Not so long ago there was a monolithic distribution model. People bought tickets to get into a theatre. Soon after television was an option, then cable, then streaming. How has non-fiction film followed or defied this model historically. How has non-fiction work always created it’s own model(s) and circuits(s)?
I think documentary filmmakers have always sought and struggled to get their films seen by as many people as possible. The hierarchy of distribution has long been: Theatrical, TV/Cable, and then other forms of digital distribution -DVDs, streaming etc. I’m not sure this hierarchy has changed much, at least in the minds of most documentary filmmakers I know of. That said, it does seem that what has changed is the way in which audiences prefer to see documentaries, and film in general, and that their preference is definitely streaming/digital. Unfortunately, the marketplace for digital film distribution still pays according to hierarchy above- digital/streaming seems to offer the least returns. So while digital distribution has allowed many more films to be released, seen, and available, it hasn’t solved the problem of helping create a sustainable model for independent documentary filmmakers.
2. Could you talk about the path a non-fiction feature or short might take in distribution today?
I think that traditional model still holds to some extent, starting out at festivals seeking distribution, hoping for a wide theatrical release and TV broadcast, and then working towards a digital release. Alternatives are: using film festivals themselves as a form of distribution and the educational market (which is also slowly shifting from a model of DVD purchase to purchasing streaming rights, but which still offer select films a very significant and undervalued marketplace).
- Is there an existing documentary festival circuit?Absolutely, the film festival circuit has expanded exponentially in the past ten years, and there is an entire genre of documentary-only film festivals, both domestically and abroad. DocNYC, True/False, Full Frame, IDFA, are just some of the more prominent examples.4. What role do educational sales play, if any?For the right film, that has a niche market, the educational market is a very important tool for distributing documentary films and is consistently undervalued by filmmakers. The trick is to take advantage of the educational market before the film is available digitally, to maximize the window of time where the film is not easily or widely available except through the filmmaker themselves (self-distribution) or their educational distributor.
- What other types of venues such as galleries, installations, micro cinemas and web distribution play?
I think these forms of distribution are relevant and important as ever, though I think they don’t tend to create much revenue for the filmmaker. Still, they are very important for getting work seen and connecting with audiences.
6. What advice would you give to a student who wants to make non-fiction work re. getting it seen?
Start with the traditional model and improvise (self-distribution etc) when the traditional model fails you. The competition is so fierce these days that many great films don’t get channeled through traditional distribution, but the story doesn’t have to end there- the possibilities for self-distribution have grown and filmmakers (those just starting out and veterans) should take advantage of an evolving digital landscape that rewards experimentation and innovation in terms of how one approaches getting a film out in the world.
Jamie Meltzer’s feature documentary films have been broadcast nationally on PBS and have screened at numerous film festivals worldwide. His current documentary project, Freedom Fighters (in progress), is a co-production of ITVS and the recipient of a Sundance Institute grant and a MacArthur grant. Informant (2012), about a revolutionary activist turned FBI informant, was released in theaters in the US and Canada in Fall 2013 by Music Box Films and KinoSmith. Previous films include: Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story(Independent Lens, 2003), about the shadowy world of song-poems, Welcome to Nollywood (PBS Broadcast, 2007), an investigation into the wildly successful Nigerian movie industry, and La Caminata (2009), a short film about a small town in Mexico that runs a simulated border crossing as a tourist attraction. He teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University.