While shooting Up the Yangtze, director Yung Chang would continually whisper a mantra to D.O.P. Wang Shiqing: “Cinema.” Although we didn’t explicitly produce the film for the big screen, after watching the first edit, EyeSteelFilm’s co-founder Daniel Cross proudly proclaimed: “this is going theatrical!” The National Film Board, our co-producer agreed, and we all mobilized. At Sundance, the U.S. distributor Zeitgeist immediately picked up the film.
Unfortunately, no big Canadian distributor jumped on board. Why would an American distributor open the film in wide release—from New York City clear to Juneau, Alaska? At the time, this seemed like an interesting subject for the back page of POV! So, in order to research this article, we decided to release Up the Yangtze in Canada ourselves. What we learned:
1) Distributors don’t want documentaries.
All the big Canadian distributors said no. Luckily, Toronto-based KinoSmith approached us with an alternative: co-distribution. Imagine: a distributor working hand-in-hand with producers and director—what a concept! KinoSmith founder Robin Smith has years of experience, knows all the schemes and maneuvers of the cigar-chomping moguls who run this cutthroat business, yet remains completely optimistic about documentary cinema. Across Canada, we were introduced to documentary allies: publicists Virginia Kelly, Gordon Imlach, and Lindsay Nahmiache working alongside the NFB’s Moira Keigher, Jennifer Wesanko, and Patricia Garcia; doc-minded journalists; programmers; and leagues of volunteers (including all of EyeSteelFilm, and Yung Chang’s parents). Basically, we tapped into the underground documentary network that exists across Canada.
2) There is no market for documentary films in Canada.
The “average” filmgoer is a teenager who enjoys action movies, and this demographic did not seek out Up the Yangtze — despite the apocalyptic mega-dam that would change the river forever. So we tapped into a “niche” demographic: people fifty and over, who are knowledgeable and curious about China. The downside to this clientele, according to one theatre manager: old people don’t buy popcorn. The upside: so far, a gross of over $550,000 at the Canadian box office.
3) Cinemas don’t play docs.
Unless your film makes money. Opening weekend, we made $21,714 on a single screen, more than any other feature film in Canada that week (with the exception of one IMAX film). KinoSmith introduced us to a vast array of screens— from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, to Nanaimo, B.C.—who support documentary cinema. Staff at Toronto’s Cumberland and Vancouver’s Ridge were especially nice, helping us raise money for the Yu family depicted in the film (across Canada, over $30,000 raised).
4) Documentaries are for television.
Yes, most of our production financing came from television. In Canada, we aired on CBC Newsworld while we were still in theatres, with mixed results. We lost some screens, but in general, people kept coming. But the bigger issue with TV was that we had pre-sold all our TV rights during production, so distributors saw the film as unprofitable.
5) A theatrical release is expensive.
Canada has precious few digital screens, and a film blow-up to 35mm, with 8 prints, costs over $60,000. Add a minimum $40,000 for promotion = $100,000. Considering that exhibitors take more than 50% of the box office, breaking even means a minimum gross of $200,000! Telefilm gave us $33,000 support for “Alternative Marketing,” and SODEC gave an additional $10,000. Not enough to make our first print, and a tiny amount compared to what fiction releases get.
6) Telefilm supports feature films, not docs.
Fiction producers tend to believe that docu- mentaries don’t deserve Telefilm support. Yet go to any international film festival, and you will see Canada represented by feature documentaries: at Sundance, there were three Canadian feature docs (four if you include Be Like Others, co-produced by Peter Wintonick) out of 16 films in the doc competition. There were no Canadian films in the fiction competition. While festival success does not necessarily equal box-office results, it stands to reason that Telefilm could get more Canadians watching our own films by directly supporting documentary cinema.
Documentary is our national cinema, something Canadians helped invent, perfect and export around the world. The success of Up the Yangtze highlights the fact that there’s a real audience for theatrical documentaries. We lack only the funding to promote Canadian documentaries and the expectation that they belong on our nation’s screens. Together with mentor Daniel Cross, Mila Aung-Thwin founded the Montreal production company EyeSteelFilm which specializes in feature documentaries. Mila was a producer on films such as SPIT: Squeegee Punks in Traffic, Chairman George, Punk le Vote and Bone, which he also directed.