What is Wellspring Media?
Lidell: It’s one of the only independent film distributors that has the capacity to distribute theatrically, on television, domestically, internationally, and on home video. It’s the successor company to Winstar and Fox Lorber.
Guirgis: We also have a department that co-produces documentaries between acquisitions and international sales, so basically we raise financing for largely domestic projects by means of pre-selling them to international broadcasters for documentaries, sometimes for series. We haven’t done it for fiction films.
When and why was Wellspring created?
Lidell: It was created in the early 80’s. It was initially an international sales company for American independent filmmakers and then it added its home video arm and in ’98, the theatrical. The beauty of the company [is it’s] so multi-faceted. It can provide one-stop-shopping for the filmmaker as we can drive revenue in all the different markets. We’re not talking about blockbusters. Releasing it in any one market will not pay back the production cost, but if you can combine revenue streams from all those different markets—you make a little bit internationally, you make a little bit theatrically—and combine them then there’s something really valuable and enables us to return meaningful revenues to the producers.
Through all the change has the mission of the company stayed the same?
Lidell: I think it’s always been a commitment to the best quality work. I think the way that that’s implemented has continued to evolve and gotten better and better.
What types of films do you seek?
Guirgis: We always seek the same kinds of films, which are high end, very independent, high quality, art films, be they fiction or non-fiction. So, they can be films from already famous filmmakers to emerging filmmakers, but films that have a really strong vision and a strong voice that will likely be embraced by the critical community and are likely to stand out from the pack.
How do you find films?
Guirgis: Traditional film festival routes [and], because of our reputation, we have relationships with filmmakers and producers overseas as well as here [in the States]. For video we work with other distributors who don’t have their own video division and we release their films. We [also] initiate certain projects like Devil’s Playground that we did with HBO and had at Sundance last year.
What festivals do you attend?
Guirgis: The most important festivals for where we find what we’ll release theatrically are Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, and Berlin. Those are the top four.
Are there any second tier festivals that you attend annually?
Guirgis: There are certainly festivals that we don’t attend but that we look at: Slamdance, Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago. Then internationally there’s Rotterdam, Hot Docs. We go to Full Frame.
What does a documentary need to have to grab your attention?
Guirgis: For domestic theatrical distribution, I would say a subject matter that people have never seen before, so it generates a lot of press, or a very audience-friendly, uplifting film. It needs to have something that’s outstandingly unusual or extremely well-directed because theatrical releasing is so tough for docs.
Lidell: Those [that] work best theatrically tend to have a dramatic arc and work as a narrative, the same way that a drama does, but it just happens to be reality based. Harlan County, Capturing The Friedmans, Spellbound, Hoop Dreams, those have an inherent dramatic arc.
What do you look for on the television side?
Guirgis: For television we look at docs for international television, so it’s harder to describe what works. It’s easier to say what’s harder [to sell]. The political/social docs do not work overseas because it’s a topic that people aren’t familiar with unless it’s something really unusual like Devil’s Playground or some American phenomena that is so American that it’s perceived by people overseas as kind of exotic.
How many films do you acquire per year?
Lidell: For theatrical it’s six to eight releases a year.
Guirgis: We know we have to fill those six to eight slots but we might acquire twelve films in a year.
How many of those are documentaries?
Guirgis: Not many for domestic theatrical distribution. We acquire many documentaries to sell internationally.
How should filmmakers approach you with their projects?
Guirgis: The most effective way, especially for domestic release, is to attempt to get into some of the bigger film festivals just because it’s hard for us to acquire something, especially if it’s an unknown entity, without exposure to a film festival. Also, try to contact producers’ representatives; they really help sell films. They can call our attention to a film that we otherwise might not pay that much attention to. A lot of people just submit their films [to us], but it’s harder that way. We certainly look at everything and get back to people, but we don’t pay as much attention to those as we do films that are in festivals.
How do you work with the filmmakers when preparing their films for release?
Lidell: We don’t like to be tied contractually, but usually the filmmaker can inspire us to take the film in the right direction. Usually our filmmakers are foreign so [suggestions] are by phone or e-mail [but] at the end of the day I feel I can sell the film better than the filmmaker can. My job is not to portray the film in the way the filmmaker would, but to get as many people into the theater to see the film as I possibly can.
What advice can you give filmmakers seeking distribution?
Guirgis: For American filmmakers, to really explore the foreign film festivals because there are a number of cases of American films that were rejected here, but noticed abroad. Sometimes films that are a little more experimental will be appreciated more by foreign festivals and foreign audiences and then they get attention here. George Washington is a perfect example of that.
Lidell: I think the mistake that many documentary filmmakers make is to think that they are going to have a theatrical doc so they make it ninety minutes, even though the subject and the material is only good for thirty minutes, or sixty minutes, or fifty-eight minutes, or forty-five minutes. Stretching it out in the hopes for a theatrical release, at the end of the day will backfire because the film won’t be the best it can be. There are more eyeballs to be found on American television than American theatrical for a well-made documentary so I would really want to persuade documentary-makers to keep seeing theatrical as the gold ring.