Just Watch Them

Feature Docs in Canada

29 mins read

The consciousness divide between what makes a good TV documentary and what makes a good theatrical doc has never been so stark in this country as in the weeks since Telefilm and CBC announced at the Banff TV festival that $2 million would be available for theatrical docs, in a test run that begins this fall.

The following day, in response to Telefilm’s (TFC) and the CBC’s initiative, the NFB announced it would enrich the non-CBC component of the pilot project with a commitment of $400,000, and the Documentary Channel said it would invest $400,000 with the NFB on new projects.

The industry, or at least the indie film community, has long argued for federal support for feature docs, arguments mainly short-circuited by the exclusion of these works from the Feature Film Fund. As a result, with few exceptions, non-fiction productions have been core-financed with TV presales, and had to be, to trigger most funding. So, money earmarked for doc features should provide some interesting test cases for the future of the long- form non-fiction film in this country.

Over the years, some determined filmmakers have managed to finance a blow-up to 35mm and, leading super-human marketing campaigns, pulled sell-out crowds to see under-resourced productions. Conversely, for a variety of reasons, viewers had little opportunity to see docs that deserved a longer run, such as Peter Raymont’s Shake Hands with the Devil. But after Canadians began lining up for one doc after another— Bowling for Columbine, The Corporation, Spellbound, Fahrenheit 9/11 and others—the government decided to try this funding experiment.

Observers wonder if the new fund’s administrators will struggle to predict theatrical winners. Says Capri Releasing’s Tony Cianciotta, about Telefilm’s financing strategy: “Of course they should…provide funding, full force. Support the talent. But the decision-making is left up to people who are not necessarily experienced in these things. They have to do something about that. If you look at the quality sometimes, that’s the source of the problem.”

Telefilm’s Ralph Holt told POV the guidelines for accessing the new money would be finalized by fall, with applications due November 1. If the experiment succeeds, strong theatrical docs will help the industry approach Telefilm Canada’s Executive Director Wayne Clarkson’s high watermark of 10 percent of box office receipts for Canadian films. If the trial flops, we’ll be starting over.

But what has been the recent experience of Canadian feature docs in cinemas? Let’s look at a few remarkable examples of how the passionate took their perspectives to the people. But be warned: it’s by no means an exhaustive list of legends of the doc.

Manufacturing Audiences

When Peter Wintonick’s and Mark Achbar’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media made its exciting debut at the Toronto Festival of Festivals in September, 1992, “people were lining up around the block,” recalls Christine Burt.

“It was warmly received, publicly and critically.” She contributed five years of “blood, sweat and tears” as the film’s publicist, its Canadian theatrical booker and the person responsible for nailing down the rights to the music. (Burt notes the cost of acquiring theatrical rights is often prohibitive, especially for music.) During the Toronto run of the 167-minute film, “we even got a call from (Disney CEO) Michael Eisner’s office and they wanted to see it. But we had no copies to spare.”

While Manufacturing Consent was buzzing Canadian festivals, Burt laboured over the theatrical release. “I had phoned rep cinemas, myself, all over the country. It was rather dogged, when I look back on it.” Meanwhile, New York’s iconic Film Forum was whetting U.S. appetites by including film clips in a showcase of coming attractions. Eventually, Zeitgeist signed on for U.S. distribution and launched the NFB-Necessary Illusions co- production in March 1993.

Burt had begun building community interest through Learner Centres—which promote cross-cultural and social awareness—and from her own base as a member of Montreal’s Social Justice Committee. She had also borrowed lists of community group contacts from Nettie Wild, created to market A Rustling of Leaves, and had 20 pages of names of people who’d promised to “see it and publicize it within their groups.”

“Peter and Mark thought originally they’d travel across Canada selling videos from the back of a van, and then move into the States,” Burt muses. “If it hadn’t been for the success of the film at the Toronto festival, they’d have done it that way. Even so, they travelled far and wide anyway and would split up to cover off places, screening it simultaneously.

“It really was a grassroots campaign. We couldn’t have done it without the Film Board. They were absolutely great in the (lab and production) services they provided. (Producer) Adam Symansky, with his experience was great. He knew just when to hang back and when to lend a hand.”

The impact of the campaign by Burt and the distributors was phenomenal and unprecedented in Canada for a feature doc. In an article in REVelation magazine in 1995, Achbar asserts that, “… at the box office, the film is now Canada’s most successful documentary in history. It has played commercially in over 300 cities world wide, and in over 50 film festivals where it won 15 awards. It’s been aired by 15 national TV networks….”

Clamouring for Kanehsatake

The Festival of Festivals was the launching pad, in 1993, for Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, also a phenomenon, from established NFB filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. Although the NFB says Kanehsatake “was not made for theatrical release” and explains its English Program had neither the resources nor the experienced personnel for the task, this film, with its groundbreaking aboriginal perspective and front-lines footage of the Oka crisis, seemed destined for cinemas.

According to an Erin Research Inc. report for Canada’s Documentary Policy Advisory Group, England’s Channel 4 organized the film’s first cinematic outing. “For a week solid, they screened the film in their theatre and had sell-out crowds. In Obomsawin’s words, ‘We had standing ovations at every screening and they threw us out every night at midnight…’ Since CBC was still not willing to broadcast the film and the public was clamoring to see it…a decision was made to open the film theatrically and semi- theatrically. In addition to cross-country rep screenings, the NFB ran public screenings in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Montreal and Toronto.”

NFB marketer Lynne Williams sought out grass roots supporters—thousands of people on targeted mailing lists that reached aboriginal communities and beyond—plus festivals, educators, libraries and groups linked to social justice causes. Eventually, CBC aired the film, with a discussion panel afterwards.

Although the Erin report concludes that Kanehsatake garnered increased public awareness, compared to an indie film, thanks to the NFB’s adequate budgets, publicity personnel and distribution network, the experience of non-NFB titles compares well to that of Obomsawin’s film. It’s difficult, however, to compare the achievements of more modern films, such as The Corporation, with titles launched B.I.—Before Internet. As Christine Burt noted, “We did things via fax.”

Forest Alert!

In 1999, the world wondered whether the Y2K technology glitch might create an international computer systems disaster as the millennium turned. Poet-musician Richard Desjardins, meantime, had long wondered whether tree-hewing technology in the control of private corporations might not produce a similarly graceless disaster amid the prodigious forests of Quebec.

Enter L’Erreur boréale (Forest Alert), the product of co-director Desjardins, co- director Robert Monderie and co- producers ACPAV and the NFB. A test screening in January 1999, convinced producers that L’Erreur boréale would be a major box office draw. With its premiere Feb. 13 at the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois, and a Mar. 28 airdate, only six weeks remained to put the film in theatres. When Cinéma Libre told NFB marketer Élise Labbé it planned a full release, the NFB swung into action.

The pre-fest media blitz involved Desjardins, attracting his immense fan base. Quebecers were also drawn to the film, Labbé contends, because they love their trees. Post fest, as Erin recounts, L’Erreur boréale hit theatres immediately. Sellout crowds filled the NFB Montreal cinema and theatres in six cities in Quebec. Add the audience counts at the Cinémathèque québécoise, Labbé says,
and 10,000 people saw it in a few weeks.

Box office of millennial proportions

The new millennium seemed to let filmmakers shed any lingering, ironclad perceptions of what defines a documentary. Although the NFB resisted the term ‘non-fiction feature’ well into the ’90s, non-traditional docs were on the rise. Think of Peter Lynch’s hilarious Project Grizzly, of Roger and Me or The Big One from Michael Moore.

No surprise, then, that Moore could take a textbook documentary subject like the horrific murders at Columbine High and weave elements into his Bowling for Columbine (B4C) thesis of guns-out-of-control in America, arms- out-of-control the world over.

It was 2002 when B4C arrived on La Croisette at Cannes, tornado powered by satiric comedy and inward-looking fury. It blew the usual suspects’ dramas out of the exquisitely blue waters of the Mediterranean at the Cannes Film Festival and never wondered if that was de rigueur doc behaviour. Moore didn’t care: he was redefining the genre so he could examine issues in a new way.

Alliance Atlantis, which distributed B4C, put its worldwide box office at more than $50 million. Yes, Moore is popular, but $50 million? How did the twister pick up so much speed?

Simple, says producer Michael Donovan: the audience has been morphing, too. “The most important movie-goers are 18- to 24-year-olds. In this post-2000, post 9-11 world, that audience wants more truth. It wants more of the reality that’s reflected in documentary features…Part of the success with this audience is that Bowling for Columbine was about a high school.

“It was one of the first documentary features that appeared on the landscape as this phenomenon began to unfold at the audience level. The trend continues. In the ’90s, people wanted escapist movies, like Schwarzenegger movies. People don’t want that so much any more. They want Super Size Me, The Corporation.”

Doc Channel: broadcast home for theatricals

Columbine ’s theatrical potential became obvious at Cannes in 2002, about nine months after Corus Entertainment and its partners launched The Documentary Channel, a Tier 1 diginet. Director of Programming Michael Burns says the channel has always commissioned feature docs intended for theatrical play.

“Some documentaries are made for CBC or History Television or whatever and either succeed or don’t. They’re distributed around the world. They can’t be made for $10 million because the marketplace won’t sustain that. Then there are films like Winged MigrationFahrenheit 9/11, etcetera, that are very strong. But if they hadn’t gotten that theatrical release, they would have been seen as flops.

“What the Documentary Channel does is make those kinds of movies. They cost much more. So, if Four Wings and a Prayer (a high definition, Primitive Entertainment/NFB/ Films à trois co- production currently in post-production) doesn’t get a theatrical release, we will be disappointed…

“Up until now (with the TFC/CBC announcement), everybody who made a television doc, except those made with us, would pre-license it to a TV channel, plus secure government subsidies and TV licences offshore. The reason why feature docs are economically interesting at all is because the theatrical release adds value to the ancillary markets… Four Wings and a Prayer has a $300,000 broadcast licence with France 2.”


Filmmakers organizing a theatrical run can’t command higher licence fees if the film was already pre-sold, but they do expect more respect from reviewers and audiences. Vancouver’s Nettie Wild, who pre-sold FIX: The Story of an Addicted City to CTV, was considering its cinema options as she followed drug addicts, the faith community and progressive politicians in their quest for a safe injection site.

By the time _FIX_ confronted Canadian festival audiences in the fall of 2002, the 30- year-old prophecy of Neil Young’s _Needle And the Damage Done_ had proven so indelibly correct in Vancouver, the time was ripe for official recognition of the problem, and action. CTV had not scheduled a network broadcast, so Wild needed a theatrical run. “Because we had a broadcaster, (distributor) Mongrel Media wouldn’t take it….That’s the key with all documentaries: they’ve all sold their soul to some broadcaster in order to get funded.” So she, her team, their theatrical marketing experience and their supporters brought out the audience.

Fortunately, theatrical distributor Cianciotta, then working with Cineplex Odeon, was interested in Wild’s work. She convinced him to screen _FIX_ at one of his Vancouver theatres at half the normal cost and it held for seven weeks, five screenings per day. “We out-grossed everybody!,” Wild notes. “After every 7 pm show, we had a community forum and we got press coverage for them because we (invited) all the major participants” in the injection site debate.

Wild and the production team assured theatre owners that although the director would attend screenings, “we wouldn’t make a show go off late and…would hold discussions and mike the directors and people doing the Q & As. Then the audiences would ask theatre managers to do more such events, and they loved it. We also involved local people like heroin addicts and methadone doctors…It was said it was a really expensive tour because of the people (such as protagonists Ann Livingston, Dean Wilson and Mayor Philip Owen) touring with the film…but it works with city editors and entertainment editors.” FIX played for five weeks in Toronto, “several shows a day, seven days a week,” she says.

Betsy Carson, FIX producer and production manager, says total box office gross in 33 cities and towns through 2004 was $202,436. It outgrossed X-Men 2 in its first weekend in Kelowna. “(W)e outsold My Big Fat Greek Wedding the week of Oct 26, 2002 at the Granville 7 in Vancouver, and in Victoria the week of Feb 27th, we outsold The Pianist, The Life of David Gale and The Quiet American…

“The money came from TV,” says Wild. “The sizzle, the pop, the sense of it really being something, that came from the theatrical release. There was a chance that if it hadn’t gone theatrical, CTV might never have aired it at all.”

Bob Culbert, CTV’s Vice-President of Documentaries, says Wild’s decision to take the film around the country was “done with our blessing,” adding the network waited until Dec. 28, 2003 to air the one-hour version in order to let the story “build (outside B.C.) and to allow a late-night slot” to open up. FIX aired at 10 pm because of coarse language and was programmed after Christmas because it wouldn’t otherwise have had access to that timeslot. The film had only aired in B.C. in 2002, weeks before the Vancouver municipal election.

Culbert adds that other than Wild, who’s “almost an activist filmmaker,” no one has brought him doc proposals well suited to theatrical release. He’d be pleased, though, if a filmmaker working with CTV accessed the pilot project funding.

Need a nirvana niche? Find Peter Mettler

Peter Mettler’s intellectually challenging Gambling, Gods and LSD launched at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) 2002, along with FIX. Perhaps the most accessible description of this epic production came from fest programmer Stacey Donen who said the film is “an exploration of transcendence.”

Yup, this three-hour film, this “big picture, big sound” experience, was hard to sell to Canadian distributors. Luckily, producer Robert Lantos loved Mettler’s Picture of Light, loved the new film’s title and agreed, while still at Alliance Atlantis, to market and distribute it. After he left, his former employer honoured his promise.

Producer Ingrid Veninger says the post-TIFF Canadian launch, organized mainly by the production team with Odeon’s support on some ads, trailers and a web site, combined postering with raves and parties. Marketers reached out to “youth and ravers and alternative audiences,” she says, “as well as the cinematheque crowd.”

Veninger theorizes Odeon might not have expected the film to generate such glittering reviews. The distributor aimed for a rep cinema launch, beginning with Toronto’s Royal Cinema in early February 2003. The Mettler/Veninger team warmed up the audience with a rave in a hip Danforth club “with a bunch of DJs, juice bars…Four hundred people came and there was a yoga session at 6 am. Word spread…and Gambling drew packed houses for three screenings at the Royal, three at the Paradise, two at the Revue and two at the Music Hall.” Unfortunately, six weeks elapsed between the film’s Genie Award win and openings at the larger Carlton and Bloor cinemas, so interest dropped off.

Next up were cinematheque and rep cinema dates from Victoria to St. John’s, in almost every province. The TIFF Group Film Circuit “kicked in with some cities” as well, she says. At each stop, T-shirts, CDs and videos were sold.

Corporate Concentration

Along came The Corporation, beginning its well-documented and analyzed theatrical life in August, 2002, “at a rave on the Squamish Nation Territory (in B.C.) with a screen stretched between two cedar trees at a midnight screening.” Co-director Mark Achbar says it travelled to more such events, generating heat from the social justice/environment advocates in the rave movement.

Achbar credits marketer Katherine Dodds with promoting the film with a tremendous “outreach strategy.” By the time it launched theatrically, through Mongrel Media in January 2004, The Corporation was primed for “a fantastic run in Canada…It was the second-highest grossing English-Canadian feature film for 2004.”

Heading in, however, Mongrel’s Tom Alexander was nervous. He planned to open it mid-month, only a few weeks shy of the first TVO broadcast. “We were concerned we’d have to exploit all of Ontario within about five to six weeks’ time—not easy to do,” says Alexander. But with the film in multiple Ontario markets and Vancouver (six months at The Tinseltown!), the TVO broadcasts “did not hurt the theatrical box office because people wanted to see it on the big screen.”

Using a list developed by the filmmakers, Mongrel emailed left-wing organizations and politicos, unions, educators and student organizations at university and college campuses. Naturally, filmmakers Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan did media, attended screenings and held Q&As.

Mongrel opened it in more than 70 cities over the next few months, says Alexander. It almost grossed $2 million in Canada and “was the most successful feature film we’ve ever had in this company…At its peak, about 30 prints were in circulation.” None was in French, but the digital versions fared well in Quebec.

“Docs are more successful these days because viewers are more used to seeing documentary storytelling,” says Alexander. “Audiences don’t need high-gloss artifice and actors any more. Films can be shot on hand-held cameras and with regular people…Through exposure to reality TV, audiences have become accepting of the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking and are more willing to pay their box office dollars.” Except when the celluloid audience vacuum known as _Fahrenheit 9/11_ is sucking the life from all other films…

Achbar reckons the film’s $1.4 million budget, plus blowup costs, dampened its financial picture. “With more than $6 million box office worldwide and 100,000 DVDs (sold), I haven’t even broken even.” He and producer Bart Simpson doubt they could have made their film using the new pilot fund because too few production dollars are available. Neither mind, though, because the gratitude from audiences, the stories of inspired filmmakers and the feedback from educators adding The Corporation to the curriculum have made it all worthwhile.

As a new moment in Canadian theatrical distribution waits in the wings, the industry can conclude little about what entices cinema fans out of their cocoons. Distributor and foreign sales agent Jan Rofekamp says it’s all about story, but Peter Mettler’s _Gambling, Gods_ is hardly a narrative. CBC’s Mark Starowicz told Mark Achbar his pitch had no sizzle. Others swear the essence of success resides in strong characters, so one wonders, how many winged migrants does it take to make a strong character? Michael Burns favours director-driven projects featuring virtuoso craftsmanship and little verité. Do young people really want more truth?

Nobody really knows. Bonne chance to Telefilm and everyone else who thinks they can figure out what makes a good theatrical ’non-fiction feature.’ Until there are more of them out there, we’ll never have enough examples to cite to shore up all the individualized arguments, pro or con, on the issue. Who knows the value of the variables in the formula for a Standing Ovation?

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