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Documentaries Have the Long Legs Everyone in the Film World Values

Documentaries Have the Long Legs Everyone in the Film World Values

When I launched Soundview in 2010, I did so because I saw a hole in the market. There were numerous sales agents — but few, if any, were focused on documentaries.

It was a gaping hole, in fact, and my eyebrows raised up high. I said to myself, “Dan … why is that? Of all the genres, docs have the longest legs.”

Dan Gurlitz

I knew a bit about this due to a sales study I oversaw while serving as general manager at an independent film distributor. From the study, our sales team learned that in many (though not all) cases, well-produced documentaries sold as many copies in year two and year three and beyond as they did in their initial year of release.

Sometimes these numbers were quite formidable and depended on the level of ongoing promotions that took place. Sometimes it was just long-legged interest. The cases where this was not the result usually pertained to “drafting titles,” documentaries that attempted to ride a motion picture wave, sometimes taking a look at the making of the film. Often, such drafting titles had shorter legs.

Fourteen years after that study, Soundview has placed into distribution a large number of films, most of them documentaries. And once again, we are finding that documentaries dating back to as early as 2011 are still generating sales — and sales, as we all know, translate into welcome royalties for the filmmakers.

It’s all about the content, right? It’s all about the story, and the telling of it. Someone, somewhere, some time ago said “content is king.” That’s always been the case, but when it comes to documentaries, whether pure entertainment or something of a more serious nature, they are essentially snapshots in time. Sometimes the subject matter is revisited in a subsequent film, but in many cases these point-in-time snapshots prove to be more impactful than ever as they age, either because they include interviews and perspectives from people who may no longer be living or because they chronicle a certain situation or location before things changed, as they invariably do over the years. 

Consider Whittle: The Jet Pioneer. Directed by Nicholas Jones and released in 2012, this standard-definition British military documentary tells the story of Frank Whittle, the gent credited with inventing the jet engine. It was this invention that gave the Allies the advantage against the Nazis. Frank Whittle tells his own story, so this snapshot in time shall likely last forever.

Then there’s Journey of the Universe. Produced with funding by Yale University, also in 2012, Journey of the Universe is an epic documentary exploring the human connection to Earth and the cosmos. From producer-directors Patsy Northcutt and David Kennard, this one-hour story takes the viewer from the Big Bang to the crossroads at which we stand today in relation to our planet. Its concise story-telling has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.

And then there are Doctors of the Dark Side, Martha Davis’ scorching 2013 expose about the CIA’s hiring of clinical psychologists as “monitors” following 9/11, and Vice Studios’ 2019 film The Report, which retells the story as a feature narrative and is a perfect example of a snapshot in time being told again.

Those are just three of many documentaries with long legs in terms of both interest and sales. There are numerous more to consider.

Dan Gurlitz is a home video veteran and the founder of Soundview Media Partners, a boutique film company specializing in film representation, educational licensing, and publishing The Sound View newsletter. 

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