Retreat.

But all is not lost. Thanks to the steady popularity of the genre on the small screen, the bigger docu buyers in Toronto are expected to be broadcasters.

Sackman says a perfect example of this trend is HBO's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which did little business in theaters but garnered a large TV audience nonetheless.

"That's good for the film, a great financial outcome. More people will see your film, and you get the festivals to get behind it," he says.