How commercial are impact films?
This is the question that seems to haunt independent filmmakers the world over. That’s because we operate in a broader media ecology where box office numbers matter. But analysis of the US box office (the strongest market for documentaries across the world) indicates that impact docs perform on a par with non-impact independent docs, with some taking over $1 million every year. This is probably why, every year, distributors take an interest in a few of them. But, in the main, it is very hard to get picked up and most documentaries don’t have a full theatrical release, going straight to non-theatrical, TV, and online.
But here’s the thing: the market doesn't know best. That’s especially true in so many cases where impact is the priority. And with so many online distribution platforms’ practice of not releasing their audience data, who actually knows anyway?
Yes: it's hard for a doc to break out in the market. But it's not impossible. And even if a film is not commercially successful, it doesn't mean it can't be successful in other ways.
Impact Award Finalists
Lifetime Theatrical Gross for Impact Award finalists taken from Box Office Mojo
Each of these Impact Award Finalists had an extraordinary impact, was deeply loved by fans and honoured by film industry peers and society leaders. So, while box office revenue or TV audience gives you an idea of reach, it can’t tell the full story.
Geek Out: Ideas for further reading
Have a look at the current list of qualifying festivals. But this changes at annually so be sure to check for this years list on your own.
There are many ways for films to reach the right audiences. As this beautiful graphic from Chris Tosic reminds us, not everything beautiful and worthwhile will make money. Our mission is to find ways to make sure the best work can reach the right audience and be a sustainable practice for artist filmmakers. (More on sustainability in section 3.3)
Being creative in your partnerships, flexible in your ideas about where the audience is and how to reach them, is the name of the game - no matter what the gatekeepers say.
Ping Pong - which followed a group of over-80s table tennis champions and challenged the expectation that the elderly should live sedentary lifestyles - never had a theatrical release, but it did manage to reach an important audience through DVD screenings in over 2,000 care homes across the UK.
In some places it may be more difficult than in others. In India, for example, independent filmmakers are contending with a host of barriers, from censorship to an impenetrable Bollywood-dominated market. And without financial backing, it’s almost impossible to get a film seen there.
Take the film Insignificant Man, a controversial political film about corruption in India and one man’s efforts to build a revolution to change it. With little chance of getting attention at home, the team used the international film festival circuit to build buzz and credibility as a political film outside of India. They went to over 55 film festivals.
They then leveraged the traction they received to secure a deal with an emerging screening-on-demand platform that PVR Cinemas was experimenting with called Vkaoo. They also built a number of “guerrilla partnerships,” including with Book My Show, the biggest event booking site in the country, and they spent sleepless nights spreading the word about their three sneak-preview showings. The result was remarkable.
Insignificant Man sneak previews sold out within 12 hours. The film ended up running for 8 weeks, becoming the highest grossing vérité documentary of all time in India. But the filmmakers didn’t stop there. Realising they had an opportunity to expand their audience, they struck a deal with Vice Films to release their film for free on YouTube while it was still in theatres. This unconventional, simultaneous-release strategy was a risk for all the partners involved, but one they agreed they were willing to take to test out what a partnership like this could look like.
For Vice, it was a way to break into the Indian market. For the theatre platform, it was a way to work with a small film with no marketing budget to help them maintain a great buzz and convert it into ticket sales. For the filmmakers, it was a way to leverage the momentum they’d built around the theatrical run (and the theatre’s marketing budget) towards the online release. It also meant they could get their film out far and wide and establish themselves as respected filmmakers early in their careers. The film ended up with 1.6M views!
Filmmakers and film teams prove time and time again that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Geek Out: Ideas for further reading
Here is a rare read. Some facts and figures on distribution set out in an excellent article: Distribution Transparency: Four Filmmakers Reveal Their Distribution Numbers in Filmmaker Magazine: Part 1 and Part 2