In Colorado, a state where documentary-making is particularly strong, filmmakers are exploring an increasingly broad range of avenues to find audiences for their work.
Theatrical releases -- which most people think of when they think of film distribution -- are far from the only way to go.
In addition to viewing documentaries at The Sie FilmCenter and Landmark Theatres in Denver, people also can find content on HBO, Showtime, Netflix, iTunes, Snag Films, Amazon, Google Play and Hulu.
“Everyone who makes a documentary should go into it with tempered expectations about theatrical release and think about how to get money back through other platforms,’’ Starz Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson says.
“The money for documentaries has been in broadcasting, but the ground is shifting right now,’’ Academy Award-winning documentary maker Daniel Junge says. “The online options can be as good or better than theatrical release.”
Junge is in the process of negotiating a deal for his new documentary “Fight Church” with an Internet distributor he can’t name until all details are finalized.
“Fight Church,” which Junge directed with Bryan Storkel, focuses on a subculture in which Christianity and mixed martial arts meet. The film has already gained national exposure on Good Morning America.
Denver-based Listen Productions -- which premiered its documentary “Hanna Ranch” at last year’s Starz Denver Film Festival -- is taking a different approach.
Call it a hybrid model with a DIY component.
“Hanna Ranch” focuses on a troubled rancher’s attempt to balance cattle-raising with environmental concerns.
To make the film available on video on demand and iTunes, Listen Productions cut a deal with Gravitas Ventures, an independent film distributor.
But Listen also knew that theatrical play would be necessary to garner reviews from major publications such as The New York Times, as well as to qualify the documentary for Academy Award consideration.
To achieve those goals, the “Hanna Ranch” team is renting auditorium space for week-long runs in New York at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, and California, at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. The screenings will begin on May 16.
Listen would not disclose the terms of its rental agreements, known in the trade as “four-walling.” But the production company notes that it will receive 100 percent of all box office receipts from the Quad and Laemmle showings.
Neither Laemmle nor Quad discusses specific agreements they make with filmmakers. But the Quad Website lists a price of $11,000 for a week-long run.
The Denver release of “Hanna Ranch” will follow the New York and California runs on May 23 at the Sie FilmCenter. Listen does not have to rent the space for this hometown screening.
All of this points to the fact that Colorado filmmakers may have to spend money to make their voices heard.
Listen Productions says that from the start, 30 percent of the “Hanna Ranch” budget was earmarked for distribution. This figure includes creating and maintaining the film’s website, designing posters, funding publicity efforts and paying for travel and theatrical showings.
“We’re spending every penny of that part of the budget,’’ the film’s director, Mitch Dickman, says. “People have the idea that they’re going to make their film, get it in the can and they’re done. That’s maybe 50 percent of the job right now.”
Karl Kister, one the producers of “Hanna Ranch,” is also a producer of “Keep On Keepin’ On,” a documentary about the relationship between jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and and Justin Kaufman, a 23-year-old blind piano prodigy.
RADiUS-TWC acquired the worldwide rights for “Keep on Keepin’ On’’ at the recently concluded Tribeca Film Festival.
RADiUS, which describes itself as the boutique label of The Weinstein Company, last year distributed the wildly popular documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.”
The kind of theatrical and promotional push that “Keep on Keepin’ On” will likely receive remains out of reach for most documentary filmmakers -- and may not always be necessary.
“In golf, there’s a saying, ‘You drive for show and you putt for dough,’” says Jim Butterworth of Naked Edge Films, a Boulder-based company that produces character-driven, socially oriented documentaries. “It’s like that with documentaries. Theatrical is impressive, but TV is generally where you’re going to get bigger audiences and make more money.”
Confidentiality agreements make the terms of deals for broadcast sales of documentaries difficult to obtain. But Butterworth notes that the national PBS broadcast of a program such as “Independent Lens” can garner as many as a million viewers for a documentary -- not counting reruns or international showings.
Butterworth says that his first documentary “Seoul Train” had a total worldwide audience of around 2.5 million.
A quick comparison is instructive: If a documentary grosses $1 million in U.S. theaters -- a take that would put it in the top 137 highest grossing documentaries ever -- it probably will have been seen by 100,000 viewers, assuming an average ticket price of $10.
So are documentaries profitable? They can be.
Box Office Mojo, an online publication that reports box office receipts, lists Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” as the highest grossing documentary ever. The movie’s box-office totaled $119 million on a reported budget of $6 million.
But few documentaries make that kind of money. Moreover, profits depend on many variables, not the least of which is budget size.
Donald Zuckerman, Colorado’s Film Commissioner and a producer of movies, says that the budget for a compelling, well-produced documentary can range from $200,000 to $1.5 million.
You get some idea about profit potential when you realize that of the 1,195 documentaries Box Office Mojo currently tracks, only 60 have grossed more than $3 million in theaters.
“We never set out to make a big profit on this film, but it would be nice to get the investors’ money back and be able to make more films and know that we can do it in a financially sustainable way,’’ Kister of “Hanna Ranch” says. “It’s not really about profits. But if the film makes money, it means lot of people are seeing it. Our goal is to have lots of people see it.”
This brings us to the real bottom line for documentary filmmakers: Most of them are driven by a passion to tell stories.
“There are better ways to make money than making a socially oriented documentary,’’ Butterworth says.
His Naked Edge filmography includes titles such as “Silenced” (about whistle blowers), “In Country” (about Vietnam War re-enactors) and “The Revisionaries” (about the push for creationism in Texas’ public schools).
“We’d love to make money on our films,” Butterworth says. "But we really believe that these are important stories that need to be told. That’s our primary motivator.”
Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at www.denersteinunleashed.com.