'Senna' Starts Theatrical Run in High Gear

Karin Sturn/Producers Distribution Agency

The film about Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna expands into 12 additional markets Friday.

The critically acclaimed documentary Senna, about the life and fiery death of Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna -- quietly raced out of the gate to top results at the domestic box office last weekend.

The film, directed by Asif Kapadia, scored the best debut of the year for a documentary in terms of per screen average, grossing $73,297 as it opened at the Landmark in Los Angeles and the Sunshine theater in New York. The pic's per screen average was $36,749 in a notable win for John Sloss and Bart Walker’s Producers Distribution Agency.

On Friday, the film expands into an additional 12 markets.

Produced by Working Title, the film has already done big business overseas, grossing $6.6 million, including $5.1 million in the U.K., where it opened June 3, and $1.3 million in Brazil, where it played last fall.

Universal, Working Title’s partner, is distributing Senna in most foreign markets, but in the U.S., Senna had to find an independent distributor, since studios are skittish about backing documentaries.

Sloss and his Cinetic Media were hired to sell Senna, but ultimately, Sloss decided to put it through PDA when the right buyer didn’t emerge. He and his colleagues formed the distribution venture last year out of a desire to provide a home for independent films without having to wage pricey marketing campaigns.

Instead, PDA relies heavily on viral campaigns and social media. Working with PDA are Richard Abramowitz, Electric Artists’ Marc Schiller and publicist/awards consultants Donna Daniels and Nancy Willen.

PDA got off to a strong start last year with documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which earned an Oscar nomination.

Senna made its North American premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Audience Award in the documentary category and was eyed by buyers.

“Ultimately, we had a better sense of what to do with it,” Sloss said. “Our goal is to pick really playable movies that can cross over in an old-fashioned, grass roots way. We’re not interested in films where we have to buy awareness.”

PDA have used social media and screenings to promote Senna, discovering that women are just as interested in seeing the documentary as auto enthusiasts. The distributor also targeted Brazilian expats living in the U.S. and documentary enthusiasts.

Senna uses archival footage, combined with original voiceover interview, to chart Senna’s rise to iconic standing among racing fans worldwide.