Docurama on the Rise

At the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, Steve Savage and Susan Margolin, the two minds behind New Video, a New York-based entertainment marketing and sales company, watched as tickets for documentaries were snatched up left and right. They witnessed audiences line up to get into sold-out theaters. They saw documentary after documentary screen with standing room only. They listened as the critics lauded the documentaries shown at Sundance that year as the best films of the entire bunch. And that’s when the light bulb went off.

“We had already been in the video business,” says Savage, co-principal of New Video, which he and Margolin founded in 1993 to bring feature films, classic television, and documentaries to home video and DVD. “We hoped this would be the time when documentary filmmaking would become commercial, when filmmakers could make money distributing on DVD and video, and we decided to take the leap.”

The leap came in the form of Docurama, a distributing arm created specifically for documentary films both new and old. And though Savage and Margolin couldn’t have known for certain then, with documentary filmmaking poised to blow up and DVD sales getting ready to skyrocket, their leap couldn’t have come at a better time. What was a major risk in 1999 was by 2005 a very savvy and successful business venture.

The two tested the waters with DA Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967), the story of the revolutionary and now legendary singer/songwriter’s 1965 tour of England. The film had already been released on VHS, but New Video, as Docurama, took a slightly different tack with publicity and promotion. Rather than market it as a music video as other companies had done, Docurama sold it as “one of the greatest documentaries of an artist.”

“They missed the point. We focused on this as a film and released it as if it had never been out before. D.A. Pennebaker made himself available for a theatrical kind of release campaign that included a week of wall-to-wall interviews. It got out there.

It was very successful,” says Savage. “And we realized we were on to something.”

Indeed, the whole concept seems so obvious now—you can’t open a film section or visit a theater without running into a documentary. In 2004, Sundance broke tradition and opened with Stacy Peralta’s surfing-subculture doc, Riding Giants; the first time the festival had ever opened with a documentary. And festivals created solely for documentaries such as Silverdocs and Full Frame are cropping up all over the country—but in the mid ‘90s and before, theaters wouldn’t run documentaries because tickets wouldn’t sell, retailers wouldn’t stock them because consumers wouldn’t buy, and producers wouldn’t fund them because no one could make any money.

“Doug Block [a documentary filmmaker] has a website called the D-word [www.d-word.com], for documentary,” says Savage. “Before Docurama, we’d released some documentaries, and we had to be careful not to use the ‘D-word’ when we went to the retailers because the response was always, ‘I don’t do well with documentaries.’”

This was status quo for years and then, as it invariably will, popular culture began to shift. The very first tremors of change came from cable TV, according to Pat Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University and director of the Center for Social Media there. Looking for low budgets, and high drama and action, cable producers alighted on reality, not the flashy, empty-headed shows of today, but predictable series with staying power. Think TLC’s “Junkyard Wars,” a four-year series that began in 2000, which featured teams racing to build a machine out of materials they found in a scrap yard in each episode. And the Food Network’s still-running “Food Fight,” where two teams face off to see who can concoct the best dish out of a given regional fare. This formulization of documentary, devoid as it is of personality, created an appetite for genuine documentary, explains Aufderheide. Suddenly people were seeking out docs with unique viewpoints, with authentic personas.

Aufderheide calls it a backlash of commoditized popular culture, citing the success of ranting radio hosts, the increase in religious fervor, and the growth in cynicism for popular media as evidence of America’s hunger for something real, something in-your-face, something that’s not ashamed to be exactly what it is.

Simultaneously, with the help of the internet, niche markets developed, spawning even more documentary consumption. “For example, my kid was wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt,” says Aufderheide. “I asked him if he knew who Che Guevara was, and he went off to Netflix to rent a doc. He found an Italian one on Che and now he’s altered our Netflix recommendations list. It’s an accidental niche.”

Savage believes the coming of age of the doc had a lot to do with the growing presence of mass media. “I think a lot of people have been talking about how we’re all in this world together. Things we could have ignored years ago, we can’t now, because all of our media brings it into our homes, into our lives,” says Savage. “People need to make sense of this world.” And so they turn to “the truth.”

Meanwhile, documentary filmmakers were learning that they could make docs more palatable by perhaps taking a cue from narrative nonfiction, in which writers use literary devices to make fact read like fiction. Their films became less like hour-long news programs and more like dramatic features.

Savage keyed into all of this long before it happened. “Another indicator that [Docurama] might work was the emergence of nonfiction [books] over fiction in the ‘90s.” says Savage. “This supported our belief that this would happen in motion media as well.” He was right.

Eventually the theatrical marketplace, taking a cue from public taste, developed a craving for films that reflect realism. And by 2003, there was no shortage of successful docs nonfiction filmmakers could look to for inspiration and measure their own success against. In fact, the box office returns for theatrical documentaries increased four-fold between 2000 and 2002. Leaping from $5 million in 2000 and 2001, to $32 million in 2002, and nearly $45 million in 2003 (dubbed “the year of the doc” by mainstream media such as the Boston Phoenix and the Austin Chronicle). And the numbers are still growing. Unit sales for documentaries on DVD have tripled between 2001 and 2004 from 1 million to 3.7 million (projected).

Clearly, Savage and Margolin made their move at the right time.

“We like to think we’re really smart, but we were a bit lucky at the end of the day that there was a steady stream of great docs over the last 5 years that have brought more people toward these kinds of films,” says Savage.

That first year Docurama released six titles. Five years later, in 2004, the 40-person strong company released 36 new titles. In fact, Docurama is one of the 10 biggest DVD suppliers to Amazon, says Savage.

But just because the documentary film world was booming didn’t necessarily mean that Docurama was ensured success; there are now a whole slew of labels that put out docs. No, the secret to Docurama’s success is in their approach. Savage puts it nicely: “Every documentary film doesn’t sell everywhere, but every documentary film sells somewhere.” He continues, “You can’t just pump titles out to the most obvious and logical retail outlets, you have to understand each title and its own customers and strategy. Documentaries are usually about a subject and each subject has its people who are interested in it, so rather than sell documentaries to documentary lovers, we sell a film to the people who care about it and hopefully in turn bring them into the documentary lovers tent.”

Take Sound and Fury, Josh Aronson’s 2000 documentary that examines deaf culture. The film debuted at Sundance and later aired on PBS’s P.O.V. In order to market the film, Docurama first considered who would actually want to see it. And then they targeted websites dedicated to deaf culture, schools for the deaf, blogs that deaf people frequent, as well as special interest groups and other deaf communities.

“There was broad awareness for the film, and Docurama took advantage of that,” says Aronson, who estimates that between 1 and 2 million people nationwide are touched by deafness. “Through that celebrity and our awards, Docurama was able to focus the distribution.”

Emboldened by the success of his first teaming with Docurama, Aronson is currently toying with another way to package the film: with its sequel, a follow-up he hopes to make about the families featured in Sound and Fury. A sterling idea as repackaging can mean the revitalization of a documentary.

Twenty years ago, Aviva Kempner produced Partisans of Vilna, the story of the Jewish resistance in the capital of Lithuania during WWII and the Holocaust. When it was released in 1986, the film, co-written and directed by Josh Waletzky (Image Before My Eyes; 1981), received critical acclaim: It won awards, screened at film festivals around the world, and was used educationally in classrooms. But as time wore on, viewership waned. Sure, synagogues still showed it as the classic film on Jewish resistance, but its heyday had past.

Enter Docurama. Kempner who directed The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998), pitched Partisans to her old friend Susan Margolin at a party, and Margolin bit. Docurama reissued Partisans in 2004-ready style. Read: a hipper package. Completely repackaged, the DVD included a bonus CD of the Grammy-nominated soundtrack featuring Jewish resistance songs and a songbook complete with lyrics in both English and Yiddish. A study guide with historical background and key questions for discussion, footage of Kempner and Waletzky ruminating on their film, and a photo gallery of stills not included in the original.

“DVDs give you such an incredible opportunity to reintroduce your product. New technology is a resurrection,” says Kempner. “For so long people would come up to me and say, ‘I just saw your Hank Greenberg film.’ Now they come up to me and say, ‘I just saw your Hank Greenberg film and your Partisans film.’”

Docurama gave the film a new life. Similarly, for films unable to summon enough initial attention, DVDs can mean they’ll have a future.

After its premiere at Sundance, Sister Helen, Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman’s award-winning 2002 documentary about a tough-as-nails nun who runs a home for recovering addicts, was presented on Cinemax. Despite the awards and short theatrical runs in New York and LA, Cammisa and Fruchtman were unable to secure a theatrical distributor. Cammisa believes that Helen’s time on television ultimately hurt the film’s chances for a distributor.

“Once a film shows on TV, theatrical distributors are less interested,” she says. “[And] once theatrical was gone, what was there for us but home video or educational distribution? But then Docurama wanted it and suddenly there was another means of distributing our film.”

The film’s re-release was a boon for Sister Helen. “I did a screening of it recently and afterward people are asking me, ‘Where can I get the DVD?’ Now I have somewhere to point them,” says Cammisa, who was especially pleased with Docurama’s willingness to work with her on DVD authoring, which includes designing the menu, the case, and any extra scenes.

“Other documentary filmmakers I’ve spoken with that have had DVDs made by other distributors, high-end distributors, have had huge complaints because those distributors didn’t allow them any control when it came to authoring,” Cammisa says. “Our experience was great—the photo, the cover, the design. [Docurama] allowed us to look and comment and then suggest changes, and they listened to us. It’s so important that your distributor isn’t just slapping a film on DVD, and then it’s out in the world.”

Docurama’s successful collaborations with filmmakers are both a point of pride and a source of satisfaction. “We like working directly with the filmmakers because they know their audiences better than we do,” says Savage.

Since the light bulb went off in Salt Lake City, Docurama has released more than 100 documentary titles, including The Brandon Teena Story (1998), Southern Comfort (2001), and Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (2001). The company also boasts a slew of partnerships that have brought great and important films to DVD—with Independent Film Channel (Lost In La Mancha, A Decade Under the Influence), with P.O.V., PBS’s documentary series, (Lost Boys of Sudan, Farmingville), and with the Sundance Channel (to launch the Sundance Channel Home Entertainment Documentary Collection). For its part, New Video keeps plugging along as the exclusive label and distributor for the A&E Home Video lines, and The History Channel. And although what the company has achieved is clearly remarkable, Savage concedes that there are still strides to be made, primarily in trying to convince bricks-and-mortar video stores to increase their documentary shelf-space.

“Our work is not done,” says Savage. “ There are still a lot of stores where you won’t see a documentary section. We have not arrived, this is a work in progress.”

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