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in Filmmaking
on Dec 9, 2007

Last winter in a Filmmaker article recapping 2006’s most notable trends in independent film, I used as my lede a discussion of metrics — how, in every business, there’s some kind of unit of evaluation, but how in independent film that yardstick is often hopelessly confused. First-time filmmakers exorcising personal demons or doc makers espousing outside-the-mainstream viewpoints are later shocked and disheartened when their films don’t get picked up by a mini-major and gross Michael Moore numbers. Why don’t, I wrote, filmmakers consider things like the importance of transmitting the film’s message and their own enjoyment and personal growth as valid metrics when making a film? Why make a film independently and then become a slave to the logic of the market thereafter?

So, I was interested to receive an email containing a copy of an editorial from the November/December 2007 issue of Documentary Magazine by Nanking producer Ted Leonsis, who is the subject of a big feature in today’s New York Times.. Leonsis is a former vice-chairman of AOL and “sport-franchise mogul” who is now diving into the world of documentary film with not only production dollars but also a paradigm-shifting message.

From Dave Itzkoff’s New York Times piece:

“If your metrics of success are return on investment or risk-to-reward ratio, you wouldn’t make a film like this,” Mr. Leonsis, 51, said. “I have enough investments where if I put in $2 million, I expect $20 million back. This one is all about the psychic and goodness returns.”

Mr. Leonsis seems sincere in his aspirations that Nanking will raise consciousnesses and effect social changes. But it wouldn’t be a Ted Leonsis production if it were not underpinned by a business goal: the hope that “Nanking” will pave the way for a new model of making and distributing nonfiction films.

Leonsis dubs his practice “filmanthropy” and on his website he writes about it in a series of posts, including this link to the Powerpoint presentation he gave at Silver Docs this year.

Here are excerpts of his comments in the Documentary piece:

The most important thing about Filmanthropy is your metrics of success. I spent two years making Nanking — traveled to China, attended five film festivals, worked my behind off and put up significant financial resources to get it made. And to date, there have been minimal revenues. If I looked at this movie like I do my other business investments, I’d never have done it.

What we need are new metrics for success. Filmanthropy is not about box office receipts, but about things like:

Audience size and reception-how many people and influencers saw the film?

Did the film make a difference?

Did it start debate?

Did it activate charitable giving?

Did people volunteer their time for a cause?

Did it right a wrong?

Can it break even with the creation of new media revenue streams?


Let’s say you create a documentary that generates $10 million at the box office. That means about a million people saw it, which would make it one of the top 10 documentaries of all time. But before the filmmaker sees a penny, the theater takes approximately half. Then the distributor takes 20 percent of the remainder. On top of that, you have print and advertising and production costs. So in the end, your hit documentary can very easily leave you in the hole.

Then there’s what I call “the documentary funnel.” There are thousands of filmmakers out there, but just a dozen cable channels, 25 distributors, 500 theater owners and only a few significant film festivals that reach a small group of filmgoers. At the same time, there are a billion people on the Internet. With the broadband Web now widespread, the potential exists to fundamentally change the economics of documentaries.

Think about it: If you could get five million people to watch your documentary for free on the Internet, you can make $1 million through advertising, search and commerce revenues. If you made the film for $500,000, you’d be profitable. You could donate those dollars to charity, or you could fund yet another Filmanthropy project. Since many films are shot on HD, we already have the digital product. We just need to find a way to get it to the many millions of people online, instead of into a couple hundred theaters.

Nanking can be seen at the Film Forum beginning Wednesday, December 12. Its trailer is below.

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