Forward thinking

A thoughtful look at ThinkFilm's bigger hits.

Spellbound (2003)
Jeffrey Blitz's spelling bee docu bounced around several film fests before senior vp acquisitions and business affairs Randy Manis (then simply vp) and U.S. theatrical head Mark Urman caught up with it at the Toronto International Film Festival. Wowed by the movie, ThinkFilm executives ended up in negotiations with the producers and Cinetic Media until 3 a.m. Recalls Manis, "Everyone was so fiscally conservative because it was a documentary."
End Credits: "Spellbound" landed ThinkFilm its first Oscar nomination and earned a tidy $5.7 million at the boxoffice. "It gave us real credibility and cemented our reputation in an area where people didn't see a lot of commercial potential," Manis says.

Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004)
A poignant portrait of children of prostitutes in Calcutta, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's "Born Into Brothels" was a real underdog. Says ThinkFilm president and CEO Jeff Sackman, "It cost very little money, so we said, 'Yeah, sure, we'll try it.'"
End Credits: Fest audiences loved "Brothels." But, Sackman says, "If it didn't get an Oscar nomination, there was no way we could've released that film." "Brothels" didn't just land a nomination: It won the feature-length documentary statuette and grossed roughly $3.5 million.

Murderball (2005)
ThinkFilm provided completion funds for this documentary feature -- based on just a three-minute clip from directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro -- about a rough competitive sport played by quadriplegic athletes.
End Credits: Despite an avalanche of press coverage and the marketing support of MTV Films, the docu took in just $1.5 million. It did land a feature-length documentary Oscar nomination, but it was a bittersweet victory. "'Murderball' was the most disappointing film of my entire career because we loved it so much," Sackman says. "We were part of it from its inception, and we saw the way people responded to it."

The Aristocrats (2005)
Back Story: With an all-star cast of comedians riffing on a famed joke known only to comic veterans, Paul Provenza's "The Aristocrats" was released unrated and with unknown prospects.
End Credits: Good press coverage and a Sundance Film Festival screening that Sackman recalls "left people literally on the verge of collapse with laughter" led to a lively opening weekend, with a per-screen average of $61,000. "One of the (film's) editors, Emery Emery, tipped me off to it," Sackman says. "I called my guys and said, 'I've seen the film that's going to transform ThinkFilm.'"

Helf Nelson (2006)
Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson," written with his professional and personal partner Anna Boden, is about a drug-addicted teacher who befriends a student.
End Credits: "Me and (producer) Jamie Patricof were actually in rival fraternities at Emory University," Katz says with a laugh. "I'd been interested in this project for a long time. Once it hit Sundance this year, we were ready to make a deal." ThinkFilm scooped up the movie for less than $1 million, and it has already climbed to roughly $2.4 million at the boxoffice since its Aug. 11 release.