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ro*co Goes iTunes

“I think we, as an independent filmmaking community, focus way too much on the U.S.,” says Annie Roney, the Sausalito-based founder of documentary foreign sales agent and distributor ro*co films. “There’s a whole big world out there of potential viewers for documentaries. And I think the hunger for them is growing worldwide in the same way that it is here.”

Helping to quench that hunger is a new partnership between ro*co and the London-based Bertha Foundation that will enable films from the ro*co catalog to be available digitally in international markets via iTunes. “We share a common goal with The Bertha Foundation,” Roney says, “of wanting the documentary films we love to be able to be seen around the world. But, as with everything we do, there is a technical cost, and that’s typically at the expense of the filmmakers. So we went to The Bertha Foundation and proposed that they take care of the encoding costs to make our entire collection available worldwide on iTunes for those territories for which we control the rights.”

Roney stresses that she will still license her titles to various international distributors and broadcasters. The new initiative, however, will let her exploit territories — or digital rights within territories — that go unsold. “We’re always trying to get [our films] placed around the world through the traditional broadcast and theatrical gatekeepers. There’s really a small handful of people around the world who decide what gets seen in that territory and what doesn’t. We’ll still pursue those gatekeepers, but now we have somewhere else to go where people can find our films around the world.”

The Bertha initiative is especially significant because digital distribution involves making various region-specific versions of a film. “You can’t just do it once and then be done with the world,” says Roney. There is obviously different subtitling involved, so each country is a whole new encode. Roney says, “Our focus will be first English-speaking territories and those territories where English is commonly spoken, like Scandinavia.” Other territories may depend on the availability of a local master — “for example, if we have licensed a film to German television, we can see if it makes sense to encode a German version.”

Pointing out that “iTunes is not a distributor, it is a platform,” Roney says that the Bertha initiative reps ro*co’s “first entry into the retail world and individual consumers.” She says, “The intention is that we’ll be working really closely with filmmakers who will tell us, ‘Did you know that the character in my film has an incredible following in Japan?’ Before, if there wasn’t a Japanese broadcaster or home video distributor aboard, there was no way for people in Japan to see this film. Now we’ll be able to use that information from the filmmaker to send people directly to iTunes.”

This fall, ro*co is leveraging its iTunes deal to launch an international worldwide release for Brian Knappenberger’s We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, leading up to Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5. ro*co is directly booking theaters in international markets, releasing via iTunes worldwide and coordinating its efforts with Cinetic, who is handling the U.S. release, so “the film will be available digitally in time for that special day in the Anon community.”

The Bertha/iTunes deal comes at a critical time because, says Roney, “the global outlook for the traditional distribution of documentaries is bleak. The traditional places documentaries have gone — like broadcast, which has been the bread-and-butter of international documentary distribution — are diminishing in terms of the number of hours licensed and the license fees being paid. Even the public broadcasters are being burdened by the need to become ratings-driven. For the long-form journalism of documentary film, there are just fewer slots, and fewer commissioning editors acquiring U.S. content for those slots. So this is the reason we are seeing this turn to digital.”

Roney formed ro*co films in 2000, launching with one film, the Oscar-nominated Regret to Inform. Films distributed internationally include Client 9: The Rise & Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Born Into Brothels, Jesus Camp, Street Fight, The Weather Underground, Promises and Gunner Palace. The company began an educational division, ro*co educational, in 2009 after Roney realized that “a lot more could be done with the educational distribution of these films. Traditionally, educational distribution has been the distribution of very dry content, but educational media buyers have been loving our films because they’re more narrative and story-driven. Educational is still a very vibrant industry. Booking a couple of hundred campus screenings per film really adds up, and it serves the missions of the films too.”

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