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Oscars boost documentary firm's prestige

'Born Into Brothels' extends ThinkFilm's winning streak
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

When “Born Into Brothels” won the best documentary Oscar on Sunday night, it was the culmination of specialty film distributor ThinkFilm’s three-year love affair with nonfiction movies.

From its first 2003 documentary release, the Oscar-nominated sleeper hit “Spellbound,” which grossed $6 million, to last year’s Mongolian-language “The Story of the Weeping Camel” ($2 million gross), also Oscar-nominated, to its first Oscar win with “Born Into Brothels,” ThinkFilm has clearly earned the moniker “Docus ’R’ Us.”

Not one to mess with a winning formula, ThinkFilm theatrical distribution chief Mark Urman admits to chasing the documentary brand identification: “We don’t want to do documentaries exclusively. But we do want to be thought of as the go-to company for all important documentaries. We’re now getting our pick of the strongest docus. It’s feeding itself.”

Also jumping on the documentary bandwagon is lawyer John Sloss of Cinetic Media, who sold “Spellbound” to ThinkFilm. “We consider them to be as good as anyone out there at maximizing docus,” he says, “at a time when docus have shown themselves to be considerably more valuable than anyone thought was possible.”

As a stand-alone indie, ThinkFilm has more flexibility in acquiring nonfiction features -- many of which are financed by cable outlets like HBO -- than its studio competitors, who usually want to buy all rights. ThinkFilm released nine documentaries last year, and will release 10 in the next year, including the wine industry expose “Mondovino.” It also has scheduled two high-profile summer counterprogrammers, the self-financed Sundance-winning sports documentary “Murderball” and the profanely hilarious Sundance acquisition, “The Aristocrats.” The company has slotted only two fiction features on its 2005 release schedule.

Urman, who is based in New York, discovered “Born Into Brothels” at Sundance last year. The account of how a group of children of Calcutta, India, prostitutes were aided by learning photography won the Documentary Audience Award. Urman had assumed that “Born Into Brothels” would immediately air on HBO, one of its financiers, but when he contacted the filmmakers, he discovered that they had retained a theatrical release window.

After failing to land several distributors, including Miramax Films and New Line Cinema, “Born Into Brothels” filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski finally turned to ThinkFilm, even though they were afraid that the distributor had too many nonfiction features on its plate. “Being able to give the movie the attention it would need was a big concern,” Kauffman says.

Urman watched in amazement as the film scarfed up one festival award after another. Seattle. Atlanta. Cleveland. Full Frame. Sydney. Festivals became the main release strategy behind the film. “It kept winning either the jury or audience prize,” he recalls. “It was not a hot and sexy docu like ’Super Size Me,’ but it was both a critical success and a crowd pleaser. We needed both to do what we wanted to do -- land an Oscar nomination.”

It was a bold decision to hold the opening of “Born Into Brothels” until Dec. 8, almost a year after its world premiere. “It was during the single most competitive quarter,” Urman says, “against all the most important, serious, prestigious, awards-caliber films.”

ThinkFilm booked the documentary on one screen at Lower Manhattan’s Film Forum. “Born Into Brothels” hung out there for 10 long weeks. ThinkFilm stayed focused on selling the story behind the movie to newspapers like the New York Times -- and not spending money. No full-page ads. No star entourages. Just plenty of e-mail blasts from Amnesty International and opinionmaker screenings, all with an eye on Oscar. The film was named best documentary by the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

“I kept saying to everybody, let’s save the money for when we need it,” Urman recalls. “We didn’t open another market until after the Oscar nomination.”

Luckily, only those Academy members who see all five documentary nominees get to vote in the category, which meant that ThinkFilm didn’t have to spend as heavily as most Oscar campaigners, which are reaching out to the entire Academy. Only after the Jan. 25 Oscar announcement did Urman’s PR team push for such national press as CNN, the Associated Press, “The Charlie Rose Show” and People.

The movie’s behind-the-scenes humanitarian drama --transforming the lives of the Calcutta children through art --proved to be as irresistible a marketing hook as its real-life heroine Briski, a slim globe-trotting British photographer who responded to the nominations at 9 p.m. Calcutta time, surrounded by her kids.

“That’s what gets people to see a movie,” says Urman, who kept begging the peripatetic Briski and Kauffman, her ex-boyfriend, co-director and cinematographer, to “come back!”

Of the five documentary Oscar nominees, “Born Into Brothels” was the only one still in theaters in the month leading up to Oscar night. During that period, the film expanded from one screen to 40 in the top 12 markets. After the Oscar win, the film added 20 screens.

“We knew that if we won, we’d have no competition,” Urman says. By March 11, the film will be on 100 screens in 40 markets and should easily break the $2 million mark.

“It was a release plan about how to best orchestrate an Oscar win and benefit from it,” ThinkFilm Toronto-based president and CEO Jeff Sackman says. “When it works, it is a beautiful thing.”

As for Urman, he is already moving on to “Mondovino,” taking advantage of editorial interest in its subject matter as well as exploiting wine industry promos. While Urman expects “Mondovino” to do well, especially on home video, ThinkFilm’s two summer movies, “The Aristocrats” and “Murderball,” have real breakout potential. Urman is talking to MTV about possibly partnering on the wheelchair rugby documentary “Murderball,” which won the documentary audience award at Sundance. It was an MTV tie-in that gave Fox Searchlight’s “Napoleon Dynamite” an enormous awareness boost last summer.

“Docus are delightful,” says Sackman, who has no intention of abandoning fiction films altogether. “But I look at films as those that gross and those that don’t. And we want to buy as many films that gross as possible.”