By Alberta Mutti 

Release strategy changes from one country to another but sometimes there are many interesting similarities. The implementation of new and innovative releases strategy is necessary when it comes to documentaries: from side events to the involvement of partners and institutions, the process of releasing and promoting a documentary varies continuously. This was the point made at the closed workshop organised by Europa Distribution in the scope of IDFA 2023. For the fifth time, the partnership between the Association and the Dutch festival was renewed and allowed independent distributors to come together on November 2023 for a morning dedicated to case studies of new distribution strategies for arthouse documentaries.  

A case study on Four Daughters by Kaouther Ben Hania was presented by Sabine Hofmann from Austrian Polyfilm: the distributor shared their upcoming strategy as the documentary has not yet been released. In the film, the two eldest daughters of Olfa disappear. To fill their absence, director Kaouther Ben Hania enlists two professional actresses and puts on an extraordinary film show to reveal the story of Olfa and her daughters, a mid-way between a fiction and a documentary. Considering the documentary’s high humanitarian value, the target audience wasn’t difficult to identify (students, young adults and parents), and Polyfilm hopes the documentary will circulate widely in school contexts. 

Four Daughters has already arrived in France, as Les Filles d’Olfa, thanks to Jour2fête: “It was a crazy bet and we bought it at script stage, also based on faith in the author”, explains Johanna Mayer, responsible for acquisition and programming at the French distribution company. “First, we focused on the date of the release and we opted for the 5th of July, as the French market is always very crowed and there’s some breathing space in summer. Also, Cannes releases are trapped in autumn” – so, another risky move from the French distributor, as all the sector knows how difficult it can be to release a film, especially a more difficult one, during the summer. “It turned out to be a good decision”, continues Mayer, “as the arthouse audience is less sensitive to the season, and summer can be a fruitful moment for the arthouse submarket”. The summer period allowed for more time for word-of-mouth and the release was framed by great press. The marketing strategy focused on traditional outdoor prints and posters, with the classical advertising on Parisian buses and around 100 posters on the iconic Morris columns, and promotional events, including the Cannes premiere and special screenings in collaboration with various organizations. Jour2fête looks forward to the film’s potential surprises, especially at the European Film Awards, where the film it has been nominated for Best Documentary. The digital marketing campaign targeted audiences interested in geopolitics, women’s rights and Maghreb cinema, emphasizing the film’s hybrid nature between fiction and documentary. 

A totally different approach was reserved for the doc We Have a Dream, also brought in French cinemas by Jour2fête. The distribution company treated this film as a pure event and “exploited” its social impact: director Pascal Plisson travelled the world to meet extraordinary children with disabilities to collect their story. The distributor strategically brought the documentary in schools, organizing premieres for teachers and students from early September, leading up to the official release on September 27th. “The precise release date was mainly for the press”, says Mayer: to maximise the word-of-mouth, Jour2fête targeted schools and even enlisted a telecommunication company to personally call and propose the film to every school director in France. The director Pascal Plisson was hosted in schools and presented the film to the young audience during the morning, and to the adults on the evening screening, creating a sort of double release. For the promotional campaign, Jour2fête followed the traditional way-of-doing, with outdoor promotional campaign and social media. The Home Video release, set for February, will include an educational tool for potential use in schools.  

We Have a Dream will be in Lithuania in 2024, thanks to Greta Garbo Films: “The documentary will be in Lithuanian theatres from March 5th and we are now working on bringing speakers and activist with disabilities, together with partners, to the screenings to share their thought on this film and to have a discussion about disability integration”, explains Project Manager Gustė Laukaitytė. Greta Garbo Films wants also to follow the path of the educational impact of this documentary, hosting several screenings in schools, encouraging students to discuss sensitive topics. The marketing campaign will involve influencers and activists engaged in inclusivity and equality topics. Moving to the digital, all the materials, made aesthetic for a strong visual impact, will be available for exhibitors to share: the placement of banners will be strategic, and the social campaign will see customised trailer and teaser all over the social media channels. “We identified three target audiences, starting from 25-50 years old interested in disability issues and diversity who seek for knowledge in how to deal with disability, then doc lovers, and schools”, says Laukaitytė, “And the main challenge we are facing is to create a new audience, aware that it will be a long process”.  

The meeting was also the occasion to get inspired by the release strategies around one of the most successful documentaries of the past year, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Italian I Wonder Pictures presented their release of the 2022 Golden Lion winner, directed by Laura Poitras (Guest of Honor at IDFA 2022), where rare footage and interviews illustrate the life and work of photographer and activist Nan Goldin and her struggle against the Sackler family, owners of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, held responsible for the opioid epidemic in the USA. I Wonder’s CEO Andrea Romeo believed in the director and in the movie’s powerful story, so purchased the documentary during the Venice Film Festival, where the film won the first prize. “We decided not to release the film immediately but to wait for the Academy Award Nominations”, says Romeo, and it turned out to be a very good strategy. The film was release on February 12th 2023 and travelled in 82 theatres across the country. “It was a huge release in Italy”, continues Romeo, “and we ended up becoming the 4th best result in the world”. The marketing campaign for this film was mainly traditional (as intended in 2023), with a strong social media communication: a great number of influencers, particularly attentive to mental health issues, were invited to screenings on the film’s first day of release and all of them loved the film, creating content about it and encouraging word- of-mouth. The main target for this film was the cinephile audience, as the Italian general audience has lost the habit to go to theatres to watch documentaries – “They believe that documentaries belong to platforms”. That’s why I Wonder Pictures created its own documentary channel, IWonderfull on Amazon Prime, where more than 200 titles are available. “I think the most important thing is to create a new audience for documentaries”, highlights Romeo. 

Beyond the Alps, “The film had a clear audience”, affirms Sabine Hofmann, Managing Director of Austrian Polyfilm, who fell in love with the director previous Citizenfour and bought All the Beauty and the Bloodshed in Venice in 2022, and, as Andrea Romeo, shared in the surprise of the win of the Golden Lion. The film had its Austrian release on May 25th 2023: as a release strategy, after identifying the audience, the next step Polyfilm took, was to work on events and collaborations, especially with museums, galleries and art magazines. The creation of a “sneak preview” that took place in collaboration with Nonstop Kino, allowed 500 guests to see the movie without knowing which movie would be shown. Hofmann points out that, for this film, events like this and single screenings worked better than regular release strategies. “Another aspect that greatly helped the good response to this film was the press, which was terrific”. Overall, the documentary release was a good one, but it was not easy to sell. From this release, Polyfilm learned that events work better for this kind of film – emphasising the balance between the effort put in to organise the event and what you get out of it.  

Moving to the Netherlands, Thomas Vriesema from Cinéart explained that their release strategy for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed started with 39 theatres in the Netherlands, along with print, outdoor and online campaign, mixed with special events leading up the release. The special event strategy was certainly a fil rouge for all releases and Cinéart organised an online Q&A with the director Poitras during their event at the cinema Lumière in Maastricht: “The result? Maastrich was one of the best performing theatres for this release” – comments Vriesema. The Dutch distribution company co-organised events with Eye Filmmuseum (a pre-screening with introduction), a pre-screening for the members of Young Stedelijk, and had the national release in the scope of IDFA 2022. Along with the events, as Polyfilm previously highlighted, the good press played its role, with great number of interviews in the main Dutch newspapers. On digital marketing, the campaign focused on focus on Facebook and Instagram and started at the same time the Oscar nominations came out, giving an additional boost to the campaign. In order to encounter the most suitable audience, the targeting strategy identified three categories: a primary audience of 35+ years old (male and female), interested in modern art, a second target, which included young people interested in the activism theme, and a third one, that Vriesema called “broad arthouse audience”, which followed the must-see factor received by the win of the Golden Lion. Even if the competition was quite aggressive, (the film was release in January 19 2022 and in the same period as titles as such as Babylon, Banshees of Inisherin, The Fabelmans were released), the admissions were good, confirming that the film and its campaign had a good resonance with Dutch audiences. 

The discussion generated from the interesting case studies led the sharing of another documentary release experience from across the Ocean: Albert Yao from Swallow Wings, Taiwan, shared on the release of French On the Adamant from Nicholas Philibert. They put in place a release strategy that mirrors the ones presented during the case study, and Yao commented: “As you did with your documentaries, we tried to organise special events and screening in Taiwanese cinemas, and this helped. We also invited students to watch the film, but this aspect was quiet though: in the end, cinephile audience seemed to be the one that enjoyed the film the most. The film was release in Taiwan on October 6th 2023. 

At this session hosted by Europa Distribution, participants had the opportunity to glean insights from their colleagues’ experiences in releasing diverse documentaries in various countries. It emerged that the treatment of a documentary release requires diverse models and that side events can help to bring the audience to the cinema and allow them to discover incredible real-life stories.  

The activities of the network will continue in 2024 in the scope of upcoming festivals, starting from Berlinale, Cartoon Movie and Sofia Meetings.